Another Country

Another Country

A review of two recent memoirs of Iran.


It’s difficult to identify the exact moment when the shift occurred, but it must have been sometime after President Bush debuted the phrase “axis of evil” in his January 2002 State of the Union address, and sometime before Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, landed on the New York Times bestseller list two years later. From the mouths of politicians, broadcasters and members of book clubs across America, Iran no longer sounded like the past-tense conjugation of a verb for fast movement. “Eye-ran” had become “Ee-rawn.” This refinement of pronunciation, tentative at first, has grown exultant. Recently a correspondent for National Public Radio emphasized the long “a” so earnestly it sounded like “Ee-rone.”

What made this development possible was, first of all, the 1997 election of President Khatami, which opened an era of reform; newspapers reported that veils were slipping, young people were partying and the Internet was working its subversive magic. Around the same time, galleries in New York and Los Angeles showcased work by Iranian artists, and Iranian films became wildly trendy (since 1997, when Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or, seven films from Iran have won prizes at Cannes). Through some alchemy of politics, optimism and the vagaries of pop culture, Iran chic was born.

Even when the reformist revolution did not arrive as hoped, the consecutive tragedies of 9/11 and the war in Iraq kept Iran in the spotlight. In 2003 Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights lawyer, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and a few months later a massive earthquake struck the Iranian city of Bam. The very next month, Iran achieved the ultimate form of mainstream recognition in the United States: three Academy Award nominations (for House of Sand and Fog, a drama about an exiled Iranian family struggling in California). Meanwhile, Iran’s last empress, Farah Pahlavi, published her recollections in An Enduring Love. The Iranian-French illustrator Marjane Satrapi published a second volume of her comic book memoir, Persepolis, to great acclaim. Another memoir, Journey From the Land of No, by Iranian-Jewish emigré Roya Hakakian, received ample praise. And Nafisi’s book jumped from hand to hand; now at week sixty-two on the bestseller list, it shows no signs of slowing down.

To those of us who arrived in the United States from Iran during the 1979 revolution, just in time to unpack our bags, pour a cup of tea, turn on the television and find out that our countrymen had taken fifty-two Americans hostage, all of this recognition has felt a bit disorienting. My family had moved from Tehran a year before the hostage crisis, to a quiet mountain town in New Jersey that used to be a popular summer getaway for middle-class New Yorkers. Most neighbors were welcoming. It took a while before they made the connection between Eye-ran and the polite new family at 16 Country Lane, and in any case, my parents had the odd habit of answering “We’re European” to the question “Where are you from?” One day, in 1980, my father was chatting with a neighbor on our front lawn when the conversation turned to current events. “What do you say we just bomb the hell out of these assholes?” the man asked. Though my family had been in Iran for generations, we are Armenian, and so perhaps a bit more “European” in appearance; the neighbor had no idea he was talking about the city where my father’s mother and sister still lived. My father said nothing. (The unwitting fellow, who became a dear friend, returned later that day with two beers and an apology.)

My older sister’s peers were no less energized by the hostage crisis; in fourth grade they called her Ayatollah Toumani, a taunt whose political precocity might have been impressive had it not been so hateful. (One can only imagine how many immigrant children in America have lately endured nicknames like Osama or Saddam–or how many bear the inconvenience of actually having those names.)

The lesson from these experiences was clear: Better not talk too much about Iran. But what were the consequences? I asked myself this question one night a few months ago, while sitting in a hall in Flushing, Queens, with several hundred Iranian-Americans. We were there to welcome Farah Pahlavi, who fled the country with her husband, the Shah, in January 1979, just before Khomeini returned and took over. She couldn’t have hoped for a better reception. The event was part gospel meeting call-and-response, part “Next year in Tehran,” merging the exiled Queen’s hope of return with that of her listeners.

The audience’s warm embrace of the Queen contrasts markedly, of course, with the official story in Iran about the decades leading up to the Pahlavis’ fall from grace. According to this narrative, the Shah’s corrupt and tyrannical regime hoarded money and power, squandered public resources on private indulgence, tortured and killed critics, and planted agents from the Savak (Iran’s secret service) throughout Iranian society, stifling even the pettiest expressions of dissent. Like any account of the past, this history comes in some variations, but the basic outline is clear: Popular discontent with the Shah eventually boiled over into revolution.

But as I watched the audience members dab their eyes and clutch one another’s arms at Queen Farah’s entrance, I wondered about the difference between history and memory–and remembered that what was for some Iranians a reign of terror was, for others, a lost paradise. The assembled were mostly Long Island Iranians, members of what one might call the ’78 generation: those who came just before, during or immediately after the revolution. Above the stage hung a pre-revolution flag: green, white and red, with a lion and sun in the center.

Farah talked about life with her husband (“a dream”), about her new book (“for my people”) and, finally, about the pain of twenty-six years in exile. Everybody in the room, whether genuine royalty or shoe-shiner to the Shah, had experienced the same separation, and tears flowed freely as the Queen spoke. The only thing worse than exile, she said, was to see the image that the rest of the world now has of Iran. “This is even harder to bear than our own life.” When she confessed her hope that one day Iranian-American youth could return and serve their country, the audience let loose a pent-up gale of “Enshallah!“–God willing–and somebody cried out, “You will do it, Your Majesty!”

A spectator asked Farah how history would judge His Majesty. Solemnly, she replied that it already had, and the judgment was not kind. But she added that every time she meets a compatriot–even twenty-five years after the Shah’s death–they say to her, “Khoda biamorzeh,” may God bless his soul. Her voice cracked, and the audience applauded for twenty seconds.

Before the party was over, a master of ceremonies stood up and said there was a problem. To kick off the evening, the band had played a song–Iran’s pre-revolution national anthem–but no one had recognized it because it was a “modern arrangement”; nobody had stood up. Laughing awkwardly, the Queen admitted that she herself hadn’t recognized the tune until halfway through. To remedy the misstep, the MC took the microphone and led the entire room in a rousing, a cappella take two of their old anthem. As it ended, the audience clapped a steady beat and chanted in unison, “Javid Shah“–“Long live the King.”

It would be easy–and misleading–to assume that the Queen’s admirers at this unlikely affair were simply devout royalists displaced by the revolution. It’s true that most came from the educated middle class; that’s how they got out when they did. But these were nonetheless typical, nonpolitical émigrés who remembered (or imagined, depending on their age) the Pahlavi years–their Iran–with fondness.

In her essay “The New Nomads,” the Polish-born writer Eva Hoffman observes that while exile used to be considered a difficult condition, it has lately come into vogue, at least among those who study it, for supposedly embodying the qualities that define the postmodern experience: fragmented identity, dislocation and uncertainty. Exile, she writes, has become “sexy, glamorous, interesting.” If this is true, it helps explain why so many memoirs by Iranian exiles have found their way into print lately. But Hoffman argues that while exiles indeed possess “a stark sense of biographical drama,” the postmodern celebration of exile risks underestimating the real emotional and psychological burden of living between two worlds.

At the heart of this burden lies a sort of bipolar personal narrative; the story has a neat division, a before and an after, where the homeland represents an asymptote of fulfillment, a sustaining force in the story. For Iranians who came to America during the revolution and hostage crisis, keeping up with Iran was anything but chic; the shocking changes taking place there all but closed the chapter on pre-revolution Iran. Access–emotional as well as actual–was cut off, and memories of home were frozen in time. Exile means that the place you come from becomes unreal as it becomes untouchable; the exile’s solace is the fantasy that he creates from these conditions.

But exile, however traumatic, can come with an expiration date–and in this case, the dawn of Iran chic is it. While Iranians who fled during the revolution can never re-create the world they knew, most can now travel with relative ease between the United States and Iran, something few did until recent years. They return with videos and photographs, and journalists provide accounts of changes on the ground. As Iran becomes a bit more accessible–indeed, as it pops up everywhere one looks–it turns out that nostalgia cannot stand up to reality. These days, when friends and family make the trip, there’s a pathos to it, not because of the head scarves or the billboards covered with bloody martyrs, nor even because of the emotional reunion with relatives who never got to leave. The real pain of returning is the pain of concluding the fantasy and confronting the real Iran, which is neither as lovely nor as horrific as it is cast in either chapter of the before-and-after story. Hoffman describes this realization as “the loss of the very sense of loss.”

Azadeh Moaveni, a 28-year-old Iranian-American journalist, explores the limits of nostalgia in Lipstick Jihad, the most recent of the Iran memoirs. Moaveni grew up in California, but after college she went to Iran to cover the 1999 student protests. In 2000 she returned as a stringer for Time, and was the only American journalist allowed to set up shop in the country during a period of serious upheaval. Her project in Lipstick Jihad is as much personal as political, recounting her efforts to find satisfaction in being Iranian, and to achieve a sense of belonging that eluded her in California. This wasn’t easy, since she found herself hating some things about the new Iran. “If you are a nostalgic lover of Iran,” an Iranian friend tells her, “you love your own remembrance of the past, the passions in your own life that are intertwined with Iran. If you love Iran realistically, you do so despite its flaws, because an affection that can’t look its object in the face is a selfish one.”

Heeding this advice, Moaveni tries to manage the ambivalence that results when the bipolar structure of exile falls apart–what to do when, as Hoffman puts it, paradise turns out to be “an ordinary garden, needing weeding, tilling, and watering.” The details of Moaveni’s homecoming are poignant: an elderly relative prepares sholeh-zard, a rice pudding scented with rose water and saffron, on which Moaveni’s name is spelled out in cinnamon and almonds; the neighborhood fruit vendor greets her with exaggerated glee at her return. The author’s capacity to appreciate these moments and yet look critically at political and social problems in the country is a kind of integration of nostalgia and reality that sets her story apart from what could have been a predictable homecoming tale.

Yet the balance is not entirely harmonious. As her stay in Iran wears on, her curiosity turns into exasperation, and her criticisms of the regime become increasingly intemperate. “It was impossible to respect the Islamic Republic,” she declares, referring to mullahs as “pariahs, an untouchable class” who are ignored on the street by cabdrivers, and as “slatternly, corrupt, unworldly clerics, with village accents and scant ambitions” who “held meetings on the floor, sat slouched before the cameras, and mumbled about ‘foreign enemies.'” Moaveni may be right–she walks us through enough harrowing security interviews, street protests and raids that it’s clear she’s no armchair quarterback of Iranian politics. But her sweeping remarks bear the proprietary confidence of judgment that one can levy only on one’s own. Could a non-Iranian get away with calling a mullah “Jabba the Hut”?

Another new memoir, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, by Christopher de Bellaigue, provides an instructive comparison. De Bellaigue, a British journalist married to an Iranian woman, lived in Tehran during the same years as Moaveni. His book is a work of reportage and contemporary history, loosely framed by de Bellaigue’s fraught relationship with a former revolutionary named Mr. Zarif. Although de Bellaigue speaks Persian and, thanks to his marriage, is immersed in Iranian private life, Mr. Zarif and the other erstwhile activists de Bellaigue pursues treat him with a certain distance and suspicion. They call him Reza Ingilisi, or English Reza (Reza is the ceremonial name that his wife gave him, and that he uses whenever he senses that “Christopher” will be difficult “or even distasteful” to pronounce). Throughout his adventures, de Bellaigue’s criticism of post-revolution Iran is implicit, but unlike Moaveni, whose crushing scorn coexists with a strong sense of connection to a place she’ll be stuck with no matter what she writes, his observations betray the frustration of a foreigner who realizes both the journalistic and even the human obligation to suspend ultimate judgment.

One day, de Bellaigue and Mr. Zarif are talking about the condition of the country, and Mr. Zarif–a proud man–admits to the author that Iran is in a sorry state. De Bellaigue describes his own reaction:

I’d had similar feelings. Why doesn’t anything work? Why does nothing happen on time? Why is everything so crappy and falling apart? Is it useful to spend so much energy mourning a man who died more than thirteen hundred years ago? But there was a distance between myself and Iran. I would never be Iranian. (You cannot become Iranian–not spiritually. You have to be born one, like a Hindu.) But Mr Zarif was Iranian, and so these thoughts were acute, a kind of self-flagellation.

De Bellaigue’s distance, then, provides a kind of reprieve, and perhaps even a measure of clarity.

So who gets to speak for Iran? Questions of authenticity are not, of course, unique to the Islamic Republic, but the high stakes of the current political climate, as well as the built-in subjectivity of exile psychology complicate these published chronicles of life in Iran today. A more basic hurdle to understanding the country is that Iran is a real insider society: a cultural quirk known as tarof obscures every social interaction. Tarof is a way of saying things you don’t mean, whether offering a tenth helping of food, refusing to accept payment for a major service or responding to “see you later” with an idiom that translates to “I’ll die for you.” (De Bellaigue calls tarof “ceremonial insincerity,” and remarks, “Iran is the only country I know where hypocrisy is prized as a social and commercial skill.”) Tarof is art–not malice or trickery–and when skillfully employed it is one of the most charming customs in Iranian social life. But it is an elaborate, nonlinear form of communication that can tire even lifelong practitioners with its hall-of-mirrors obfuscation. You can’t just land in Tehran with a map and a phrase book and figure the place out.

And yet, the potential consequence of this loophole of identity politics, where the native’s wisdom is often held up as unimpeachable, can be equally worrisome–especially when Washington phones for advice. For the past few years, cohorts of Iranian exiles have worked closely with neoconservatives in Washington on the possibility of regime change in Iran. In Los Angeles, émigrés broadcast satellite television programs encouraging (and sometimes organizing) protests on the streets of Tehran. Some exiles have pipe dreams of reinstating the royalty, while others envision a secular, constitutional democracy in their lost homeland. Their views, informed by real-life experience with Iranian society, are an important part of the conversation. But perhaps exile also lends itself to a unique form of extremism, a kind of defensive reaction to the psychological burden of having been ejected from a place, a way of managing the sting of reality against the sweetness of nostalgia that no longer holds.

The exiled writer thus faces an additional crisis of loyalty: how to be rigorous in one’s political observations of Iran and true to one’s own experience in the telling, even if one’s testimony risks being presented as evidence in a distinctly nonliterary forum, such as a campaign to wage sanctions or war. The authors Azar Nafisi, Marjane Satrapi and Roya Hakakian each lived through the revolution, so they take this risk when, in their memoirs, they depict the horrors of that chapter in Iran’s recent history. Nafisi, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies who has advised US policy-makers on Iran, told the New York Times last year that some Iranians criticized her “for washing our dirty laundry in front of the enemy.” For her part, Moaveni concludes Lipstick Jihad with a firm clarification: For all their complaints, Iranians, in her view, do not need or want US intervention.

The “dirty laundry” problem calls to mind another story about Iran that outraged Iranian-Americans. In 1991 MGM produced Not Without My Daughter, a film that infuriated Iranian-Americans with its ugly portrayal of Iranian family life. Sally Field played an American woman whose Iranian husband whisks her away to Iran for a holiday. Upon arrival, he turns abusive and announces they are not leaving. Field’s character undertakes a sensational escape through the mountains with her child, and finds salvation at the US Embassy in Turkey. The film arrived in theaters at a moment when there was little popular attention paid to Iran in the United States, so the combined force of stereotyping and Hollywood influence made it a symbol, for Iranian-Americans, of the extent to which Iran was misunderstood. If there was even a trace of truth in the film’s portrayal of gender relations and judicial absurdity (after all, it was based on a true story), we rejected this in favor of prideful defensiveness. If any single cultural product plunged Iranian-Americans deeper into the protective hold of nostalgia, it was Not Without My Daughter.

I remember distinctly the feeling that filled our family station wagon as we drove home from viewing that movie so many years ago; something had been corrupted. It was an unexpected and painful rejection from the country we’d done so well at fitting into. That’s why I was surprised to find myself delighted when I turned a page in Lipstick Jihad and discovered the final chapter heading: “Not Without My Mimosa.” In one line, Moaveni takes the story back. At the end of her book, she is not debating how to get back to the United States, like Sally Field was in the film; she is merely wondering which of her New York City lifestyle choices she could stand to sacrifice if she were to stay in Iran. In a way, Moaveni’s combination of irreverence and introspection is what makes her sound uniquely American. And yet as I read her cutting remarks and laughed out loud, I wondered whether I’d bristle at reading the same remarks from a non-Iranian. Probably. And do non-Iranians think Moaveni’s book is funny? On a recent evening, the author read from Lipstick Jihad at a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, and the crowd’s response suggested that they did not. She ridiculed the sexual exploits of young Iranians, called Ramadan “one long rehab program” and described walking alongside her defiantly unveiled aunt as equivalent to accompanying a topless woman–a “head-breast.” Although the room was packed, awkward silence came where giggles were due. And I wondered if America was ready, yet, to laugh at the Islamic Republic. Iran chic is one thing–a kind of sincere curiosity extended to compensate for ignorance or fear. But mockery, the kind we freely practice toward our good friends the French, the British and of course the Canadians, is a stage in our diplomatic relations with Iran that lies far off in the future.

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