Saturday, March 14, 2009

Honeymoon in Tehran

Honeymoon in Tehran is one of the books I recently reviewed, but 300-400 words is not enough to explain what this book contains or what insights it provided.

First and foremost, Azadeh Moaveni's book is a memoir, a history of her more recent time in Iran before and after her marriage. The honeymoon part of the book is not just about her marriage, which comprises the last one-third of the book, but about her relationship with Iran, its customs, political climate and people.

In many ways, Moaveni's honeymoon was part of a continuing cycle in an abusive relationship with Iran, and that relationship, as well as the relationship of most Iranians with their country and its government, is abusive. What else would you call it when the government goes through periods of crackdowns on satellite dishes and dress codes and then ignore those same things just to crack down on them again when the unsuspecting citizens lapse into a feeling of safety and marginal freedom just to be plunged back into terror, fear and paranoia?

The government jams the Internet and satellite television all the time, but having a satellite dish is against the law, and yet millions of Iranians have them, pointing out that in the past when government workers came to kick down the dishes they were rude to the doormen and the families and now they politely march up to the roof and kick down the dishes and take them away. It's the plaintive claim of any abused person who does their best to find something good about the relationship they either cannot leave or are afraid to leave, and it is Moaveni's reaction as well. Iranians know they are breaking the law by having satellite dishes, but they keep buying more dishes and putting them back up in order to have a little freedom and a chance to see something other than the heavy-handed religious and state operated channels they are allowed.

It is the same for dress codes. The chador, a traditional shapeless black, sometimes patterned, garment that covers from head to toe and held together by the hand or teeth, is worn by extremely religious women. The manteau is a long coat that must be worn when a woman is in public, although modern Iranian women who are more secular and less religious wear shorter and tighter manteaus when the government police and Basiji (members of a volunteer paramilitary organization, or civilian militia, mostly populated by young people from poorer sections of the country and Tehran) are less vigilant. And it is the same thing for head scarves. When the government is on a crusade to fine and imprison any Iranian woman not wearing an opaque and voluminous head scarf, women wear sheer and colorful head scarves. The problem is that no one knows when the government will change its tone and mood, but secular Iranians have learned to cope, just as Moaveni learned to cope, dancing along a dangerous razor's edge line between the cycle of rage and honeymoon with the government and her homeland.

Despite what the Western world believes about educated and modern Iranians' devotion and belief in Ahmadinejad, the truth is very different. Ahmadinejad is hated by most Iranians, except for those in the religious right, and suffer under his rule. They are ashamed of his ranting and raging against the Western world and his stance on Israel, but the cannot do anything about it since he is the figurehead chosen by the mullahs (religious leaders) to govern the secular government. During his tenure, Iranians have watched their marginal economy take a nose dive as Ahmadinejad and the mullahs drive the country deeper and deeper into debt by funding Hamas and Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations while antagonizing the West by continuing work on nuclear weapons instead of focusing on providing clean and safe electricity as publicly stated.

Just after Ahmadinejad was elected, Moaveni interviewed a mullah and asked why the people, who wanted a secular government, voted for a man "...who considers cemeteries decorative." He responded, "Do you think the people who voted for him even knew that? He spoke only about jobs and the economy. Eight years of failed political reform disappointed people. It made them indifferent to politics. [T]hey figured that if they could not have real freedom, they might as well have more manageable rent, better jobs." Arising from obscurity, Ahmadinejad's "...campaign slogn, 'We Can and We Will' implied fighting corruption, not building the Bomb..." Despite his belligerent attitude and his naïveté and amateurish fiscal policies that resulted in the further ruin of the economy, many Iranians applauded him -- at first.

Despite the "...cozy regard [for America that] had evaporated under President one appreciated Ahmadinejad's party ridiculous, party insulting letter [to President Bush and considered it] embarrassing to Iran and Iranians." And yet Moaveni assured a friend in California, who wanted to come to her wedding that "...[i]t's safe! People love Americans here. You'll get marriage proposals in the street, probably."

Interspersed with the darker side of Iran is the beauty of its culture and the reminiscent glory of its past before the arrival of Islam into the Persia of ancient days and fame. Moaveni's descriptions of her extended family and the world they inhabit make Iran sound like a paradise, or at least dwindling pockets of paradise in a toxic world where people become ill and die from the pollution or take their lives in their hands when they go shopping for food or go for a stroll with their children.

Fruit sellers notice when their patrons are buying less fruit because of the economy and tuck a few extra pieces of fruit in their patrons' bags. Western stores glitter for a brief moment before censors black out objectionable illustrations and words. Uneven sidewalks trip and harm the unwary while in poor neighborhoods gangs of Basiji thugs harass women not sufficiently or modestly dressed and covered. In the distance on days when the pollution isn't a thick smoke-filled haze, the distant mountains glisten with snow and families trapped in ugly cement buildings cut into apartments escape to family estates in nearby rural communities where fountains cool the air of walled gardens and children laugh and play with their families.

Iran is a world of conflicting views, modern urban sensibilities and unstable government pulled by secular and religious concerns and Azadeh Moaveni's Honeymoon in Tehran an attempt to breach the gap between Western ideas of Iran and the realities of its beauty and dangers. Even among her extended family in Iran, Moaveni's Western education and sensibilities and rose-colored view of her grandmother's beloved homeland are naive and overly romantic. As a journalist, Moaveni is competent, but careful in what she says and how she says it to protect herself from the torture and imprisonment that would surely follow if she stripped away the veil and showed Iran as it truly is.

She admittedly spins her stories and articles to please the government and that makes much of what she writes questionable, something to be taken with a grain of salt. In the wake of harassment and the fear of imprisonment and worse, Moaveni becomes a soft journalist, shying away from hot topics and writing what she considers neutral stories, discovering along the way "...that there were no 'neutral stories.' [T]here was no avoiding mention of the regime's flaws." When finishing Lipstick Jihad, she "...confessed to Lily, my publisher friend, that despite all my efforts it ended sorrowfully. 'I want so badly not to write a grim Iran book. Why is it turning out this way?"

"It's not your fault," [Lily] said with a knowing smile. "you can't write the sadness out of Iran's story."

In the end, for all its faults and flaws, Honeymoon in Tehran is a closer look into an Iran most of the West has never seen and would not otherwise know and for that reason Azadeh Moaveni's views of Tehran are well worth reading. The view through cracked rose-colored glasses of a sadder by wiser woman is a view worth experiencing. Moaveni's memoir is a revealing odyssey of the heart and soul.

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