Don't blame me if I don't shop at Nieman Marcus: There's a reason behind Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cheap suits. It has nothing to do with the Republican National Committee's distaste for the man. (Stephen Chernin-Pool/Getty Images)
Iran is one of the most talked about countries on America's foreign-policy fixations. It's also one of the least understood. That's not a stretch: anything east of Gibraltar these days seems misunderstood, stereotyped or worse, which goes a long way to explain the sort of mess we're in in the United States: the Bush years add up to an intentional snub of a world it never attempted to understand, let alone deal with, except from the barrel of a gun. Or at least a barrel-full of preconceptions.
Every once in a while a book is published about one of the most talked-about subjects on earth that reveals how deep and intentional run our misjudgments: Better paint the enemy only as we wish than as he really may be, that way we can stick to our simpler version of events and expectations at all times--until, that is, we're surprised by what we refused to see. I don't mean this to be a revamp of American perceptions of Iran. Far from it. Just an introduction to a wonderful new book by an Iranian-American intent on giving the stereotypes a rest--even when it comes to such star demons in the American firmament of dreads as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president.
The writer is Hooman Majd, familiar to readers of the New Yorker, GQ and the New York Times. The book is The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran. It's witty. It's eye-opening. It's challenging of every assumption recently and conventionally received. No, it's not a "sympathetic" whitewash of the regime. But nor is it another invective against it. It's an attempt to see it from within, as an Iranian (rather than an Iranian politician, or most any American) might. The book's power is in the detailed observation and the lucid deduction. I'll be talking about some more in the weeks ahead. For now, just a telling excerpt about Ahmadinejad's suits:
Ahmadinejad, by virtue of his university degree (and Iranians at the time understood very well that a Tehran university degree said a whole lot more about the student than a degree from a U.S. college, unless that college was Ivy League), was destined to break out into at least the working middle class, but he understood early that the Islamic Revolution was as much a social revolution as it was political, and he cultivated his working-class image along with his piety to good effect as he slowly worked his way up through the ranks of the Islamic government. His style, the bad suits, the cheap Windbreaker, the shoddy shoes, and the unstylish haircut, a style he proudly maintains well into his presidency, is a signal to the working class that he is still one of them. Many Iranians may aspire to wear European designers, and often do, but Abmadinejad, president of the republic, knows his clothes send a message directly to those neighborhoods he most counts on for support--neighborhoods where the Basij [or Revolutionary Guard recruits] are recruited, neighborhoods where there still are knife fights and the laats roam the streets if they’re not persuaded to join the Basij, and neighborhoods where you can still buy your suit, if you really need one, from the kot-shalvaiy.That last word is a reference to the traveling tailor-salesman with his donkey cart who made himself available to make men's suits.
It's not the last word about this wonderful book.