Hooman Majd left Iran shortly after his birth, but decided to return for a year with his American wife and son. In his new book, he claims the revolution has failed the troubled country in the same way capitalism has failed the West, Malcolm Forbes writes
“Today the city is engrossed in its own affairs, it doesn’t need foreigners, it doesn’t need the world.” So runs a description of Tehran during the build-up to revolution in Ryszard Kapuscinski’s classic study of the last years of a tyrannical ruler, Shah of Shahs. But today then could just as well be now, at least concerning the standpoint of the autocratic regime. When the Islamic Revolution took hold, Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed his country needn’t recognise international law and that America could do nothing about it. Despite – or because of – harsh sanctions, Iran has remained an isolated enemy, one that is all the more dangerous for being an unknown quantity.
Hooman Majd, an Iranian-born writer who has lived abroad from infancy, decided to up sticks from his home in New York and move with his American wife and newborn son to spend a year in the country of his birth, with a view to decoding some of its mystery. At the beginning of The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, Majd declares his book will be “an account of what it is to be an Iranian in Iran” and an attempt to “illustrate and illuminate the larger culture”. He makes a preliminary trip in early 2011, accompanying an NBC news crew and, shortly after touching down at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, is subjected to rigorous questioning by a “Mr Bad and Mr Worse”, from the ominous-sounding Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Both goons remind him of an “unpatriotic” article he wrote in which he lampooned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (in power throughout the book). Permission to visit the Tehran nuclear reactor is rescinded. Further “seditious acts” in print could cause problems for his family visit. The chapter, ominously titled A Taste of Things to Come, sets the scene and maps the lie of the bumpy land for both writer and reader.
When Majd returns en famille, the structure of the book takes shape. We flit from fish-out-of-water farangi (the Persian word for foreigner) observations and acclimatisation anecdotes to focused commentary on social, political and cultural issues within the authoritarian state. Both discrete but neatly juxtaposed sections add up to an enlightening and engrossing whole.
Early days are spent negotiating the obstacles in the way of finding an apartment, opening a bank account and obtaining internet access. Babysitting is seen as a bizarre Western concept, and so finding a reliable babysitter proves troublesome. In a land of tea-drinkers, it is a trial tracking down a good cup of coffee. Friends of friends provide names of “dealers” who can supply bootleg Hollywood DVDs and equally illicit booze (including Persian vodka, affectionately known as “dog sweat”). These are the incidental hardships; the ever-present fundamentals are congested roads and polluted air. When the roads aren’t blocked, they are full of homicidal drivers; more harmful than smog-clogged air is breathing space contaminated by the stern words of the Gasht-e Ershad (morality police) patrols, which stop and harass women who are “mal-veiled” and men who are inappropriately groomed, or the rabid diatribes of taxi-drivers. “It’s people like you who make foreigners think we’re a bunch of savages,” Majd shouts at one driver, who almost ploughs into his wife and child. “They think we’re savages?” the cabbie yells back. “We are savages!”
Once as settled as he can be, we follow Majd to parties, where girls remove their hijabs and manteaus to reveal made-up faces, short dresses and six-inch heels, and to diplomatic functions – a soirée at the British Embassy cancelled when protesters storm and ransack the building. Many an outdoor event is thwarted, or at least the guests intimidated, by party-pooping, machine-gun-toting Basij troops or the zealous morality squad. Hobnobbing with diplomats and attending conferences of an organisation called Iranian Diplomacy leads Majd to wonder whether the authorities suspect him of being in the employ of a western intelligence outfit. When Tehran – dubbed one of the most unlivable cities in the world by The Economist in the year Majd was there – gets to be too much, the family escapes and makes trips to Dubai, the Caspian (“the Hamptons of Tehran”) and Esfahan, “The Florence of Persia”, according to Majd’s wife.
Each excursion comes dabbed with the same local colour as Tehran, but also allows Majd to exchange his personal story of life in the capital for mini-discourses on aspects of the country at large. Many topics are covered and debated: from Ahmadinejad, “the pugnacious little president”, to labyrinthine Iranian bureaucracy, to the emergence of a nouveau riche, to the efficacy of the Green Movement and the likelihood of a Persian Spring. Majd’s own thoughts are interspersed with revealing interviews with activists, many of whom have spent time in Evin Prison, either enduring solitary confinement or guards’ brutality. Critical opinions come skilfully counterweighted. Noting that a young street-child takes advantage of the free food given out by mosques around Tajrish Square on religious holidays, Majd goes on to argue that “The revolution had failed him and his family, perhaps just as capitalism had failed too many in the West.” Later, he admits that “in a strange way” he admires Ahmadinejad, “not for his views and his policies, but for his courage and his determination to be a part of whatever changes would come to Iran”.
Majd’s analysis is searching and objective, but his true talent lies in hacking away at prejudice and stereotype to get to the bottom of akhlagh, the Persian character. Strangers on the street will stop, praise and embrace his child, but with bad drivers everywhere “loving children and running them down in the street is just one of those Persian contradictions”. Such incongruity can also be found in the architecture, and Tehran’s hotchpotch of garishly new and decaying old buildings “lends the city an unfinished quality, mirroring the revolution itself”. Sentences begin as stubs of sweeping statements (“Iranians are the world’s biggest hypochondriacs”, “We’ve become a nation of liars”, “Boy, do Iranians know how to sulk”) after which they are substantiated in amusing or serious case studies. In all of these riffs, Majd takes us beyond the headlines and past the chicanery or sabre-rattling of presidents and supreme leaders, and offers exclusive insight into the psyche of the people on the street.
Some of Majd’s detail borders on the pedestrian (“Seat belts are mandatory for front seat passengers in Iran”) and he occasionally repeats himself. There are also sporadic inconsistencies in tone. The queen is described loftily, and without irony, as “impuissant”; however, we drop a register when Majd considers whether a boy got his injury in the Iran-Iraq war: “Nah – he was too young to have fought.” And although stating at the outset that his book would take a different approach from the “‘gee whizz, isn’t this fascinating’ way that often prevails among memoirs of expatriates living abroad, in many respects, that is precisely what the book is. More importantly, this is no bad thing. The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay is redolent of Tim Parks’s Italy memoirs, especially when dealing with nationwide corruption and cultural paradoxes. If not A Year in Provence then A Year in Tehran, only wackier, wittier, more trenchant, and with insider know-how replacing the gauche foreigner’s faux pas.
This distinction makes the book somewhat unique. Majd is no expert on everything he experiences, but he’s no full-on farangi either. The happy medium between the two ensures that Majd reports with both wide-eyed surprise and innate familiarity. If Thomas Hardy hadn’t got there first, Majd could have ditched his rather unwieldy title and swapped it for The Return of the Native.
At one point, when mulling over possible progress, Majd informs us that Iran has been likened to “a kettle on the boil, and the ayatollahs know it: either they will have to bring it down to a simmer, or it will boil over into the streets”. Two years on from Majd’s sojourn, it remains to be seen in which direction Ahmadinejad’s successor will steer the country and what new liberties, if any, will be granted to his people. Majd’s book could lose its topicality and become history any time soon. Alternatively, regime change could prove that the police state is as hardline and as insular as it has always been since Kapuscinski’s account of the Shah. Whatever happens, Majd has produced a powerful and absorbing contemporary chronicle of a country that is still pretty much in the dark to most of the world. But, as he says, with perhaps one eye on the future, “Iranians are prepared to turn the lights back on at a moment’s notice”.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.