There is a particularly riveting subset of travel writing that has the author settle down in a “foreign” land for a long enough stretch of time so that the experience of living there as a resident can be conveyed, while retaining the vantage point of the outsider. In this, there is a sub-subset of life in Iran under the revolutionary regime, and it is somewhat apart from the casual escapism that informs memoirs of seasons under, say, the Tuscan sun. Getting to grips with accounts of everyday lives in Iran is in some measure a way to understand the country, its politics and its foreign policy, to cut through the contradictions that appear to inform every development.
Hooman Majd already knew Iran and the ways around its establishment better than most when he decided to move to Tehran along with his American wife and little son. An exile in New York, he has been among the foremost analysts of Iran’s politics, going back and forth and tapping his extensive network of family (among them, former president Mohammad Khatami) and friends. He had even been inducted to do translation work for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on one of the latter’s annual dramatic turns at the UN General Assembly while president. And in books like The Ayatollah Begs To Differ (2008), he has helped decode manners and contradictions to help make sense of the country.
So, for those familiar with Majd’s previous work, his new book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You To Not Stay: An American Family in Iran, has the added distraction of working out how someone so familiar with ways of negotiating daily life in Tehran can take a step sideward and bring us snapshots of “what it is to be an Iranian in Iran”. Iran’s, he writes, “is a culture that has been described to Westerners mostly by Iranians, but it is still very much hidden behind veils of modesty, furtiveness and suspicion.” The point is, presumably, to get under the skin of an Iranian (himself) getting on with life as an average Iranian (in this case, the average well-connected, well-provided-for, stylish Iranian in north Tehran). It’s a bit of an act, of course, but it is informative.
Majd explains the many lives a person simultaneously lives to deal with the clerics’ injunctions and also the many loyalties that both threaten and strengthen the regime, the combination of paranoia and brazenness in abiding by, and breaking the rules of the revolutionary regime. He explains the place of daily, persistent, unabashed nosiness (foozooli) and the “tomorrow” alibi to breezily put off the inevitable, and how important it is to contextualise the tendency to exaggeration and exaggerated behaviour to separate the production from the message. It is a telling nugget that his American wife reported relatively weaker ta’arouf, the ritualised, drawn-out refusal of payment, than he did, obviously for fear that she may not be culturally attuned enough to not take it at face value.
Perhaps the standout chapter is ‘The Big Sulk’, on the role sulking plays in personal and public life in Iran, as a mechanism to save pride, retrieve self-respect, gain leverage, make a particular point. In the spring of 2011, the then president, Ahmadinejad, “went on a public sulk for eleven days”. The pretext was news that his key aide, chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaie, was being spied on by the Intelligence Ministry. Dealing with the issue meant taking on the authority of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, and Ahmadinejad did what he could do best in his relatively disadvantaged position: he sulked, bunking work and refusing public engagement. Majd says this way of challenging the most powerful man in the land actually got Ahmadinejad public approval, with even some participants in the reformists’ Green movement of 2009 (against what they alleged was an election stolen by Khamenei in Ahmadinejad’s favour) in sympathy. In the end, a mutually acceptable solution was found.
The sulk can even help bracket Iranian foreign policy: “No one has thought of it as a sulk, but the strained relationship, or lack of relationship, between the United States and Iran fits with the Iranian temperament. In a sulk, usually the sulking party wants the other to come to admit its offence, its mistakes, and to correct its behaviour. By sulking the Iranian party also presumes that the other party needs, and will miss, it more that it needs the other. That has been Iran’s position vis-à-vis the United States ever since the hostage crisis of 1979, if not from the moment Ayatollah Khomeini set foot in Tehran nine months before.”
In a year in which Iran is expected to break out of an isolation heightened by the standoff over its nuclear programme, it’s a fascinating perspective to consider.