In American publishing houses, books about Iran seem to be proliferating nearly as fast as the theocracy’s nuclear materials. From graphic memoirs to political analyses, accounts of the Islamic republic have become trendy, bespeaking its renewed prominence in the American popular imagination and in U.S. foreign policy. For readers wishing to penetrate beyond words like “evil” and images like the veil, two of these new releases, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, by Christopher de Bellaigue, and Lipstick Jihad, by Azadeh Moaveni, offer lively, complementary introductions. Written by talented young journalists stationed in Tehran, they illuminate a nation rich in history and character, spiritually impoverished by its petty and hypocritical rulers today.
De Bellaigue, a British freelance reporter, has lived in Tehran since 2000 and is married to an Iranian woman. His book’s main strength lies in its absorbing historical narratives, which never feel textbookish. He alights on various events and places—a commemoration of the Imam Ali’s investiture, the Shah’s Square, the eponymous rose garden, and so on—and uses each setting as a madeleine, summoning historical details that sometimes reach back centuries. Crossing a bridge in Isfahan, de Bellaigue examines the bricks of the Islamic arch. “In the first year of the seventeenth century, these bricks were baking in the name of Shah Abbas I, castles of them hardening over smoking dung,” he reports.
That example notwithstanding, most of de Bellaigue’s commentary concerns the tumult of later epochs, and readers are reminded of how many momentous chapters of 20th-century geopolitics unfolded there. We lurch from the revolution, to the extravagantly wasteful war with Iraq, to the hostage crisis, to the Iran-Contra affair. The author does not aim to be comprehensive or panoramic, but rather presents stories hinged to individuals. For instance, he relates large chunks of the biography of his friend Mr Zarif, a former militant who, as a youth, helped foment the revolution: As a vigilante in the streets of Tehran, he berated unveiled women and gave involuntary haircuts to unsuitably coiffed men.
Inspecting a snapshot of Mr Zarif in full revolutionary fervor, de Bellaigue observes, “[H]e looks supple, jackal-like, and his eyes are insouciant, and it’s not the nihilistic insouciance of a Western boy, braving ideology—any ideology—to capture him. On the contrary: he has become pure ideology….Mr Zarif is smiling in the photograph, deliriously happy to be alive.”
De Bellaigue has a gift for deploying details that conjure a whole social moment. During the revolution, “The Americans and their families started going home. The newspapers were full of ads for second-hand washing machines.” In a shrine, pilgrims greet an important Shi’a figure; “[t]hey kiss the door jambs, one after the other, and colds caught in Karachi spread to Beirut.”
In his lyricism and his efforts to inhabit other people’s heads, de Bellaigue is an heir to Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose Shah of Shahs famously documented the 1979 revolution. But whereas the great Polish journalist seemed to inhabit his subjects to an uncanny degree, de Bellaigue maintains more distance—and dispenses more judgment. Describing his Iranian wife’s girlhood experience of the revolution, he writes, “And so the Shah left. An old man with frightening eyes came. The French school was closed. (Of course it was; it was named after a Roman Catholic saint!)” Thus he slides from the perspective of a young girl to an ambiguous vantage—the tone and exclamation point of that last sentence could represent the indignation of a revolutionary or the sarcasm of an infidel foreigner.
Some of his judgments are explicit. Faith in divine military guidance translates into “a gigantic army that prided itself on its ignorance of military affairs.” And when, in a scene reminiscent of too many prime-time news programs, the father of a famous martyr produces a photograph of his dead son with the pride reserved in most cultures for wedding pictures, de Bellaigue has trouble controlling his reaction. As they gaze at the corpse, “Mr Kharrazi smiled at Hossein’s beautiful martyrdom and looked up, expecting me to smile too,” the author reports disgustedly.
De Bellaigue appears to relish making bold and irreverent assertions about Iranians—mostly in the context of his presumed fondness for them. “Iran,” he writes, “is the only country I know where hypocrisy is prized as a social and commercial skill.” He relates an illustrative tiff between his taxi driver and a fellow passenger: When she disembarks, the driver insists multiple times that she be his guest, while she insists on paying; when he finally names a price, she deems it a rip-off, hurls a smaller amount into the car, and stalks off. These incidents are amusing, but his characterizations sometimes have the texture of caricatures. In the opening line of the book, de Bellaigue asks, “Why, I wondered long ago, don’t the Iranians smile?” Observing the unbridled emotion of their religious mourning ceremonies, he concludes that they “luxuriate in regret…savor their misfortune.”
For readers discomfited by this national diagnosis of masochism, Moaveni’s memoir provides an excellent antidote. Her rendering of Iranians is more persuasive, in part because she is of Iranian heritage and seems to have had greater access to Iranian society. In fact, Moaveni is ideally positioned to explicate Iran to Americans. The child of expats, she grew up in California and returned to Iran as a stringer for Time in 2000. In her memoir, aided by an extensive network of family and friends in Tehran, she grows intimate with Iran as an Iranian but knows what to find remarkable as an American. As opposed to making a concerted effort to inhabit the Iranian mind-set, she gradually, organically assumes it. In addition to providing more nuanced portraits of Iranians, she also supplies a more vivid and inclusive picture of daily life and politics in the contemporary Islamic Republic. (But her book contains much less history—de Bellaigue is the better source for context.)
Moaveni chronicles her life in Iran with clarity and humor. Everyday activities in Iran involve navigating the system and—optimally—the triumphant pleasure of outwitting it. For example, Iranians, especially the young, use the births, deaths, and key events in the lives of various imams and members of the Prophet Mohammad’s family as excuses to throw parties and meet intriguing strangers. “Public displays of piety involved leaving the house, and provided handy excuses to proffer at checkpoints (‘Really, officer, I was just out celebrating/mourning the birthday/death of Imam _____!’)”
Moaveni is an astute observer, steeped in politics. As such, she registers the rhythms of the reform movement, led by President Mohammad Khatami, who was elected to his first term in 1997. The reformists, though often stymied and humiliated in their game with the hard-liner mullahs, managed to issue permits for independent newspapers and to foster conditions relatively hospitable to social liberalization. Around the turn of the millennium, she recalls,
Women started wearing lipstick, exposing their toes and curves, wearing their veils halfway back, ‘as if’ they had a right to be uncovered. Writers and intellectuals wrote vicious satire and stinging commentary, ‘as if’ it was permitted to criticize the regime….All of these ‘as if’ acts became facts on the ground, and the authorities knew it would be foolish and impossible to stand in the way.”
But then, starting in late 2000, the hard-line judiciary cracked down again, jailing dissidents, closing newspapers, and reviving public flogging for such offenses as the consumption of alcohol.
Through glimpses of Moaveni’s personal life, we get a sense of the national culture as well as the hypocrisy of the regime. The mullahs she interviews inevitably hit on her. The gym she joins is populated by young mistresses of powerful officials, who scorn her for actually exerting herself on the machines. She reveals the cynicism and disillusionment of the populace—through its corruption of Islam, the government has even managed to undermine Iranians’ religious commitment. Fasting during Ramadan, which includes a prohibition of cigarettes, is compulsory, but the corner-store clerk clandestinely sips tea, and Moaveni’s driver takes back roads so he can smoke behind the wheel. When she discovers that no one is observing the religious-ritual-cum-national-law, “I asked the driver for his lighter, took a protein bar out of my purse…and split half with him, and two days into Ramadan called it a month.”
This is a memoir, so we get to know Moaveni: She discloses her cultural confusion, her feelings of loneliness and dislocation, her heartbreak over the state of her country. At first, for the skeptical reader, her singsong recitation of her California childhood, the book’s flippant title, and the Western-friendly author photo might cast some doubt about Moaveni’s qualifications. But she emerges as a funny, smart, thoughtful woman with an appealing penchant for self-deprecation, crucial for a memoirist (especially a nonfamous one).
Speaking of her title, it does not do her book justice, but in the context of her elaborations it is excusable. Lipstick comes up as a symbol several times. Pondering the political situation following the 2001 national election, she concludes that although it hadn’t changed in any grand fashion, “from the vantage point of the living room and the park, life was different in the ways that mattered most….No longer forced to fret about things that should have been irrelevant (to wear or not to wear lipstick), there was now mental space for more interesting matters, such as choosing one’s weblog pseudonym.”
In de Bellaigue’s book, a returned Iranian expat describes Iran as a hess—a Farsi word translated variously as a feeling, an ideal, a tragedy. This abstract and nostalgic conception of Iran is common to those who have left it. As Moaveni writes, “For my tribe of Iranians, the Iranian-American diaspora, Iran was a place you wept and argued over, sang about and professed to pine for, but physically avoided.” The true Iran, in this view, is a lost Persian paradise of pomegranates, gardens, and sensual delights, and the bullying mullahs who currently occupy the seats of power are no more than squatters. In these dispiriting accounts of the country’s current incarnation, the only optimism comes from the widespread consensus that their eviction is inevitable—and from the creeping progress represented by Revlon.