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In context

Iranian lit illuminates country's complexities



In recent decades, the Western understanding of Iranian culture has been almost entirely shaped by the public discourse of politicians invoking fear and reducing the Islamic headscarf to a symbol of totalitarianism. Increasingly, though, books about Iran by actual Iranians have become more common in bookstores. Particularly, two titles stand out within the last year: Hooman Majd's The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (November 2008) and Azadeh Moaveni's Honeymoon in Tehran (February 2009).


Much has already been said about these books. Both have enjoyed time on the bestseller list, both have been extensively reviewed and discussed. However, the aftermath of the (certainly) botched 2009 Iranian presidential election offers a timely opportunity to revisit these books in the context of an ongoing crisis.

In the introduction to The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Majd writes of his hope "that this book, through a combination of stories, history, and personal reflection, will provide the reader a glimpse of Iran and Iranians, often secretive and suspicious of revealing themselves, that he or she may not ordinarily have the opportunity to see."

Perhaps most insightful is Majd's explanation for why the Iranian government and even Iranians themselves are hostile to the West. Prior to 1979, Iran had essentially been a pawn of U.S. and British powers. Among other things, Majd points to the 1953 CIA coup that overthrew the democratically elected Mohammad Mossadegh in favor of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who ruled as an absolute dictator. Mossadegh's crime had been to nationalize Iranian oil, effectively disenfranchising the British and allowing Iran "the right to the profits from their own oil." The British argued at the United Nations that Mossadegh's act was "a threat to the security of the world." To Iranians now, Majd points out, the accusation of being a threat has a troubling echo, particularly when voiced by Americans "in response to Iran exercising its produce nuclear fuel."

Nine months ago, Majd's newly released book was enlightening. Today it's prescient. A June 18 New York Times op-ed by Sen. John Kerry titled "With Iran, Think Before You Speak," revealed that Kerry may well have read Majd's book: Kerry wrote that "the last thing we should do is give Mr. Ahmadinejad an opportunity to invoke the 1953 American-sponsored coup, which ousted Prime Minister Mossadegh and returned Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi to power. Doing so would only allow him to cast himself as a modern-day Mossadegh, standing up for principle against a Western puppet."

Born in California a generation after Majd, Iranian-American Azadeh Moaveni (author of Lipstick Jihad) writes of meeting and marrying her husband in Iran in Honeymoon in Tehran. The backdrop to Moaveni's story is post-2005 Iran, where the little-known Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an Islamic hard-liner who campaigned on a populist platform of economic opportunity, appears out of nowhere to win the presidential election. Ahmadinejad's talk of economic equity may have swayed the election, but as one cleric points out to Moaveni: "The top leadership wanted a subservient president, a yes-man, and it made sure it got one."


Moaveni translates: "This was a coded way of saying Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, wanted a weak president who would not challenge his leadership or make him look fusty, so he colluded to get Ahmadinejad elected."

Four years later, these words are freshly unsettling: In the 1980s, Mir-Hussein Moussavi, 2009 opposition candidate, clashed fiercely with then-President Khameini. At the time, Moussavi was prime minister. When Ayatollah Khomeini died in June 1989, Khamenei was elected to replace him as the supreme leader. Moussavi retired from politics and soon afterward the position of prime minister was abolished.

The 2005 election would have serious consequences for Iran, any hope for either social or economic reform dying with Ahmadinejad's tightening of Islamic strictures and his government's dubious honor of attaining the highest budget deficit since the Islamic Revolution. Sympathetically, Moaveni points out that young Iranians care "far more about finding jobs and raising their living standards than about whether Islam would become compatible with Western-style democracy in their lifetime."

By the memoir's close, Moaveni and her husband decide to leave Iran. While she had been optimistic of the reform movement in Iran when writing Lipstick Jihad, Moaveni is more cynical in Honeymoon. That young people "were willing to shout down a police officer or flirt during a public Islamic ritual meant mostly that they were concerned with freedom in their immediate 10-foot radius," she concludes. "Beyond that, the risks involved in a rebellion swiftly outgrew the rewards."

Perhaps this election will result in a re-ignition of Iran's reform movement, reversing Moaveni's dismaying conclusion.

No one can really predict what will happen in Iran. Perhaps one positive result, though, is that it forces Americans to see Iran less one-dimensionally. The books discussed here (and others, notably Azar Nafisi's Things I've Been Silent About) reflected an earlier need to get the story straight. Now that need is even greater.

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