Iran: Inside Out


Books about Iran have been recently proliferating. The last year in particular has delivered three notable titles: Hooman Majd’s The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (November 2008), Azar Nafisi’s Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories (December 2008) and Azadeh Moaveni’s Honeymoon in Tehran (February 2009). In recent decades, the Western understanding of Iranian culture has been almost entirely shaped by the public discourse of politicians invoking fear and reducing the Islamic headscarf to a symbol of totalitarianism. That these new titles are written by Iranians is a welcome change of perspective.

Much has already been said about these books. All three have enjoyed time on the best-seller list and been extensively reviewed and discussed. But read afresh in the context of Iran’s contested June presidential election, they bring a new dimension to the ongoing narrative of Iranian culture and politics.

Though not the first of its kind, Majd’s The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is noteworthy among several recent titles attempting to present an insider’s perspective on Iran and, more pointedly, Iranians. In the introduction, Majd writes of his hope “that this book, through a combination of stories, history, and personal reflection, will provide the reader a glimpse of Iran and Iranians, often secretive and suspicious of revealing themselves, that he or she may not ordinarily have the opportunity to see.”

Things Ive Been Silent About

Things I’ve Been Silent About:Memories

Honeymoon in Tehran

Increasingly, American audiences have sought such privileged insight into Iran’s inner dynamics, and Majd, a journalist who writes for Salon, The New Yorker, GQ and the Huffington Post, is well positioned to provide it. Born in Iran, the son of an Iranian diplomat and grandson of an ayatollah (not to mention a relation to former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami), Majd is Western-educated and lives in New York, yet travels comfortably between Iran and the United States. “A friend once told me,” he writes, “that I was the only person he knew who was both 100 percent American and 100 percent Iranian.”

For nearly three decades, the Islamic Revolution has been seen by the West as a more or less one-dimensional story summarized by Islamic fundamentalism, oil and, more recently, nuclear threat. Majd draws out the larger history, in which Iran, prior to 1979, had acted as a pawn of U.S. and British powers. Majd recalls the 1953 CIA coup that overthrew the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh (a hero to many Iranians) in favor of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled as an absolute dictator. Mossadegh’s crime, in Western eyes, had been to nationalize Iranian oil. The move effectively disenfranchised the British, who argued at the U.N. that Mossadegh’s act was “a threat to the security of the world.” While most Americans have heard Iran labeled as part of the “Axis of Evil,” few have heard of Mossadegh.

To Iranians, Majd points out, the accusation of being a threat has a troubling echo, particularly when voiced by the United States “in response to Iran exercising its right … as far as Iranians are concerned, to produce nuclear fuel.”

For Iranians, the 1979 Islamic Revolution, though imperfect, was a triumph for Iranians by Iranians. Majd writes, “For two or three hundred years Iran had been, in all but name, a proxy of Western powers … Iranians overthrew a twenty-five-hundred-year monarchy in 1979 to liberate themselves from foreign domination.”

Nine months ago, Majd’s newly released book was enlightening. Today, in the chaotic aftermath of Iran’s presidential election, it’s prescient. Majd paints a picture of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a cunning politician who understands perfectly how his message of independence from the West plays to his Iranian audience. A June 18 New York Times op-ed by Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry suggested that Kerry may well have read Majd’s book before prevailing on President Obama to remember that street protests in Tehran ought not to be used as an excuse for the United States to involve itself in Iranian politics. Kerry wrote, “the last thing we should do is give Mr. Ahmadinejad an opportunity to invoke the 1953 American-sponsored coup, which ousted Prime Minister Mossadegh and returned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to power. Doing so would only allow him to cast himself as a modern-day Mossadegh, standing up for principle against a Western puppet.”

Azar Nafisi, author of the 2003 bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran, has more personal reasons for writing her recently released memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About: Memories.

“I do not mean this book to be a political or social commentary, or a useful life story. I want to tell the story of a family that unfolds against the backdrop of a turbulent era in Iran’s political and cultural history.” Later, she adds, “Ever since I can remember, my parents and their friends spoke of Iran as a beloved but prodigal child whose welfare they constantly quarreled about. Over the years Iran acquired for me a paradoxical identity: it was a concrete place, defined by where I was born and lived, the language I spoke, the food I ate, and at the same time it was a mythical notion, encouraging all manner of virtues and values, a symbol of resistance and of betrayal.”

Nafisi’s denial of sociopolitical intent should be taken with a grain of salt. Amid two ongoing wars in the Middle East and an ever-increasing Western focus on Iran’s role in the region, one can hardly write a book about Iran that doesn’t function on at least some level as political or social commentary. Among Iranians and Iranian-Americans, Nafisi is a polarizing figure; her previous work has been embraced by a general readership, but disparaged by some critics who see Reading Lolita in Tehran as a confirmation of western stereotypes about the Middle East.

Nafisi’s story is fascinating regardless—a coming-of-age memoir that follows her close relationship with her father, a former mayor of Tehran who was imprisoned under the Shah’s regime for four years, and her troubled relationship with her mother, the first woman to serve in Iran’s parliament. From the outset, Nafisi makes clear that a memoir is no small matter to an Iranian: “It is such a strong part of Iranian culture to never reveal private matters: we don’t air our dirty laundry in public. …”

In that moment, Nafisi invokes the aura of the genre to seduce readers with the promise of tantalizing secrets. But unlike a contemporary American memoirist like, say, Augusten Burroughs, Nafisi uses her platform not just to reveal skeletons in her family’s closet, but to open a window on the “turbulent era in Iran’s political and cultural history” in which she grew up.

Nafisi comes to detest the Islamic regime that ultimately chases her family out of Iran. Though she’s certainly not alone in this feeling, her reflections are best read as part of an ongoing conversation about Iran. In one instance, Nafisi recalls being accosted by a young soldier who screams at her for wearing her veil too loosely. To the author, the memory is undoubtedly infuriating. To Western readers, the anecdote reinforces an image of the Middle East that’s reductively symbolized by the Islamic headscarf.

While Nafisi provides a valuable eyewitness account of political upheaval, one turns to Majd for the deeply explored context. Prevailing Western attitudes might disparage the Islamic Republic law requiring women to wear the hijab in public, but as Majd points out, the law was a reaction to an earlier mid-20th century mandate by the last shah’s father, Reza Shah, forbidding the hijab.

“In the 1930s,” Majd writes, “women had their chadors forcibly removed from their heads if they dared wear them, and were sometimes beaten as well if they resisted.” (Hijab refers to a simple headscarf specifically or, more generally, the Islamic dress code; the chador, literally “tent,” is a black garment worn in Iran that reveals only the face and hands.) “Of course, back then the vast majority of women in Iran could not imagine leaving the house without the chador, so the effect was even more dramatic than Khomeini’s enforcement of the hijab” (Majd’s emphasis).

Unlike Majd and Nafisi, both of whom were born in Iran in the 1950s and experienced the 1979 Revolution as young adults, it’s the present-day, post-Revolutionary Iran that provides Azadeh Moaveni with her formative experience. Born in California in 1976 to parents who emigrated in the mid-1970s, Moaveni belongs to a generation of Iranian-Americans whose parents left Iran because of the Revolution. (Nafisi’s children, just a few years younger than Moaveni, are part of that same generation). Though educated in the United States, Moaveni’s parents returned to Iran after college, only to come back to the U.S. a few years later to accompany an elderly family member to the Stanford University Medical Center. Her parents had not intended to stay in California; the Revolution made their decision for them. Moaveni writes: “…I grew up with the émigré child’s ambivalent yearning for homeland.” Then, during a brief trip to Iran during a Fulbright scholarship year in Cairo, Moaveni “discovered the fascinating debates over Islam and democracy that were underway in Iran, and concluded the country had more to offer than just pistachios and Islamic militancy.”

Moaveni’s memoir begins with her first trip back to Iran after the publication of her 2005 book Lipstick Jihad, in which she described “drug-soaked underground parties” among Iranian youth and offered criticism of the Iranian government. Upon meeting with “Mr. X,” the government agent in charge of monitoring her conduct as a journalist, Moaveni is understandably anxious. Her own observations about Iranian culture had, “in the mouths of other Iranians, led to prosecution and imprisonment.” But, toward the end of her meeting, Mr. X breezily tells her, “We would like you to know that we consider your book worthy of appreciation.” He assures even further: “So do not be worried. Go back to America, and tell them we are democrats.”

As her story progresses, a romance develops between Moaveni and a young, Western-educated Iranian, whom she ultimately marries in Iran. The red tape tangling that action includes acquiring her absent father’s signature on what amounts to a permission slip and contemplating the hiring of an expensive security detail to ensure that their mixed-gender reception and open bar don’t get busted by the police.

Among other observations, Moaveni describes meeting with Iran’s reigning “It Girl,” Sonbol, an insipid 28-year-old race car driver; a Dolce & Gabbana billboard that looms ironically over a site where demonstrators had once chanted “Death to America”; and her meeting with a marriage counselor who spends most of the session discussing whether to move his family to Laguna Beach.

The backdrop to Moaveni’s story is post-2005 Iran, in which the little-known Ahmadinejad, an Islamic hard-liner who campaigned on a populist platform of economic opportunity, appears out of nowhere to win the presidency. Ahmadinejad’s talk of economic equality may have swayed the election, but as one cleric points out to Moaveni: “…the top leadership wanted a subservient president, a yes-man, and it made sure it got one.”

Moaveni translates: “This was a coded way of saying” that “Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, wanted a weak president who would not challenge his leadership or make him look fusty, so he colluded to get Ahmadinejad elected.”

Almost exactly four years later, as the 2009 election is protested in Iran’s streets, these words are freshly unsettling. Opposition presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi clashed with then-President Khamenei in the 1980s when Mousavi served as prime minister. Their disagreements became so fierce that Mousavi offered his resignation to Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, at the close of the Iran-Iraq war. Khomeini, who often backed Mousavi in these disagreements, refused to accept the resignation. When Khomeini died in June 1989, Khameini replaced him as Supreme Leader. Mousavi, having lost his main ally and watched his primary foe elevated to de facto leadership of the country, retired from politics, removing himself almost completely from public life until recently.

The 2005 election had serious consequences for Iran. Any hope for social or economic reform withered when Ahmadinejad tightened Islamic strictures and his government amassed the country’s largest budget deficit since the Islamic Revolution. Moaveni sympathetically points out that young Iranians care “far more about finding jobs and raising their living standards than about whether Islam would become compatible with Western-style democracy in their lifetime.”

By memoir’s close, Moaveni and her husband decide to leave Iran for England with their young son. While she had been optimistic about Iran’s reform movement when writing her first book, the Moaveni of Honeymoon is more cynical. That young people “were willing to shout down a police officer or flirt during a public Islamic ritual meant mostly that they were concerned with freedom in their immediate 10-foot radius,” she concludes. “Beyond that, the risks involved in a rebellion swiftly outgrew the rewards.”

These are ironic words today. Some five months after Moaveni’s words were published, I’m distracted by Facebook updates from my two 20-something cousins, both students at Azad University in Tehran. Since June 13, they’ve both changed their profile pictures to the now-familiar slogan reading “Where is my vote?” in stark white lettering against a bright green backdrop—the campaign colors adopted by Mousavi, whose candidacy has come to symbolize a re-ignition of Iran’s reform movement. My cousins and their Facebook updates represent a potentially powerful and complex contingent. Two-thirds of Iran’s population is under 35, meaning many of the people marching in the streets don’t remember a time before the Islamic Revolution. Nevertheless, they’re utilizing Revolutionary slogans, shouting “Allahu Akbar” just as the 1979 revolutionaries did. Meanwhile, an increasingly entrenched Ahmadinejad is responding to the popular uprising with ominous promises that the risks of rebellion will dramatically outweigh the rewards.

No one can predict what will happen next in Iran. Perhaps one positive result of the current conflict, though, is that it may help Americans to view Iran less one-dimensionally. These three books can help.

Azita Osanloo has taught courses on contemporary Iranian poetry. She has an MFA from the University of Montana and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in creative writing and literature at Florida State University.