I love conversion stories. This is no doubt because I’m a seeker myself. There’s something about the passion of people who struggle with the truth that deeply appeals to me — even if those people arrive at conclusions different from my own. Most people don’t care about the search. I can’t really fault them for that, but I love a good quest.
You may not, therefore, be surprised when I tell you I read From Fire By Water, Sohrab Ahmari’s memoir about his conversion to Catholicism, in two sessions. The only reason I didn’t read it in a single sitting was because it was two a.m., and I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer. It’s that captivating. Casey Chalk reviewed the book last month here in TAC. I recommend you see that review (a positive one) for more details of Ahmari’s story.
What a life Ahmari has had! The Iranian-American journalist — at the young age 33, he is today the opinion page editor of the New York Post — was born in Tehran and raised in a secular cosmopolitan family. He was a nominal Muslim who made a splash in 2016, shortly after the ISIS murder of the French priest Father Jacques Hamel, when he announced publicly that he was converting to Catholicism. Anybody who comes to this book expecting anti-Islamic triumphalism is in for a big disappointment. In the book’s preface, Ahmari says:
I didn’t convert publicly to score a point for Team Jesus against Team Muhammad, but that was how some were interpreting my decision. If I was reacting against anything, it was against the materialism and relativism that had taken root in the West beginning in the nineteenth century. I had turned my back against Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, not the prophet Muhammad, whose religion had left only faint imprints on my soul by the time I entered adulthood. This was lost on many of those who applauded as I crossed the Tiber.
Ahmari grew up in a somewhat eccentric liberal Tehrani family that struggled to adapt to the Khomeini revolution. From childhood, he hated everything about the new Iranian order, because to him, it was irrational and backward. “‘Rational’ and ‘modern’ were my watchwords from a very young age,” he writes. “I had fuzzy notions of what these terms meant, but this merely magnified my enthusiasm for them.”
The West was better than whatever Iran was, and America was the most Western country of all, the one that the mullahs hated. Therefore, Ahmari loved America. Years later, after his parents’ tumultuous marriage broke up, Ahmari ended up living with his mother in a trailer park in small-town Utah. They were suddenly part of the underclass.
This is where the book becomes psychologically most interesting. It is hard to be more of an outsider than an Iranian kid living under those circumstances — especially an Iranian kid who had been raised in relative privilege. The Ahmaris came from noble stock (went the family story), and now they were reduced to living on the margins, among a bunch of Mormons. felt that his American dream had been a lie. Teenage Sohrab responded by going full Goth.
As an intellectual, Ahmari embraced any nihilistic, rebellious philosophy he could find, and reveled in being a bad boy. And then he found Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. “Reading the great books in one’s late teens is intoxicating,” he writes, explaining that the half-formed intellect of an older teenager, combined with one’s volatile emotions, makes it easy to get carried away with ideas. (In my own case, I was fortunate that it was Kierkegaard, not Nietzsche.)
In this memoir, Ahmari masterfully makes the reader feel the power of Nietzsche’s ideas in the mind of a restless young intellectual whose blood boils with resentment against the world’s injustices. You’re not all that surprised when young Sohrab migrates from Nietzschean philosophy to Marxism, despite the antipathy the philosophies have for each other. Their mutual appeal to the Angry Young Intellectual was that they provided him a key for explaining the world, and anointed him as part of an elite vanguard whose task it was to overturn the unjust order. It was all about shame and power. Recalling this period of his life, Ahmari writes with self-awareness, tinging his recollections with regret, but not allowing his embarrassment at his younger self’s ideological excesses interfere with conveying how and why these philosophies carried him away. At one point, the memoirist rebukes himself for being “insufferably self-righteous” — a self-indictment of which everyone who was a woke college-boy intellectual (of the left or the right, of religion or atheism) is guilty.
This passage ought to be taken seriously by those trying to understand why socialism appeals to Millennials today:
Yet Marxism’s greatest attraction was its religious spirit. In those days I couldn’t see how the materialist dialectic and the Marxist science of history were really “secularized theologies,” as the liberal French philosopher Raymond Aron had argued in the 1950s. But I felt in my heart the poetry and metaphysics of Marxism’s secular salvation story, in which history designated the revolutionary party as mankind’s savior. In the Marxist imagination, revolutionary sacrifice would consummate and redeem, violently and spectacularly, every injustice and every tragedy through the ages. History would wipe away every tear.
God was supposed to be dead, yet I was still grasping for him on the darkened road from Zarathustra.
I forget who it was who said that all political problems are, at bottom, religious problems. The reason for that is that they have to do with ultimate meaning — specifically, how to construct a social order based on a shared concept of ultimate meaning. Ahmari was looking for ultimate meaning in politics, because he refused to accept that only religion can provide that.
The turn for Ahmari came when he was sharing an apartment with some Mormon roommates (whom he looked down on for their simplistic faith), and happened to pick up a Bible one of them had left lying around, and read the Gospel of Matthew. He went at the text with an attitude of mockery, but found himself transfixed by the story of the Passion: of an innocent man’s unjust suffering. It recalled for Ahmari the part of his childhood Muslim training that had most resonated within him: the unjust murder of Hussein, which is the founding myth of the Shia branch of Islam. Whether he realized it or not, what Ahmari grasped was the heart of all religions: an explanation for the injustice in the world, and a response to it.
Ahmari turned even harder left, joining a Trotskyite sect whose dourness and militancy reminded him of the Khomeinists of his Tehran youth. At one point it occurs to him that he had rejected religion to seek freedom from every authority, but here he was giving over his mind to captivity.
I won’t give details of what broke the stronghold of Marxism on his mind, but I will say that getting off of campus and having a direct, sustained encounter with the poor of the real world cured him of his ideological sickness. This passage in Ahmari’s journey is riveting because it represents the meeting with reality of a man who had lived entirely in his head as an escape from that reality. This time, though, a Jewish colleague shows Ahmari a different way to cope with injustice and disorder — a way that transforms that reality into something life-giving.
From Fire To Water builds to a crescendo as the pilgrim struggles for years to order his personal life, and to find meaning in pure intellection. Finally, he admits the truth:
God embarrassed me. … Pride lay behind this embarrassment. For if the God of the Bible accorded with the mind as well as the heart, faith would become a personal duty, a personal covenant. I feared that I would have to relinquish my freedom — the freedom to gossip at the office, to ogle that girl in the midriff and miniskirt, to have that ruinous “one last” drink. Was I prepared for that? In the end, I answered in the affirmative. And once more, it was reading that saved me.
God embarrassed me. That, and the fear of losing what I thought of as freedom, was what kept me away from giving myself to God for so many years. I know it was that way for many of you readers, too. But nothing in my own life remotely approaches the searing experience Ahmari had as a journalist embedded with refugees being smuggled out of Syria to Europe — an experience in which the full effect of human cruelty and suffering nearly crushed him, and made the young journalist understand like nothing else the meaning of the innocent man who died on a cross, and what he offers those who unite themselves to him.
One of the key books of my own personal conversion was Thomas Merton’s classic autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain. I read it in my late teens, and though I never really thought I was destined to become a Trappist monk, what Merton did for me was give me a pilgrim’s path from intellectualism and aestheticism to true faith. If Merton could do it, so could I, right? I did not want to follow Merton’s path, but having seen it in the pages of his memoir, I couldn’t unsee it. I always knew that it was possible for me, if only I wanted it.
From Fire By Water is like that. Lives — indeed, as I believe, eternal destinies — will be changed by this book. I wish every angry young man who hates God could read this moving, challenging personal confession of a still-young man who has been where they are, and who gained wisdom and release. It might not convert them, not right away, but having walked this road with Sohrab Ahmari once, they won’t forget what could be possible for them, if only they can overcome their fear of flying.