Reading Memoirs About Tehran 

A steady stream of new chronicles by Iranian women offer glimpses of the Islamic Republic.

Not long ago, everyone was reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi's 2003 "memoir in books" that spanned two decades in the Islamic Republic of Iran largely through the effect the revolution had on Nafisi's students' readings of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James.

Everyone, it seemed, had borrowed Reading Lolita from a friend, who had then promised it to another friend. The same thing was going on, right around then, with The Da Vinci Code, but Reading Lolita had more of an underground feel. In actual fact, this high-profile Random House release was anything but underground: It's #5 on the Express' best-selling nonfiction list, and it has lingered on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year. But it felt clandestine simply because it was a glimpse inside Iran, long demonized as a nest of fanatical Islamic fundamentalism -- a country it seems all the more vital to understand as we brace ourselves for a US attack that many fear has been coming ever since President Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech in January '02 and subsequent doings in Iraq. (Hot tip: stock up on Syrian memoirs next.)

Nafisi's description of the Iran-Iraq war and its color-coded alerts is sometimes uncomfortably familiar: "All forms of criticism were now considered Iraqi-inspired and dangerous to national security." Reading an account from inside the Islamic Republic, you can imagine yourself as subversive as Nafisi's students reading classic American and English literature in secret at her home -- which wasn't actually forbidden, but dangerous as it forced the reader to consider the humanity of the Great Satan abroad (that would be you and me). No doubt someone is now writing a memoir titled Reading Reading Lolita in Tehran in Berkeley.

Nafisi's memoir came out scarcely a month after American armed forces entered Iraq, and was followed a month later by the English translation of Marjane Satrapi's magnificent autobiographical comic book Persepolis, originally published in French and chronicling the revolution through the eyes and fantasies of a preteen Iranian girl.

Once the popular taste for such tales proved itself well and truly whetted, the publishing industry kept 'em coming. Last August, Pantheon followed up the success of the Harvey Award-winning Persepolis with Persepolis 2, documenting Satrapi's flight to Austria in 1984, her teenage angst and excess in exile and return to Iran in 1989, up to her seemingly inevitable second departure in 1994. (Satrapi now lives in Paris.) That same month, Crown published Journey from the Land of No, former 60 Minutes producer Roya Hakakian's account of growing up Jewish and happy in monarchist Iran, and her family's swift reversal of fortunes after the ascendancy of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic revolution. Hakakian's narrative follows the family up until their escape to America in 1984.

This April, Regan Books will release Afschineh Latifi's Even After All This Time: A Story of Love, Revolution, and Leaving Iran, which starts with the execution of the author's father, an officer under the shah, in the 1979 revolution when she was only ten. The book mostly chronicles her family's life as refugee women in Austria and Virginia, having fled Iran after a number of men sought the hand in marriage of Latifi's thirteen-year-old sister. (After the revolution, the marriageable age was lowered from eighteen to nine.)

Out this March from PublicAffairs is Azadeh Moaveni's Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran. Though Moaveni was born in Palo Alto and grew up amid San Jose's Iranian-exile community -- fortuitously, her parents had moved stateside a few years before the revolution -- a Bay Area girlhood merely sets the stage for the alienation she endured upon returning to Iran as a Time reporter in 2000. For those trying to keep their timelines straight, that's three years after Reading Lolita's Azar Nafisi left her reading group behind to emigrate to the United States.

To be sure, not one of these books makes life in Iran sound anything but oppressive, especially for women, and it's significant that not one of these women could stand to stay there. If anything, the memoirs are remarkably consistent in their depictions of a dangerously capricious regime in which public morality is maintained by roaming teenage thugs. But American preconceptions might be challenged by reading Moaveni's insider accounts of an Iran that includes private parties, presidential elections, plastic surgery, Weblogs, skiing, hamburgers and sushi bars, and watching Ally McBeal and Sex in the City via verboten but widespread satellite dishes. (Christopher de Bellaigue, an English Economist reporter married to an Iranian woman, covers some of the same ground from a breezy outsider's perspective in his book In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs.)

While the reader is struck by how little life under President Khatami's reformist government as seen in Moaveni's book differs from the Islamic Republic of the '80s and '90s that Nafisi and Satrapi describe, Moaveni offers a sense of the de facto reforms brought about by young people simply behaving as if they were permitted to speak out, inch back the veil, or stroll around with members of the opposite sex -- and she shows that slow change ending abruptly with the threat underlying Bush's "Axis of Evil" speech. (After all, America's last stab at "regime change" in Iran reinstated the shah, against whom the revolution raged in the first place.) While the Iranians we come to know in these memoirs desperately want change, kept in line by day-to-day worries of enforced propriety, Moaveni warns that such change must come from within: "[F]rom my elderly great-aunt who kept a photo of the Shah on her nightstand, to teenage punks who listened to rap and raced motorbikes," Moaveni asserts, no one really wants another revolution.

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