The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-07-28
  • Publisher: Anchor
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A revealing look at Iran by an American journalist with an insider's access behind Persian wallsThe grandson of an eminent ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat, now an American citizen, Hooman Majd is, in a way, both 100 percent Iranian and 100 percent American, combining an insider's knowledge of how Iran works with a remarkable ability to explain its history and its quirks to Western readers. InThe Ayatollah Begs to Differ, he paints a portrait of a country that is fiercely proud of its Persian heritage, mystified by its outsider status, and scornful of the idea that the United States can dictate how it should interact with the community of nations. With wit, style, and an unusual ability to get past the typical sound bite on Iran, Majd reveals the paradoxes inherent in the Iranian character which have baffled Americans for more than thirty years. Meeting with sartorially challenged government officials in the presidential palace; smoking opium with an addicted cleric, his family, and friends; drinking fine whiskey at parties in fashionable North Tehran; and gingerly self-flagellating in a celebration of Ashura, Majd takes readers on a rare tour of Iran and shares insights shaped by his complex heritage. He considers Iran as a Muslim country, as a Shiite country, and, perhaps above all, as a Persian one. Majd shows that as Shiites marked by an inferiority complex, and Persians marked by a superiority complex, Iranians are fiercely devoted to protecting their rights, a factor that has contributed to their intransigence over their nuclear programs. He points to the importance of the Persian view of privacy, arguing that the stability of the current regime owes much to the freedom Iranians have to behave as they wish behind "Persian walls." And with wry affection, Majd describes the Persian concept of ta'arouf, an exaggerated form of polite self-deprecation that may explain some of Iranian President Ahmadinejad's more bizarre public moments. With unforgettable portraits of Iranians, from government figures to women cab drivers to reform-minded Ayatollahs, Majd brings to life a country that is deeply religious yet highly cosmopolitan, authoritarian yet with democratic and reformist traditionsan Iran that is a more nuanced nemesis to the United States than it is typically portrayed to be.

Author Biography

Hooman Majd was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1957, and educated in the West. He has written about Iran for GQ, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the New York Observer, and was executive vice president at Island Records and head of film and music at Palm Pictures. A contributing editor at Interview magazine, he lives in New York City.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Preface to the Anchor Books Editionp. xi
Introductionp. 1
Persian Catsp. 21
The Ayatollah Has A Coldp. 51
If It's Tuesday, This Must Be QOMp. 67
Pride And Humilityp. 97
Victory Of Blood Over The Swordp. 129
Pairidaeza: The Persian Gardenp. 160
The Ayatollah Begs To Differp. 192
Fear Of A Black Turbanp. 221
Notesp. 253
Indexp. 261
Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.



The cat, a sinewy black creature with dirty white paws, darted from the alley and jumped across the joob, the narrow ditch by the curb, onto the sidewalk on Safi Alishah. It took one look at me, and then fled down the road toward the Sufi mosque. "That's the neighborhood laat!" exclaimed my friend Khosro, a longtime resident of the no-longer-chic downtown Tehran street. "He's the local tough, and he beats up all the other cats. Every time my mother's cat goes out he gets a thorough thrashing and comes back bruised and bloodied."

"Why?" I asked.

"He just beats the crap out of any cat he doesn't like, which is most cats, I guess."

"And no one does anything about it?" I asked naively.

"No. What's there to do? Every neighborhood has a laat."


Iranians are not known to keep indoor pets. Dogs are, of course, unclean in Islam, and as such are not welcome in most homes (although not a few Westernized upper-class Tehranis do keep dogs, but generally away from public view). Cats, Islamic-correct, are far more common, although unlike their Western counterparts Iranians don't so much own their cats as merely provide a home for them and feed them scraps from the table. That is, when the cats want a home. Persian cats, and I mean Persian as in nationality, are (to use a favored expression in Washington) freedom-loving animals, and they wander outdoors, particularly in neighborhoods where there are houses rather than apartments. They do so as often as they like, which seems to be quite often, and they get pregnant, they have fights, and they even change their domicile if they happen to stumble across a better garden or, as is usually the case, a more generous feeding hand. Such as Khosro's mother's cat, who appeared at her house one day and took a fancy to her.

Persians, despite having been best known in the West for really only two things, prior to their fame for Islamic fundamentalism, that is, cats and carpets, spend an awful lot of time pondering carpets and virtually no time thinking about cats. The Persian cats we know in the West, the ones with the impossibly flat faces and gorgeous silky hair, are not as common in Iran as one might think, or hope, and there is a national obsession neither about them nor about their less sophisticated cousins, the cats one sees on every street, in every alley, and in the doorways, kitchens, and gardens of many homes. And some of those cats are just by nature, well, laat.


Laat, like many other Persian words, can be translated in different ways, and some dictionaries use the English "hooligan" as the definition, although it is in fact wildly inaccurate. The laat holds a special place in Iranian culture: a place that at times can be compared to the popular position of a mafioso in American culture, albeit without the extreme violence associated with him, and at other times a place of respect and admiration for the working-class code he lives by. Hooligans are anarchic; laats fight only when necessary and to establish their authority. Iran's cultural history of the twentieth century prominently featured the laat and with perhaps more affection the jahel, the onetime laat who had elevated himself to a grand position of authority and respect in a given urban neighborhood. The jahel, a sort of street "boss," occupied himself with many different illegal and quasi-legal activities but, unlike gang leaders in America, rarely found himself the target of police investigations, partly because the police were often from his social class, partly because the police were doled out many favors by him, and partly because the governments under the Shah were loath to disrupt or antagonize a class of society that could be relied upon for support should it become necessary to buy it.

The last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, when f

Excerpted from The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd
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