Why I Couldn’t Put Down Sohrab Ahmari’s From Fire by Water

I read it in two days.

I’d received an email notification that Sohrab Ahmari would be the first guest on this summer discussion series. I wanted to know more about him before listening to the conversation with the author, editor and essayist.

My husband and I were going camping and I relished the thought of extended reading time in silence, so I downloaded From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith into my Kindle paperwhite and stashed a couple of paperbacks in my bag.

I chose Ahmari’s 2019 memoir rather than his new release, The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos (which I read next), because I love reading memoirs and this storyline was particularly arresting: “Sohrab Ahmari was a teenager living under the Iranian ayatollahs when he decided that there is no God. Nearly two decades later, he would be received into the Roman Catholic Church.”

I had to know more.

From Fire by Water is a thoroughly contemporary story of a soul.

Raised by secular intellectuals in a radical Islamic state, Ahmari revered the America he saw on Baywatch and on the VHS tapes his parents were able to access surreptitiously.

But when his parents divorce and he moves to the US with his mother, the teenage Ahmari winds up in a trailer park in Eden, Utah, a far cry from the chic, secular America of his youthful fantasies.

A lonely outsider, Ahmari couldn’t abide the small town culture of vapid pleasantries and high school football rivalries. To show his disdain, he sought acceptance into the nihilistic goth crowd, wearing black every day and blasting Nine Inch Nails in his room at home.

Fortunately, Ahmari’s intellectual mother shifted her son’s attention to thinkers he could engage through reading.

She suggested Friedrich Nietzsche, among others. Who better than the champion of the will to power to fan the egotistic flames of a young Iranian immigrant who already feels superior to his friendly, teetotaling classmates?

But the trailer park shift from NIN to Thus Spoke Zarathustra was life-changing in an utterly unforeseen way. The angry teenager began to develop a life of the mind, striking out, in his words, on “an intellectual and spiritual road that, years later, would bring me to a most unlikely destination: the Roman Catholic Church.”

Ahmari’s story is a thinker’s tale; it is not only fascinating for its constantly unexpected turns of event; it is a tour through the philosophical trends of our times: existentialism, Beat counterculturalism, Marxism and postmodernism.

An amoral lifestyle accompanied Ahmari’s intellectual pursuits. Alcohol, weed and hook ups fill his off-hours as a philosophy major at Utah State rooming with two Mormons fresh from going on mission. He leaves lurid books in the common area and smokes off the apartment balcony.

Those clean-cut roommates never did pick up Ahmari’s radical books, but alone in the apartment one day, Ahmari sneaks a read of the Gospel According to St. Matthew in a copy of their King James Bible.

The death of the innocent Christ struck Ahmari’s heart with its silent nobility and left the trace of an imprint on his soul.

But that’s far from the end of this story.

We follow Ahmari through Marxist activism in Seattle, a job with Teach for America in Brownsville and Manhattan, entrance into a Boston law school and finally, a successful writing career in New York and London.

Chinks in his progressive armor along the way lead Ahmari to the realization that his prideful intellectualism hadn’t been open to texts that challenged his views.

He begins to see weaknesses in positions he’d developed during college, too easily praised by his secular professors. A new openness to absorbing the tragedy of the Holocaust, listening to “survivors and critics” of Communist totalitarianism, and studying China’s Cultural Revolution shift the stark categories of Ahmari’s wide-ranging mind.

The ideas leading to Ahmari’s conversion are discussed in an easy flow from the life events he deftly narrates: a car accident, love and marriage, the excitement of undercover reportage on the 2016 migrant crisis for the Wall Street Journal.

It’s simply a riveting read.

We begin to long for the young man to finally wed his yearning for moral brakes with his pursuit of intellectual coherency. “It was wrong to think that belief in God was impossible after Auschwitz,” Ahmari realizes at one point:

Rather, Auschwitz was possible because God had been pronounced dead and all the old ‘thou shalts’ declared null and void.

Ahmari begins as well to distinguish science, the wonderful inquiry into the workings of the natural world, from scientism, which rejects truth rooted in the great traditions of humankind, the wisdom that defies empirical measurement but releases human beings from the prison of the self.

From bioethicist Leon Kass, whom Ahmari interviewed for the Wall Street Journal in 2013, he saw that scientism couldn’t answer the why questions that ground the quest for a meaningful life; rather, it substituted facts for truth, claiming ability to answer questions whose proper realm is religion and philosophy:

It was truth that allowed us to order facts into a cohesive view of the cosmos and of humanity’s place in it. Some things could be true–spiritually true, morally true, even mystically true–yet inaccessible by empirical methods.

The great novelists–Austen, Balzac and Tolstoy among them–were better guides to humanity’s depths than CAT scans and brain maps. Robert Alter’s translation of the Torah and Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth speak to Ahmari’s searching heart.

But belief in the immortal soul has implications that require action. Ahmari is honest about the embarrasment of God in today’s cultural environment. Venturing into any church and then pondering which church to enter and be guided by its teachings: these things take time and much renunciation.

We must be loving and patient with our seeking friends; we never know where a particular encounter may lead.

For Ahmari, the threads are many: the intellectual backbone of the Catholic tradition, its rootedness in history from Christianity’s inception, the witness of Christian martyrs, the beauty and mystery of Catholic churches and liturgy, a place to bend one’s knee and to make a good confession.

What seems impossible at the beginning of this story of an atheist Iranian immigrant becomes reality as Ahmari seeks a priest at London’s Brompton Oratory, which leads to his reception into the Catholic Church. It is the seeming impossibility of a conversion like this that makes me realize afresh how seriously I must take my every encounter with another person.

“There are no ordinary people,” C.S. Lewis, himself a convert from atheism, reminds us in The Weight of Glory.

You have never talked to a mere mortal….[I]t is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

From Fire by Water rekindled my hope and thoroughly engaged my mind.

More important, Sohrab Ahmari’s story humbled my heart with recognition of missed opportunities in the adventure of everlasting life.

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If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Memoir as Medicine: Recommended Recollections for Summer Reading.

Ahmari’s uncanny ability to weave a philosophical discussion into a good story is also on full display inThe Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Tradition in an Age of Chaos. Twelve compelling questions “modernity should be able to answer but cannot” are explored through the diverse lives and ideas of men and women whose thought and integrity present a challenge to contemporary culture.

The chapters featuring C.S. Lewis on scientism, John Henry Newman on conscience, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on the West’s decadence, Confucius on how to treat our parents and feminist Andrea Dworkin on contemporary attitudes toward sex are among my favorites. But the discussion that most touched my heart reflects on the Sabbath in addressing the question “Why Does God Want You to Take a Day Off?” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s life of courage and dignity is sheer beauty.

Photo by Douglas Bagg on Unsplash.