Persian Letters

Three personal accounts of modern Iran.


Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran, by Azadeh Moaveni, New York: Public Affairs, 249 pages, $25

Even After All This Time: A Story of Love, Revolution, and Leaving Iran, by Afschineh Latifi, New York: Regan Books, 320 pages, $24.95

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran, by Christopher de Bellaigue, New York: HarperCollins, 283 pages, $26.95

The international community groaned when Tehran's hard-line mayor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, won Iran's presidential election last June. The sight of a former Revolutionary Guards official being swept into office, mainly by Iran's poor, sent shudders through Americans and Europeans already worried about Iran's nuclear ambitions, its interference in Iraq, and its support for Lebanon's Hezbollah.

The new reality cries out for informed interpretation, and thanks to the post-9/11 proliferation of Middle East?related titles there are three Iran-related books, each finished before the election, to choose from: Azadeh Moaveni's Lipstick Jihad, Afschineh Latifi's Even After All This Time, and Christopher de Bellaigue's In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs. Unfortunately, publishers apparently have decided that the best way for American readers to grapple with Iran is through personal accounts, preferably by Westernized authors. In two of the three books, what we gain in empathy we lose in context.

Moaveni is Time's correspondent in Iran, has covered the Iraq war for the Los Angeles Times, and worked with Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi on her autobiography. She has worn her soles thin on Iran's pavements and can burrow when needed, so more's the pity that her book often comes across as an exercise in indulgent self-analysis, a sort of Taffy Does Tehran.

Not that the navel gazing can't be interesting. Moaveni, like Latifi–and to a lesser extent De Bellaigue–embodies the collision of Iranian and Western culture. Her recollections of growing up in San Jose, California, underscore how difficult it is for a young Iranian to deal with American perceptions of her country of origin. It's a predictable approach, but it merits being revisited at a time when fear of terrorism has made integration all the trickier. Though her adaptation was relatively smooth, she observes that "the [Iranian] hostage crisis had forever stained our image in the American psyche, and slowly I saw how this shaped so much of what we did and strove for as immigrants."

In Moaveni's case at least, Americans gracefully moved beyond the hostages. Her bigger problem seemed to come from accepting her Iranian side–especially in dealing with her paradoxical mother, a product of Iran's pre-revolution elite who later adopted left-wing causes and adhered for a time to Hinduism, all the while remaining deeply Iranian (or perhaps just Californian). "The high volume of Maman's emotional politics," she writes, "made me feel even more estranged from my friends at school, at an age when nothing is more painful." That's a reasonable sentiment, but it's also worth suggesting that the weight of assimilation fell more on the mother than the daughter; hence her compensatory excess.

After Moaveni describes accepting her "Iranian-ness" and the pleasure of "finding power in your otherness"–the obligatory metamorphosis is mercifully dispatched in 28 pages–comes the real point of the book: Moaveni's move to Iran in 2000, after a short stint in Egypt. Her first instinct is sound, namely to assume she knows nothing. Reporting on the Tehran student riots of 1999, before she moved to the country full time, Moaveni found that the events "breathed life into my conception of Iran." Her expatriate view of "Iran as a static failed state in unchanging decline," she writes, "had little to do with the country itself and everything to do with the psychology of exile." With that realization came another: While Iran's hard-liners were scoundrels, the reformers were ineffective and divided, particularly on whether or how to engage with the United States.

The person who came to personify that diffidence was Iran's former president, Mohammed Khatami. Twice elected with large majorities, Khatami was for a long time Iran's great liberal hope. Though hardly at one with the obdurate clergy, the president was nonetheless a product of the clerical order, and never considered overthrowing it. Instead he sought, and achieved, looser restrictions in some domains of Iranian life, such as the way females dress. But his efforts to expand an independent press met with a withering hard-line backlash that Khatami did little to challenge. It would have taken a revolutionary figure–one willing, perhaps unwisely, to carry the battle into the streets–to break the stranglehold on the Iranian state by a bevy of unelected conservative-controlled institutions, at the top of which sits supreme guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. By the end of his mandate, Khatami was more an object of disappointment than longing, though his legacy continues to be debated.

Moaveni gives us many fragments of this confrontation between Iran's contending impulses of emancipation and repression, in particular a chilling account of how the regime's goons savagely beat demonstrators gathered after a soccer match. When the crowds began shouting "Death to Khamenei," police reacted by attacking the unarmed civilians, including women and children, with batons. Moaveni, who was injured in the fight, makes it clear this brutality was but one of countless humiliations suffered daily by Iranians, especially youths.

Moaveni has a sharp eye for the popular culture of middle-class Iranians. She describes how Iranian women routinely combat the ambient grayness imposed by the regime by wearing colorful chador designs revealing far more than they are supposed to. Moaveni also shows how Iranians are reworking their appearances and identities in other ways (nose jobs are a favorite of Iranian women and men), so that sensuality itself has become an act of resistance. That may seem trite, but it is in precisely these personal recesses over which the regime has tenuous control that the battle between hard-liners and those demanding individual liberties is most intense.

Where will this resistance lead, particularly under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Moaveni writes that while the reformers may have been ineffectual, she has concluded, much to her disappointment, that there is no alternative. When Iranians whom Moaveni spent time with asked her when the Americans would liberate Iran, they also made it clear they wanted to avoid becoming a new Iraq. Iran's salvation, she implies, must come from within.

Meanwhile, Ahmadinejad's victory has turned the camera on another, more deprived Iran, one no less dissatisfied with its own status than liberals are with the scarcity of freedom. If the regime fails the poor, their angry reaction may be far more destructive than anything the hard-line clerics face from the liberals.

Afschineh Latifi's Even After All This Time is cut from a similar cloth. Latifi, a lawyer in New York City, has produced (with Pablo F. Fenjves as co-author) a log of mostly irrelevant personal detail. This material would have been better suited for a midday talk show interview, between the segments on breast implants and the delights of shiatsu.

Even though the book's style and editing are dreadful, Latifi, her sister, and her mother are remarkable people who overcame two traumatic experiences after their life of relative ease was wrecked by the revolution. The first was the execution of Latifi's father, an Iranian army officer; the second was Latifi's mother's decision to send her two eldest daughters to the United States, where the girls struggled for years to make ends meet while their mother faced hardship back in Iran. There is a happy ending, as the family is reunited in America, but theirs were very difficult moments, meriting admiration.

Where Moaveni is focused on Iran, Latifi's story is about growing up in America. Much like the first 28 pages in Lipstick Jihad, the account is a familiar culture-clash tale, with integration the ultimate goal and accomplishment. But there is almost nothing about the events surrounding the death of Latifi's father. Iranian politics are reduced to a description of the repulsive, cowardly treatment of Latifi's family by the post-revolution apparat, a few noncommittal paragraphs on the shah's flight and Khomeini's return, and this conclusion: "for the fanatics, [the revolution] wasn't about hunger…it was a religious war, and their religion was neither loving nor inclusive; it was hateful and exclusionary. The fundamentalists used religion to unite the masses against a common enemy, as people have been doing for thousands of years, and we were the enemy."

Doubtless this is true, but one expects that level of unfocused generalization from someone camouflaging his or her ignorance of Iran's affairs, not from an Iranian whose father was among the revolution's earliest prey. If Latifi doesn't care to know, or prefers to forget, that's understandable, but it means she missed an opportunity to better explore how and why many Iranians are, in a perverse way, far more intricately linked to America than many understand. Latifi's is an American story, one centered on her successful escape from a previous life. In that escape she has stifled part of herself–a fitting epitaph for what the mullahs have created.

Both Moaveni and Latifi tell interesting tales, but their books are fruits of editorial timidity in which Iranian society and politics are turned into backdrops for coming-of-age narratives. No sooner do we plunge into an aspect of Iranian life requiring efforts of comprehension and nuance than we are evacuated back to the safety of personal introspection.

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs avoids that trap. In his beautiful, impressionistic book, Christopher de Bellaigue, a British writer living in Iran, focuses his attention on those Iranians from the middle-aged generation of the 1979 revolution, especially veterans of the Iran-Iraq war–men like Ahmadinejad, who lean toward social conservatism, continue to embrace Islam, and in many ways feel threatened by Iranian cosmopolitanism. The book jacket refers to this group as "a worn-out generation," which may be true. But that generation, or part of it, sees in the new president a revival of its fortunes.

The title's "rose garden of the martyrs" is a military cemetery in Isfahan where some 7,000 Iranian dead from the war against Iraq are buried. It is the figurative axis of the book, which begins and ends with a description of a passion play depicting an event at the heart of Shiite Islam: the martyrdom of Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Ali, Islam's fourth imam. In Shiite martyrology, Hossein falls victim to tyranny and injustice as he tries to affirm a leadership birthright Shiites believe was confiscated by the Umayyad line of caliphs, the first in Sunni Islam. Responding to the calls of the people of Kufa to help them rid themselves of the rule of the caliph Yazid, Hossein agrees to go, though his chances of survival at the head of a small band are nil. At Karbala, on the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram, commemorated today as Ashura, Hossein is killed by Yazid's men, his head cut off. Shiites still visit a room, echoing with cries of sorrow, in a wing of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, where the skull is said to lie.

The interplay between Hossein's martyrdom and that of Iran's revolutionary generation, decimated in the war against Iraq, is interesting. It is also reminiscent of Fouad Ajami's The Vanished Imam (1986), with its trans-temporal, metaphorical link between the Lebanese cleric Musa al-Sadr, who disappeared in 1978, and the last of the Twelver Shiite imams, whose return, it is believed, will bring a golden age. De Bellaigue conjures up an image of a society still bizarrely haunted by Hossein's death, 13 centuries later. "They lick their lips, savor their misfortune," he writes of those watching an Ashura passion play. Their mood is of simultaneous pain and pleasure. As De Bellaigue notes elsewhere: "The emotions in Iran haven't been compartmentalized. They coexist; they thrive in public. The borders between grief, entertainment and companionship are porous….Stifling sobs, trembling upper lips–they don't exist here. Emotion may be cheaply expressed, but that doesn't mean emotions are cheap."

There is much more than martyrdom in De Bellaigue's book. His intent is to describe post-revolution Iran largely through a series of portraits, encounters, and tangents on the politics of the Islamic Republic. His parables usually suggest more than meets the eye.

One character revisited frequently is the late Hossein Kharrazi, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander and brother of the former foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi. We eventually learn that the man hailed officially as one of the great martyrs of the war had become increasingly disillusioned with the reckless, bloody way the conflict was being conducted. Specifically, he had his doubts about an offensive known as Karbala Four. "Today is Ashura," he told his commander in the field, recalling Hos?sein's martyrdom and foreshadowing his own, "and this is Karbala." A few weeks after the offensive ended, Hossein was killed by an Iraqi shell. The moral of the story is that in turning Kharrazi into a plaster saint, Iran's leadership also absorbed him, robbing him of his distinguishing subversiveness. Revolutions are good at betrayal but also at the dissolution of individuality, sometimes through hollow beatification.

De Bellaigue does the grunt work in describing Iranian political realities under the monarchy and afterward, often using evocative set pieces. There is a beguiling passage, for example, on the calculations behind the execution in 1979 of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's former prime minister, the stately Amir Abbas Hoveida, which De Bellaigue uses to shed light on Sadegh Khalkhali, a coarse cleric whom Khomeini appointed as judge of a revolutionary court. This court toured Iran on a fierce mission of elimination directed against the old order, of which Hoveida was a glittering vestige. The ultimate confrontation between Khalkhali and Hoveida epitomizes the classical conflict between a harsh revolution and its often refined victims, between a man who had been punished under the shah and a former grandee "whose Northampton brogues Khalkhali could not, before the Revolution, have dreamed of polishing."

The Rose Garden of the Martyrs works because De Bellaigue can write well (of a religious man describing the death of a soldier on the last day of the war, he notes: "His expression went dead. He was awed by the severity of God's kindness"); it also works because he knows what to write, so that he has managed to give Iran's specificities broader meaning even while taking a microscope to his adopted country. De Bellaigue's is not an obviously easy book; readers will find precision in the portrayals, but less in the overall narrative. Piecing it all together is worth the effort, however. Supremely ambitious, the book is also refreshingly modest in assuming that many questions are without answers.