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The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran    by Hooman Majd order for
Ayatollah Begs to Differ
by Hooman Majd
Order:  USA  Can
Anchor, 2009 (2008)
Hardcover, Softcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Journalist Hooman Majd - the grandson of an eminent ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat - has contacts in many different nooks and crannies of Iranian society. That heritage, plus a journalist's curiosity and objectivity - put him in an excellent position to explain the country to the Western world. Which he does very well in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran.

Majd shares his insights into the personalities of the country's key players, and into the psyche of the Iranian people. He speaks of 'the Shia sense of the world as a dark and oppressive place'; of Iranians' pride in 'their nation's rapid ascent to a position of being taken seriously by the world's greatest superpower'; of what shouting Allah-hu-Akbar means to Iranians (affirming 'their fearlessness in confronting an unjust ruler'); of their passion for poetry; and their admiration for the laat. He includes amusing tidbits like the governments perception of the necktie as West-toxification, and an Ayatollah's use of the Internet for 'Digital confession'.

Addressing why his compatriots voted President Ahmadinejad into power, the author quotes a hired car driver saying that some 'think that freedom means men being able to wear shorts or women to go about without the hijab. Others think that freedom means having a full belly ... There's just more of the latter'. He explains the meaning of haq, of Iranians' feelings about haq-khordan, the 'trampling of rights', and their 'insatiable appetite for conspiracy theories.' He describes his encounters with many of the leaders, and explains the role (and power) of the Supreme Leader and his support base in the working-class Revolutionary Guards.

Early in the book, Hooman Majd shares his hope that, 'though a combination of stories, history, and personal reflection', it 'will provide the reader a glimpse of Iran and Iranians, often secretive and suspicious of revealing themselves, that he or she might not ordinarily have the opportunity to see.' He succeeds admirably, making several points that stayed with me after turning the last page. He emphasizes that the foreign press and Westerners in general are mainly exposed to urban Iranians or those wealthy enough to have traveled overseas. He explains why the nuclear issue matters so much to the common man. And he tells us that, unlike the more privileged folk that Westerners typically hear of, most Iranians support their government.

Though this could be discouraging for those who hope for improved relations - and the author makes clear that the Ayatollahs 'rule for now with the confidence that they do not face a populace that seeks to overthrow them' - he also comments that the 'desire for reform, both economic and political, is very much alive in Iran'. This softcover issue of the book includes a new Preface in which Majd talks about Iran's June 2009 presidential election, which 'was not supposed to end the way it did', in 'a battle royal for the soul of a nation' that is still being waged. If you want to understand that battle better, then The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is a must read.

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