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Swimming the Tiber from Teheran

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 06, 2019 | In Reviews

Sometimes a good, long look in the mirror can set the stage for evangelization.

When I look in the mirror I see a mortal man: a man who will die. But I don’t want to die. How can I escape that fate?

When I look in the mirror I see a sinful man: a man who has done things of which he is ashamed. How can I be freed from that burden of guilt?

The stunning message of the Gospel provides welcome answers to those gnawing questions. I can be forgiven my sins; I can live forever. My problems may seem insoluble, but I have a Savior.

In From Fire By Water Sohrab Ahmari—who once wrote for the Wall Street Journal, then for Commentary, and now for the New York Post—tells how he came to embrace Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church. In lieu of a mirror, his book offers a long, candid, and unsparing look at the young Ahmari, at the Shi’ite Muslim society into which he was born in Iran, and the secular America where he came into maturity.

From his early school days Ahmari was restless, unhappy with himself, dissatisfied with the world. He looked for means of escape, through ideology and through hedonism. He proclaimed himself an atheist. He became an active Marxist. He sowed at least his share of wild oats. And still he felt the nagging insufficiency of it all, until finally—reluctantly—he dipped into the Bible in search of the answers that had eluded him elsewhere. There at last he found a satisfactory explanation:

Biology, psychology, sociology—none of these matched the Fall as an account of the alienation and brokenness that I felt in myself and witness all around me.

From that point Ahmari moved—not smoothly, but it seems almost inexorably—toward the faith. He did not initially understood the way his soul was stirred by visits to a church, by attendance at Mass. Still the reader of From Fire By Water can almost foresee the moment at which Ahmari will turn up at the Brompton Oratory in London, telling a priest there that he wants to be received into the Catholic Church. The pattern is familiar to anyone who has read other accounts of religious conversion: the reluctance, the apprehension, the curiosity that grows into a compulsion, the final surrender. Do not misunderstand me: in many ways this portion of Ahmari’s account is the most enjoyable part of the book, and the specific details of the drama are interesting. But there comes a point when any experienced reader knows how the story will end.

Sohrab Ahmari is an honest chronicler; he does not succumb to the temptation to over-dramatize his story. Twice in the course of the book, he recalls tense situations—once an encounter with Iranian religious police who catch his family on a forbidden holiday outing, once in a caravan of emigres being smuggled across borders—that are unexpectedly defused. The author’s life story might have been very different if either crisis had ended differently; he might be languishing now in a prison somewhere in the Middle East. To his credit, he does not ask the reader to applaud him for his bravery or to imagine what might have befallen him. Yet the message is implicit: there are others, less fortunate, who are not able to write their own accounts.

Because he was born in Iran, it is tempting to suggest that Ahmari’s book is one of those rare accounts of a committed Muslim who accepted Christianity. Not so. The young Sohrab was raised in a family that was skeptical about Islam and about the Shi’ite fervor roused by the Ayatollah Khomeini. From an early age he was consistently at loggerheads with the Islamic religious instructors in his school, and just observant enough to avoid serious repercussions.

In fact, From Fire By Water conveys the impression that many other Iranians, perhaps even most, take a similarly cynical view toward the nation’s official Islamist ideology. Ahmari explains that religious police can be bribed to overlook offenses against Shari’a. The people submit to the dictates of the Islamic regime—they have little choice in the matter—but would gladly be free of them. The people of Iran go along to get along, but the Islam that supports the regime may be, like the Marxism that supported the Soviet empire, an ideology that few actually believe. Ahmari cites “… a wise young Iranian diplomat who argued that if the Islamic Republic collapsed one day, it would leave behind the world’s largest community of atheists.”

In any event Sohrab Ahmari, the onetime atheist, is now a Catholic. And his account of the transformation should serve to remind readers about the gaping holes, in our own lives and in the life of our society, that only Jesus Christ can fill.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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