A Long Way From Home

Book cover
Honeymoon in Tehranby Azadeh MoaveniRandom House. 352p $26

Perhaps Ms. Moaveni, a savvy young Iranian-American journalist, has spent too much time working for Time magazine—she has a penchant for snappy but misleading titles. Her previous book, Lipstick Jihad (2005), was not about seductive suicide-bombers but about her own quest for identity during an eventful stay (2000-1) in Iran. The title Honeymoon in Tehran is similarly unhelpful: Moaveni did fall in love, marry and have a baby during her second exploratory journey (2005-7); but she mostly continues her earlier theme of finding herself within the vexing confines of the Islamic Republic and against the splendid backdrop of age-old Persian culture. (In any case, she went to Shiraz and Persepolis for her actual honeymoon, and, as it turned out, was never in any serious danger.)

Born in Palo Alto, Calif., and educated at the University of California Santa Cruz, Moaveni, who speaks Farsi, won a Fulbright to study Arabic in Egypt en route to becoming a widely published, Beirut-based reporter on the Middle East. The on-location job of explaining her ancestral home to readers of Time, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, The L.A. Times and NPR—as well as to herself—seemed ideal to Moaveni, until the pressures from the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad system overwhelmed her, and she wound up not just leaving but fleeing to London, where she now lives with her husband and son.

Coping with day-to-day life in Tehran presents major problems, starting with the horrific polluted air that sickens and kills untold thousands of the city’s 14 million inhabitants. Housing and the basic necessities are now prohibitively expensive for everyone except crony capitalists. Despite Ahmadinejad’s much-touted populism, corrupt and clueless government bureaucrats make ordinary civic activities—like getting married—infuriatingly complex. But above and beyond the hassles of paralyzed traffic, blacked-out Internet, seized and destroyed satellite TV dishes and a lunatic, randomly enforced female dress code that all Tehranis endure, Moaveni was under constant supervision by her minders, whose ploys ranged from phone-tapping to relentless grilling to threatening with arrest, trial and who-knows-what for even the most harmless reportage. (Her American passport was no safeguard, not since Canadian-Iranian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi was raped and bludgeoned to death in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison in 2003.)

It is one thing for a single woman to engage in this sort of rigged duel; it is quite another for a mother with a newborn. And Moaveni admits she is not made of heroic stuff. In the late summer of 2007 she and her husband and son simply added three more names to the astounding list of about 150,000 mostly young Iranians who emigrate every year in what may be the biggest brain-drain in the world. Among her other worries, she was distressed by a public school system where parents have to sign regular affidavits that their children are reciting their daily prayers, and where children are asked whether their parents drink alcohol at home. Increasingly, for all the joy she takes in her friends and in the loving extended family of her husband, Arash (a German-trained computer expert and businessman, whose true passion was studying ancient Zoroastrian texts), Iran strikes Moaveni as “an irretrievably failed society.” As Arash points out to his pregnant wife after an ultrasound examination, “Do you realize the baby boy inside you will be considered legally more valuable than you?”

Though Moaveni does not engage in much detailed political analysis—and outsiders have next to no access to the country’s real movers and shakers anyway—she clearly demonstrates the utter folly of the Bush-era demonization of Iran. Talking about the “axis of evil” and pumping $75 million into regime-change propaganda only made life harder for enlightened Iranians like the human rights activist and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi (with whom Moaveni wrote Iran Awakening) and needlessly antagonized a population that was already fed up with Ahmadinejad & Co. Whatever America’s fears about Iran’s nuclear program, a country so disgusted with the stupidity, venality and puritanical hypocrisy of its (often unelected) rulers does not need to be stirred up any more against them than it already is. The scores of ordinary Iranians, from cab drivers to fruit-sellers with whom Moaveni has talked, take a far different line than the government stooges who show up for officially sponsored rallies. They are furious, for example, over all the money shipped abroad to support Hezbollah.

Of course, notwithstanding her feelings of solidarity with such people, Moaveni opted out—and she quotes some powerful lines by Rumi in her epigraph by way of explaining her decision: “Why cling to one life/ till it is soiled and ragged?/ The sun dies and dies/ squandering a hundred lives/ every instant./ God has decreed life for you/ and He will give/ another and another and another.” God may well have given Moaveni and her family a new life in London; but that was not, in her jaundiced view, the God of Islam, or at least not the God of the Islamic Republic. Though she had been a vague sort of believer and semi-devout enthusiast for Sufi traditions, Moaveni becomes so revolted by Iran’s clerical dictatorship and its apologists that she just gives up on religion.

Once relocated to “Londonistan,” Moaveni heaves a sigh of relief—and promptly gets caught between Muslim extremists, like the Pakistani grocer who refuses to touch her hand when being paid, and the odd British racist. Soon she is as busy as ever trying to define her place in a conflicted world, with a lot more freedom this time—and a lot less help. So long as she keeps writing about it, she’ll have many grateful readers.


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