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The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iranby Hooman Majd
Synopses & Reviews
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
The son of an Iranian diplomat and grandson of an ayatollah who grew up in exile offers an insightful study of the economic, political, and social forces that underly the vast paradoxes in Iranian character, examining Iran as a Muslim, Shiite, and Persian country and sharing the real-life people and diverse voices behind the modern-day nation. 50,000 first printing.
A Los Angeles Times and Economist Best Book of the YearWith a New PrefaceThe grandson of an eminent ayatollah and the son of an Iranian diplomat, journalistHooman Majd is uniquely qualified to explain contemporary Iran's complex and misunderstood culture to Western readers.The Ayatollah Begs to Differ provides an intimate look at a paradoxical country thatis both deeply religious and highly cosmopolitan, authoritarian yet informed by a history of democratic and reformist traditions. Majd offers an insightful tour of Iranian culture, introducing fascinating characters fromall walks of life, including zealous government officials, tough female cab drivers, and open-minded, reformist ayatollahs. It's an Iran that will surprise readers and challenge Western stereotypes.In his new preface, Majddiscusses the Iranian mood during and after the June 2009 presidential election which set off the largest street protests since the revolution that brought the ayatollahs topower.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
About the Author
HOOMAN MAJD was born in Tehran, Iran, in 1957 and was educated in the West. He has written about Iran for The New Yorker, Salon, GQ, and The New York Observer, and was executive vice president at Island Records and head of film and music at Palm Pictures. He lives in New York City.
Table of Contents
Introduction — 1. Persian cats — 2. The Ayatollah has a cold — 3. If it's Tuesday, this must be Qom — 4. Pride and humility — 5. Victory of blood over the sword — 6. Pairidaeza: the Persian garden — 7. The Ayatollah begs to differ — 8. Fear of a black turban — Notes — Index.
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