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Honeymoon in Tehran
Random House 352 pp., $26.00
If the turmoil surrounding Iran's recent presidential election offers a glance at the inner psyche of Iranians, Honeymoon in Tehran offers a penetrating stare. Though the deceptively light title suggests that readers are getting a romance (and they do), the heart of the book is the turbulent love story between the Iranian-American author, Azadeh Moaveni, and Iran.
Moaveni was born and raised in northern California, among an enclave of successful Iranians-in-exile, her parents included. As an adult, she spent 1999 to 2001 in Iran wrestling with her identity during a time that the country wrestled with its own. The result was a journalism gig with Time magazine as well as her first book, Lipstick Jihad.
Lipstick Jihad was criticized by New York Times reviewer Alexandra Starr as being overly navel-gazing. What the reader gleans about Iranian society, Starr complained, comes strictly through the lens of Moaveni's personal experience. Apparently Moaveni had this review in mind when she sat down to write Honeymoon in Tehran. In this book, she again covers two years in Iran, but this time the lens is turned out. The result is a rare and riveting look at the people of Iran.
Moaveni landed in Teheran again at a crucial time. She arrived in 2005, on the eve of the presidential election that unexpectedly catapulted Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from an obscure local politician to a menacing figure on the world stage. Moaveni, however, intended to do more than cover the election; she also intended to test the waters following the publication of Lipstick Jihad.
"It was, in short, the sort of book that dictatorships never welcome and that one writes on the eve of permanent departure, a final, cathartic clanging of the door on the way out. But being young and foolish," she recalls in Honeymoon in Tehran, "I had every intention of going back. I so desperately wanted Iran to be a place where you could speak truth to power... How wonderful it would be, I reasoned, if I could return unscathed."
Upon her return, she plunges headlong into the people of Iran. The reader glimpses everyone from Basij militants to waiters, mullahs to the freewheeling upper class. The Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights champion Shirin Ebadi appears just pages from an underground rock band whose music "resonated with a very contemporary Iranian despair."
This despair is tempered with acts of rebellion, however small and symbolic. Pet dogs, outlawed by the Islamic government, become a trendy accessory for a particular set of Iranian women. At the height of summer, secular Muslims make a pilgrimage to the market to buy crates of ripe shahani grapes, perfect for making homemade wine.
Moaveni presents a people whose attitudes often differ sharply from the government that pretends to represent them. When the Iranian government is outraged over a Danish newspaper's publication of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, and bakeries are forced to black out the word Danish, "Iranians continued to placidly eat what they continued to call Danish pastry," she writes. In stark contrast to Ahmadinejad's Holocaust denial and anti-Israel rhetoric, "...most Iranians found the president's anti-Semitic rhetoric distasteful... I had never encountered the open, careless anti-Semitism that was rampant in Arab countries..."
Honeymoon in Tehran also depicts the gulf between the Muhammad Khatami presidency and the Ahmadinejad regime. While Khatami stood as a president of the people, even if he lacked real power, Ahmadinejad is a president of the mullahs. Though Iranians were repressed under Khatami, Ahmadinejad's election signaled a new, darker era. As Mr. X, the government minder who tracks Moaveni's journalistic doings, ominously tells Moaveni early on in Ahmadinejad's first term, "[T]imes are changing..."
Indeed, Moaveni's relationship with the mercurial Mr. X, who is by turns friendly and frightening, grows increasingly tense throughout the book. When he isn't there on the pages, he lurks in the margins. She is ever aware and wary of his presence and the control he exerts over her livelihood - mimicking the relationship the people of Iran have with their government.
As Iranians do their best to go about their lives and ape normalcy, so does Moaveni. She meets and falls in love with an Iranian, the European-educated son of a textile magnate. Despite their location, the two have a decidedly Western courtship, moving in together and marrying after she becomes pregnant.
But the noose tightens around Moaveni and her new family as it tightens around the collective neck of Iran. The government cracks down on women who push the boundaries of the dress code - changing the laws without warning, and arresting 150,000 whose dress was deemed appropriate just days before. "We were all afraid to leave the house," Moaveni writes, "because it was obvious the authorities were out to make a point, arresting even women who were 'sufficiently' covered." Shortly thereafter she receives a warning from a young policewoman. Moaveni is shocked; it is the same veil she has worn for years.
Moaveni's work as a journalist, which was closely monitored but never forbidden under Khatami, is scrutinized under Ahmadinejad. Without warning, Mr. X informs her that not only is it "no longer appropriate" for her to work, she is also under judicial review and charges will be forthcoming. Her writing, Mr. X tells her, is "guilty of propaganda against the regime [and] undermining national security."
Though Moaveni might have returned to Iran unscathed, she leaves terrified and conflicted about abandoning her country. And as she weaves her own narrative with the larger story of the Iranian people, she offers a depiction of a people that are similarly scarred. Today, she lives with her husband and son in London. At once beautiful and sad, Honeymoon in Tehran is Moaveni's poignant good-bye to Iran and, perhaps, the Iranian people's good-bye to hope.
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