Faith

Sohrab Ahmari's 'From Fire By Water' Chronicles an Iranian Atheist's Conversion to Catholicism

"From Fire by Water" by Sohrab Ahmari.

From Fire by Water: My Journey to the Catholic Faith by Sohrab Ahmari, an Iranian-American writer for Commentary, Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and Catholic Herald, is a unique conversion story that — as Archbishop Charles Chaput noted in the forward — “will stay with the reader a long time.”

A gifted writer, Ahmari describes in vivid and fascinating detail what it’s like to be an intelligent and precocious boy growing up in an eccentric, atheistic, affluent family in post-Islamic Revolution Iran. The early pages were highly illuminating.

“My native land smelled of dust mingled with stale rosewater. There was enjoyment in Iran and grandeur of a kind, to be sure. But when it wasn’t burning with ideological rage, it mainly offered mournful nostalgia. I desired something more,” Ahmari writes on the very first page.

The rest of the book chronicles his search for “something more.”

Weaned on black-market American movies, Ahmari, who was born in 1985, was already fluent in English when he moved to the United States with his mother in 1998. Although he maintained an irrepressible pro-American outlook in Iran (to the dismay of his anti-American teachers), he quickly soured on America when he landed in a trailer park in a tiny ski resort town in Utah and failed to fit in with either the sporty outdoor crowd or the clean-cut Mormons.

Ahmari, who became a committed atheist while still living in Iran, became fascinated with French existentialist writers and Goth culture by the time he was in high school, and gravitated toward “outcasts, nerds, misfits of various sorts.” Eventually, he moved on to the writings of nihilist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who would warp his mind for the next several years of his life.

While he was in college, Ahmari went through a socialist phase and ended up in the Marxist Mecca of Seattle, where he was practically one degree of separation away from being an Antifa supporter.

His political shift from left to right happened fairly quickly — all it took was some real-world job experience at the progressive nonprofit Teach for America — but his conversion to the Catholic faith took a bit more time. Luckily, Ahmari had never completely closed the door to God and found himself being gently nudged toward Rome.

One day in New York City, following a particularly humiliating and soul-crushing week of drinking and debauchery, he walked into a Catholic church.

“It was the first time that I had visited a place of worship on my own accord, as an adult,” Ahmari writes. “The Sunday evening Mass was about to begin.”

The first thing I noticed on entering the vestibule was the serenity of the place, which struck me as almost impossible, miraculous even, amid the pandemonium of Midtown. As Catholic churches go, the inside wasn’t exactly impressive. Or anyway, I don’t remember being dazzled by the icons and altars.

I parked myself some-where in the back, and I would remain seated the whole time. When the parishioners stood up, I didn’t move. When they knelt, I stayed put. When they prayed, I kept silent. I was only peripherally aware of what the friar was up to at the altar. Even at that moment, with my deep spiritual longing, there was a part of me that scoffed at the sacred mysteries.

While a young guy with an acoustic guitar and a manbun led the parishioners in singing various hymns, the thought that crossed my mind was: You’re too smart for this. What if someone I knew spotted me? Then I would forever be counted among the ranks of these gullible saps. But all of a sudden, the singing and strumming dissolved into that all-encompassing serenity, and something extraordinary happened.

From that point on, Ahmari chronicles his gradual spiritual reawakening, coinciding with his entrance into conservative media — which started with his own blog writing about the Green Revolution in Iran, to the vaunted pages of the Wall Street Journal. 

While working for the WSJ,  Ahmari embedded with a Turkish refugee smuggling ring to write about the exploits of Middle Eastern refugees. This experience also propelled him in the direction of God.

There, in that shabby corner of working-class Istanbul, I discovered a portal to the lower depths of human misery. Ehsan’s house was a kind of charnel pit or Sheol, though the people in it were yet alive.

Back in London, Ahmari flirted for some time with evangelical Christianity. Then he walked into a Catholic church once again and experienced another Mass… and he never looked back.

In the book’s final chapter, Ahmari explains his embrace of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and his final conversion.

Ahmari recounts each phase of his journey from Iranian atheist to Marxist radical to freewheeling libertine and finally to conservative Catholic with great literary skill and brutal honesty — and for that reason, his memoir, From Fire by Water, is an engrossing and highly entertaining read.