Photo: ayatollahs poster candy shop Iran
Images of ayatollahs, like this poster at a candy shop, are common in Iran.

Photograph by Shawn Baldwin, The New York Times/Redux

By Don George

October 2008

Book of the Month: 
The Ayatollah Begs to Differ,
by Hooman Majd

One of the things I love most about travel is the way it builds human bridges across the divides of stereotype and assumption. This is why when tensions were building between the U.S. and the Middle East a few years ago, I insisted on visiting Jordan, much to the consternation of friends and colleagues, so that I could hear firsthand the "talk on the Arab Street." That visit reaffirmed powerfully for me the truth that travelers are both ambassadors and walking media: We bring news and understanding of our world to people who have no personal knowledge of us, and we take back to our neighbors news and understanding of the unfamiliar world we've visited. And in so doing we build—we become—bridges of understanding.

Great books can be bridges too, and a prime proof of this is Iranian author Hooman Majd's wonderfully informed and enlightening new book, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. Majd was born in Tehran but now lives in New York. His father was a diplomat—and grandfather an ayatollah—which gives him just the right mix of knowledge and perspective to help Westerners understand the complicated surface and soul of the new Iran.

He writes elegantly about the art of ta'arouf, the polite dance of self-deprecation—a kind of one-downmanship—that dominates social interactions. He expertly dissects Iran's superiority/inferiority complex, born of centuries of manipulation by the West and a stunted nationalism.

He also offers penetrating insights into the importance and interpretation of rights in Iran, and lucidly exposes the disagreements that demarcate Iranian hard-liners and progressives, and the subtle differences in social and religious thought that define different points along that spectrum.

Finally, utilizing his personal and professional connections to the full, Majd does a masterful job introducing and engaging a variety of modern Iranians, in settings that range from an opium-smoking gathering in rural Qom to the office of former President Khatami in Tehran to a New York TV interview with President Ahmadinejad that the author attended.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is a refreshing and mind-opening book, a nuanced and informed portrait of one of our most misunderstood global neighbors. It casts an arc of understanding from the Middle East to the Midwest—and, let us hope, from Tehran to Washington, D.C.

Short List: New & Noteworthy

New Lives, German author Ingo Schulze's panoramic novel set in 1990 East Germany.

A Country Called Home, a novel by Kim Barnes about the consequences of a young couple's move from upper-crust Connecticut to a hard-scrabble farm in Idaho.

The Vale of Kashmir, John Isaac's photo book of daily life in troubled Kashmir.

The Unpossessed City, a contemporary Moscow thriller by Jon Fasman involving a young American, gulag survivors, Russian agents, and the CIA.

Roads to Quoz, William Least Heat-Moon's engaging and enlightening follow-up to Blue Highways takes him once again to small-town, back-roads America.

New Book Roundups

People Doing Crazy Things
It should come as no surprise that we here at National Geographic Traveler, a leader in the promotion of sustainable tourism, would be interested in this book:Greasy Rider: Two dudes, one fry-oil-powered car, and a cross-country search for a greener future. The two dudes: author Greg Melville and his college pal; car: a 1985 Mercedes station wagon powered by vegetable oil collected from restaurant deep-fat fryers; the trip: Vermont to California, with excursions to Google's solar-powered headquarters in Mountain View, California, and other eco-progressive spots. In I Was a Potato Oligarch: Travels & Travails in the New Russia, Brit author John Mole recounts his misadventures launching a baked-potato fast-food franchise in Moscow.

In Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart, British journalist Tim Butcher retraces H.M. Stanley's famed 1874 expedition through present-day Republic of the Congo in a harrowing 44-day trek through dangerous, war-torn territory.

History Page-Turners
In Saving Savannah: The City and The Civil War, author Jacqueline Jones draws on diaries, letters, newspapers, and military records to paint a compelling portrait of antebellum, wartime, and postwar Savannah. Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces, by Robert Clark, chronicles the devastating 1966 flooding of Florence, Italy, and the ensuing efforts by a diverse group of international workers to rescue and restore the city's art treasures. In The Decline and Fall of the British Empire: 1781-1997, author Piers Brendon packs his narrative history of Great Britain with adventurers, eccentrics, and other interesting characters.

Reading Matchmaker: If You Like...

...Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, check out the straight-talking Travel Channel chef/host's latest project, editing Best American Travel Writing 2008. This year's contributors include David Sedaris, Paul Theroux, and Calvin Trillin; places covered include Dubai, Singapore, and St. Petersburg, Russia.

One Last Thing: India in All Its Glory

Every once in a while a book lands on the Trip Lit coffee table with such a spectacular thud that it just has to be reviewed. Monumental India, the oversized and extraordinarily sumptuous new collection of images by Amit Pasricha, is one such tome. Moving from Ladakh through Agra, Delhi, and Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh, Pasricha focuses his prodigal panoramic talents on North India's most renowned sites and landmarks, from Hindu and Jain temples, Islamic mosques and Buddhist monasteries to colonial forts and royal palaces. The result is a spellbinding immersion in the grandeur of India past, present, and preserved. With two six-foot-long and six three-foot-long gatefolds, and more than 100 exquisite images, Monumental India triumphantly raises the coffee-table-book bar.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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