Thursday, January 8, 2009
Honeymoon in Tehran is Azadeh Moaveni's distinguished memoir of her time spent living in Iran as a journalist and newly married mother. As an Iranian native of California and journalist for Time magazine, Moaveni spends her notable career reporting on the societal aspects of Iran, from it's controversial elections to trends in Iran's youth activist culture. When she returns to the country to begin reporting on Iran's 2005 presidential elections, she has no idea that she will soon begin living in Iran, not to mention that she will meet and fall in love with her soon-to-be husband. But despite best laid plans, Moaveni is soon pregnant and must navigate among Iran's religious and political restrictions to first marry and have her child, then to continue reporting. With harrowing clarity she explains the sanctioned abuses that face unwed pregnant mothers, and experiences the difficulty of obtaining the proper permission to be married. While documenting this time in her life, the author extensively explains the political, social and religious climate that she is steeped in as a resident of Iran. In an eye-opening way, she describes the confusion of governmental agencies that share executive power over the country, and even for someone as well versed in Iran's culture as Moaveni, it still is sometimes unclear who holds ultimate authority.
In addition, she gives a first hand account of the social repression that is the standard for the country. From the strict laws on acceptable attire (especially for women, who are expected to don their head coverings in almost all public venues) to the segregation of the sexes, even at events such as private weddings, Moveni explores an array of customs that all must live by in their everyday life. Aside from these revelations, she examines the repressive and reactionary attitude of the government, documenting the way in which the country's leaders seek to control Iran's image in the media and the shocking downfall in the socioeconomic status of Iran after Ahmadinejad's unexpected election as president. With all that she faces, there is still more: she must routinely deal with her private handler, known only as Mr. X, as he systematically bullies, threatens and frightens her into complicity. In Iran, each news correspondent must have a government minder, ensuring that the reporter doesn't portray unsavory aspects of the country or its leaders to the outside world's news outlets. By using scare tactics and intimidation, Mr. X fast becomes a villain in this insidiously prescribed relationship. As Moaveni moves through these new stages of her life, she gives a candid account of the attitude of both the traditionally religious and secular Islamic people living in Iran, and she explains in great detail the way in which the Islamic religion has shaped and still very much influences the governmental aspects of the country. Although Moaveni must face many difficulties in her time in Iran, still she embodies a great love for the people, culture and wonderful contradictions of Iran, where today most people can't afford to buy a home but nose jobs are had easily and affordably. At the conclusion of her memoir, Moaveni must decide if Iran is truly the place in which she wants to live her life and raise her child, and though I won't spoil the book for you, it's obvious that her heart is torn in two opposing directions. Her ultimate decision is hard won and heartbreaking. This accurate and compelling look at life in modern Iran encompasses all that the country is, and all it hopes to one day be.
When I first began reading this book, I was a little non-plussed at the fact that this was not mainly a book about one's person's experiences with everyday life in Iran. I had supposed, going by the title, that it would be exclusively about the author's struggles in a strict and repressive society. When I finally realized the scope of the book, I began to be able to better form an opinion of it. Although it was not what I was expecting, this book caught me totally off-guard and I was blown away by how much I enjoyed and appreciated the story Moaveni told. I didn't have much information regarding the state of society in Iran but was quickly able to understand and grasp the various aspects of modern life in the country. I believe that this material, handled so well by the author, could have been very flavorless and dull had it been presented in other ways, by other authors. As I read and my understanding grew, I began to ask myself questions that I hoped to be able to research the answers to later. However, that wasn't necessary, because Moaveni did a wonderfully thorough job of answering all these questions for me; I needed only to be patient as she explained.
As time went on, I realized that this book was perfectly complete, posing and answering questions about Iran that have been shrouded in mystery for far too long. It was then that a curious change took place within me: I stopped doubting the story and became more intimately involved with the country's history and future. The fact that the story was not as personal as I had originally hoped for ceased to matter, and I left those feelings behind and became totally engrossed with the all-encompassing story the author had to tell. I still enjoyed Moaveni's story of her marriage and pregnancy, but taken with all the other aspects of the book, those sections were only one facet of a multi-layered portrait of Iran. While reading, I experienced several emotions, all at the heels of each other. I found myself angry at the government and its minions for attempting to totally repress an intelligent and growing society, I was astonished that so many Iranians seemed to humbly accept these impositions on their lives, and saddened by their apathy for instituting change. I was also a bit perplexed at the audacity of the governments reactions and punishments to totally ordinary and normal aspects of human behavior. I was joyful when I read on to discover that most secular Iranians had their own ways of obliquely dealing with their suppressive regime, giving themselves the freedoms that had been methodically denied to them by their leaders. And last, but certainly not least, I was appalled and scared for Moaveni in her dealings with Mr. X, a cruel and inventive man who did his best to terrify the journalist away from her work. I very greatly appreciated the exclusive instruction that this book provided for me, and I think that Moaveni did a fabulous job in relating a huge amount of history and the implications for Iran's future in such a compelling and interesting way.
I have not had the opportunity to read the author's first book, Lipstick Jihad, but I am looking forward to reading more from this author, who I consider an expert in this area of the world. I think that this book should be read by anyone with a curiosity for Iran. Whether this will be your first time reading about the country or you are seasoned in the area's complexities, this is a wonderful read that is not only timely, but enlightening. I applaud this author for her unflinching look at Iran and her ability to relate the country's flaws, beauties and conundrums. A great read.