A Look Inside Iran With Azadeh Moaveni, the Author of Lipstick Jihad
If the literary world were to follow in the fashion world’s footsteps, then the latest “It” girls would be Iranian women writing their memoirs. Think “Reading Lolita in Tehran” or “Journey to the Land of No” to name but two. Now, the latest hot Iranian memoir to hit bookstores is “Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran” by 28-year-old journalist Azadeh Moaveni. In a recent interview, Moaveni said she believes there is more than one reason for the current interest in Iranian women’s memoirs.“For all that we talk about America and the Middle East and cultural misunderstandings, I think Iran and America have a very old and personal and intimate vendetta since the hostage crisis, [in 1979],” she says.
As a result, she argues, the curiosity Americans have about Iran is “very specific and very emotional. Everyone who was old enough has a memory of that time.” However, she adds, in spite of the pain and conflict that went with the revolution, the Iranian women who are writing these memoirs are “writing about their lives that are not so wholly different from the lives of American women. These women are educated, have jobs and read Western novels. They’re the type of women an American woman can sit down and have lunch with.”
Moaveni was too young to recall the revolution or the hostage crisis. Born in 1976 to an Iranian family in Palo Alto in northern California, her childhood was imbued with her family’s memories of the “old country.”
In 2000, Moaveni, now a working journalist, moved to Tehran to explore her heritage and to work as a reporter for Time magazine. What emerges from her two years in Iran is an extraordinary memoir of life behind closed doors, particularly the life of the country’s young people of whom some 70% are under the age of 30.
“I wanted to write a book from the first month I moved [to Iran],” Moaveni said in her interview. “But I didn’t want it to be told through me. I thought that I could tell it through young Iranians and their lives. But the reality of the publishing industry of America – and how culturally isolated Americans are, it made sense to have a narrator with an American voice which would then appeal to a larger number of people.”
It’s a tactic that worked. Moaveni had access to the world of young people who flaunted the regime’s oppressive rules. Young men and women, forbidden to socialize in public, meet in private at high class and daring “mixed” parties where the girls are dressed to the nines in tight mini skirts and way too much makeup.
Moaveni writes of a country so obsessed with the West and with their views guided by American television that they genuinely believe “all guys should act like Carson Daly, and that girls in the United States wore tight, revealing clothes at all times.”
As she aptly points out, in a country where everything is done to circumvent people’s sexuality – from head-to-toe coverings for women and refusing to allow unmarried women and men to socialize – sexuality simply becomes the white elephant in the room.
“The major social aim of the revolution had been to impose Islamic faith on Iranian society,” writes Moaveni. “But the catalog of restrictions – on dress, behavior, speech… only inflamed people’s carnal instincts… Iranians were preoccupied with sex in the manner of dieters constantly thinking about food.”
She writes of a people willing to flout the oppressive rules and living in an “as if” world – as if it was okay to wear lipstick, to play western music in their cars, to carouse with the opposite sex.
Yet all this is tempered with the reality of the komiteh – the morality police who beat up people whom they even suspect of having fraternized with the opposite sex. Then there is the Basij- the “Islamic vigilante thugs used by the regime to harass people.”
Moaveni effortlessly combines her personal odyssey with her keen journalistic eye – allowing us into the “real” world of people’s personal lives, while simultaneously commenting on the political machinations of the country. And she does so without ever holding back. This, despite the fact that her reportage is constantly being monitored, her phones possibly being tapped, and her work continuously questioned by the authorities, in particular by one official whom she refers to as Mr. X.
Nevertheless, Moaveni said she was very worried the whole time she was writing the book. “For a memoir to be meaningful and not just a pedestal to oneself it has to be brutally honest,” she says.
However, she adds, “The fact that I was able to go back [to Tehran recently] and given permission to report, means that someone glanced at this book and for whatever reason decided that it wasn’t outside any red lines.” She says she believes it’s because she was careful to “critique and criticize but not insult or attack” the regime.
It helped that Moaveni arrived in Iran at a time when the students’ Islamic reform movement was in full swing and there was a palpable feeling in the air that change was imminent. Understandably, Moaveni was swept up by that heady feeling.
But all that changed with the advent of 9/11 and US President George Bush’s infamous “Axis of Evil” speech. As she writes in her book, “When the world’s biggest superpower puts you on its top three hit list… the national attention span can scarcely focus on a bill to adjust women’s marriage dowry for inflation.”
It was the beginning of the end of Moaveni’s stay in Iran, as it became impossible for her to do her work, with the government authorities now monitoring her every move and placing enormous pressure on her.
Nevertheless, Moaveni said that as a Western journalist in the Middle East; “part of what made coming to Iran so appealing was that the story was so good. As a journalist I wanted to report on how Iran was changing.”
In addition, she says, that “part of the richness of the home culture I come from and what makes it fascinating to work in Iran as a journalist is that I wasn’t an observer. I am culturally of Iran. At the end of the day I’m not going back to a hotel room. I’m going to my aunt’s house or best friend’s house. I’m waking up in the morning to my aunt cooking pancakes.”
Today Moaveni is based in Beirut, but appears to have come to terms with her dual nationalities and the fact that she cannot live permanently in Iran. She writes, “I resigned myself to never saying goodbye, because now I realized that I would perpetually exist in each world feeling the tug of the other. The yearning, which I must embrace and stop assaulting, was a perpetual reminder of the truth, that I was whole, but composed of both.”
As to those who have read her memoir, she says she hopes they come away with a sense of how similar Iranian women and young people are to Americans, and to “realize that Iran is not a dark alien planet.”
It’s a goal that appears to have been realized. Moaveni’s ability to balance her personal struggles with her keen professional eye has provided readers with a unique insight into a fascinating country that, like Moaveni herself, continues to grapple with the bridging the gap between east and west.
I knew what was coming but it was always a thrill. Suddenly to our left the world opened out and there was the grandest of piazzas, Piazza Navona. The name Navona and the piazza’s long oval form go back to its origin as the Circus Agonale. This was a stadium, inaugurated by the Emperor Domitian in 86 A.D., that was designed to host a Roman alternative to the Olympic games (and to the gladiators in the Colosseum, that had been built by Domitian’s father and brother, Vespasian and Titus). I never liked Domitian. He was big on public works but a terrible administrator. He may or may not have killed a lot of Christians but he was certainly a murderer of many opponents–until they murdered him in the year 96.
The violent and crude final pages of the book force us to scrutinise our feelings over the last three hundred pages – did we will this? Are we guilty of this ending, if only by five percent? The brutal inanity of the dialogue is a warning that in Le Carré’s world, we don’t get to argue over the proportions and scale of what we set in motion.
The emotional trauma exposed a vulnerability that lay beneath all outward signs of success: a career as film critic for New Yorker magazine, a resident of New York’s upper west side, and the father of two children.