Commentary Magazine


Honeymoon in Tehran by Azadeh Moaveni

Azadeh Moaveni, an American reporter of Iranian descent, landed in Tehran in early 2005 after publishing Lipstick Jihad, a memoir about her two years reporting inside Iran in the early years of this decade. That book was replete with unsavory inside details about the Islamic Republic—“the sort of criticism that had, when coming from the mouths of other Iranians (those without Western passports), led to prosecution and imprisonment.” Moaveni wondered with devil-may-care bravado whether she would even emerge from the airport. She did. Iran, she thought, was looking up.

The next day, she was summoned to a meeting with her government-appointed snoop, “Mr. X,” the man responsible for steering her away from “sensitive” subjects—and who, in fact, had compelled her to leave the country in 2001 by demanding that she turn over the names of her anonymous sources. Their reunion was pacific: To her suspicious relief, he claimed he had greatly enjoyed Lipstick Jihad and considered its frank tone an asset to Iran’s image abroad. “Go back to America, and tell them we are democrats.” He beamed. “You are yourself proof.”

As a rookie foreign correspondent in search of her roots, Moaveni had set out for the motherland in 2000 anticipating epic struggles and discovered instead a party scene. Taking advantage of loose restrictions and lax enforcement, her twentysomething peers were flaunting Western-style behavior Iran’s authorities refused to acknowledge, flatly claiming no such conduct was taking place inside the country’s borders. Accounts like Moaveni’s as well as information gleaned from Iranian exiles suggested to many that Iran might be on the verge of a revolution, a “lipstick jihad,” led by its disaffected, pro-Western youth.

For her part, Moaveni came to believe that the regime’s decision to look the other way while the kids danced and drank and watched DVD’s constituted a new and remarkably canny method of controlling unrest inside Iran. By giving and withholding little liberal treats, the regime was providing a distraction from the fundamental lack of basic liberty. If women were permitted to attend a soccer game, perhaps they would overlook their lack of legal standing. If dress-code regulations were relaxed, perhaps the opaque justice system would not seem quite so bad.

While the “lipstick jihad” was embarrassing for Iran’s officials, Moaveni realized it could not morph into a movement that would bring serious political pressure to bear on the regime. Mainly interested in asserting freedom “in their immediate ten-foot radius,” the Revlon revolutionaries she chronicled considered institutional change “chimerical, costly, and best left to a future generation.” At the same time, the small band of real activists and critics inside Iran were routinely carted off to jail to face interrogation, torture, or worse. Moaveni left Iran when it became apparent she could not continue writing without endangering herself or her sources.

Drawn back a few years later by the promise of a juicy presidential election—the one in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to power—Moaveni found herself attempting to settle in Iran permanently. She tells the tale of her failure in her new book, Honeymoon in Tehran, a blend of personal memoir and on-the-ground cultural analysis in which she skirts the vortex covering the first two years of Ahmadinejad’s administration: clever schemes to fly under Mr. X’s radar, secret satellite equipment to communicate with contacts in the U.S., special training in counterinterrogation tactics, mysterious appearances by an outlandish Bondian bête noire (all while falling in love, beginning a family, and planning a magical Zoroastrian shotgun wedding without bedevilment by the morality police). To hear her tell it, dodging the wrath of the Islamic Republic almost sounds like fun.

Neither this attitude nor Moaveni’s residual inheritance of Western liberal relativism, however, is enough to overcome her deep good sense. She offers a rueful account of her search for spiritual beauty in the religion “with which I was frequently rapped on the head.” She devours books on tolerance and Islam that, to her dismay, no one else is reading—“the elegantly spun discourse of a handful of Muslim intellectuals adept at speaking to the West.” She steeps herself in Shia art and literature as the hysterical new president chants death to Israel and the United States. She tries valiantly to maintain a journalist’s objective distance as her family is threatened and her livelihood knocked out from under her, vowing to herself that she would not attempt a blunt retaliatory assault on a religion that “at its essence” extols peace and mercy. But she finally doesn’t have the heart to keep up this lonely crusade:

Once I would have argued that the ayatollahs were moderates at heart, but that a long tradition of political quietism prevented them from stepping into the fray. Now that reasoning did not satisfy me. If they were indeed moderates, let them come out and defend moderation. Islam could not be constituted only of the liberal reverence and interpretations of a handful of reformist Muslims who accepted Western humanism and universal values. Islam was the sum total of its many million believers, their behavior and outlook. And at this point in time, that majority had not come out in favor of change ; they did not accept the liberal reformists, or even know of them.

Of course, we all hope for that majority to embrace humanistic values, but hope alone is not enough. Moaveni’s capacity to see through the mist of wishful projection makes her a valuable communicant to Western readers. Given this capacity, however, one sometimes wonders what she can possibly be thinking. In another episode, she is taken to task by a Tehrani cabbie for airing some unreflective views about supporting Hezbollah in the name of Muslim solidarity, thinking she has hit on the authentic vox populi. The cabbie—hefty Koran sitting on his dashboard—declares in no uncertain terms that Iran should abandon Hezbollah at once and attend to its own problems. Tail between her legs, she wholeheartedly concurs.

That is very nice. But one shudders to see an American reporter with such a breezy attitude toward Hezbollah in the first place. Taken in sequence, Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran display a progressive revision of the things she thinks she knows, or wants to believe, when faced with the facts. But what things they are.

As for reform, the first year of Ahmadinejad’s regime shows Moaveni how feeble the freedoms, however token, advanced under his predecessor Mohammad Khatami and the well-meaning moderates had been all along. Grounded only in sheer mullahcratic whimsy, they vanish overnight. The remaining activists and independent journalists, admirable and ardent though they are, become pragmatically irrelevant. The economy, Ahmadinejad’s main selling point to the electorate, collapses. Even for idealists and would-be patriots, the question is no longer a matter of change—“no use in trying to reform a system that needed to be rebuilt from scratch”—but of just getting by. “I want so badly not to write a grim Iran book,” Moaveni laments to a friend, always on the lookout for national redemption, and perhaps using her work as a proxy for issues beyond her control. “You can’t write the sadness out of Iran’s story,” the friend replies.

With her husband and infant son Hourmazd, Moaveni joins the exodus of young Iranians who do not want to raise their children in the swamp of a toxic ideology. Imagine her surprise, then, when she finds radical Islam awaiting her in her new home in London, a neighborhood of non-assimilating immigrants she dubs “Little Riyadh”:

I grew to accept the fact that I had not left Islam’s modern problems—its traditionalism, the frightening zeal of its radical adherents, its tendency to blame the West for its societies’ stagnation—behind when I left Iran. In new and different ways, the religion would remain a part of my life, and a part of the environment in which we raised Hourmazd.

Moaveni’s book is not, as she feared, grim. Honeymoon in Tehran is intriguing and colorful, an evocative depiction of the weird modern existence of “Tehran, with its ‘I Love Martyrdom’ murals of suicide bombers, Versace billboards, and rickety buses adorned with portraits of Shia saints”—a place to fall in love and flee arrest. In between the unthinkable and the appalling, one glimpses an enchanting Persian culture, tacky pop kitsch wildly at odds with shari’a, hilarious absurdities of false bureaucratic sanctimony, and the challenges and aspirations of a generation haplessly inheriting its parents’ revolution. She puts faces on the people living day-to-day under a government responsible for great sins against its own people even as it plots greater ones against the outside world.

But these people, those who scatter and those stuck behind, face their future rather helplessly. As much as they may dream of an open secular society or a faith free of virulence and ugly politics, the force that will finally determine these things is unlikely to originate with them.

_____________

Caitrin Nicol, a new contributor to COMMENTARY is managing editor of The New Atlantis.

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