Why Iranians Love and Loathe Ahmadinejad and Think Nuclear Technology's Their Right
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Editor's note: Hooman Majd describes himself as one of the few people in the world who is both fully Iranian and completely American. Majd, raised in the U.S., is a distant relative of former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami, and his ability to navigate between American and Iranian culture as an insider gives him a unique perspective on two countries in conflict.
In his book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, Majd reveals an Iran that is anything but homogeneous. It is, like the U.S., a country embroiled in a profound culture war between social conservatives and liberal urbanites; a country in which the population perceives itself as the aggrieved, not the aggressor. He writes, "It strikes me often when I am in Iran that were Christian evangelicals to take a tour of Iran today, they might find it the model for an ideal society they seek in America. Replace Allah with God, Muhammad with Jesus, keep the same public and private notions of chastity, sin, salvation and God's will, and a Christian republic is born."
Majd's book is a much-needed antidote to the simplistic narratives about Iranian culture and politics embraced by the Western media. In the excerpt below, he discusses some of the crucial misconceptions that many Americans hold about Iranians' attitudes towards their controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country's nuclear energy program and relations with the United States.
On a hot night a few days after Ahmadinejad's inauguration in August 2005, in a comfortably air-conditioned hired car in Tehran, I sat next to the college-educated driver, a clean-cut man in his late twenties who, with his impeccably clean car, manner, and dress, could easily be from the wealthy tree-lined neighborhood in the north of the city where I was headed. When I asked him about the elections that had brought Ahmadinejad to power, the subject of every conversation in Tehran at the time, he pointed to a group of girls in the car next to us: heavily made-up, on their cell phones, and with scarves barely covering their wellcoiffed heads. "Some people," he said, "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." He paused for a moment. "There's just more of the latter," he said, forcefully changing gears as if to emphasize the point, which I took to mean that he had voted for the president. When we arrived at the slick apartment building that was my destination, I felt almost embarrassed that to him I must have represented one of the people who, with a stomach about to be made full, felt that freedom did indeed mean that people might dress as they please. But there was no tension in the car, and in fact he enthusiastically engaged in the most traditional form of ta'arouf, which in a taxi ride means having to sometimes beg the driver to take your money.
Western observers often deï¬ne ta'arouf as extreme Iranian hospitality, or as a Persian form of elaborate etiquette, but since Westerners naturally engage in ta'arouf too (as everyone who has ever complimented a host or hostess on what was actually a bad meal knows), it's easy to miss its true signiï¬cance and its implications in Persian culture. The white lies that good manners dictate we tell in the West and general polite banter or gracious hospitality cannot begin to describe what for Iranians is a cultural imperative that is about manners, yes, but is also about gaining advantage, politically, socially, or economically, as much as anything else. One might be tempted to think of ta'arouf as passive-aggressive behavior with a peculiarly Persian hue, but although it can be, it cannot be deï¬ned solely so. American businesses and businessmen are known to succeed with brashness, determination, and sometimes even a certain amount of ruthlessness; Iranian businessmen succeed rather more quietly with a good dose of ta'arouf and in such a way that doors are opened before the ones opening the doors realize they have done so.