Saturday, December 17, 2005

Lipstick Jihad (Azadeh Moaveni)

I'm not a big fan of the news (unless it's fake news from The Daily Show or The Onion). Mostly it makes me sad or depressed or laugh in a sort of hysterical way that helps me get through the current administration (a dear-God-what-have-they-done-now sort of thing). Also I find the media generally presents events in the abstract ("Iran offers U.S. a deal"), which makes me visualize Iran as an entity instead of the thinking about the individual people who live inside the country. Whenever things get more personal and human in a news story, I have a better understanding of the situation and that's when I want to pay attention.

In Lipstick Jihad, Azadeh Moaveni, who is Iranian-American, tells her own story of returning to Tehran in 2000 as an American journalist (she was the first American journalist based there, a feat she was able to achieve because she was also Iranian). While she still has a lot of family in Tehran, she grew up in Palo Alto, California, as an Iranian exile. At first she believes cultural assimilation will take little time, but once she realizes how the complexity and craziness of everyday life in Iran conflict with her own sense of American personal freedom, she knows this will not be the case.

To Americans, there seems like there's a whole lot wrong with everyday life in Iran. There's the Basij, the morality police, made up of 15-year-olds from the poorest areas of Iran with built-up anger and aggression, and oh, by the way, they're also armed. If your veil is a few inches too far back on your head, if they can smell alcohol on your breath, if you're standing too close to a member of the opposite sex in public, then the Basij will stop you and interrogate you, hold you for hours if they want, and even possibly beat you. There's also the dog kidnappers (the clerics running the government especially hated miniature poodles, they considered them "bourgeouis lapdogs") who will snatch your dog and try to resell it at a black market pet sale for ransom. And there's a show on TV where an ayatollah answers various "dilemmas of faith and extenuating circumstances" such as if "Islamic law would forgive unmarried men and women for huddling together for warmth, if they were in sub-zero temperatures and threatened with frostbite or worse."

And most Iranians would agree that there is a whole lot wrong with present-day Iran. But, as Moaveni points out, amidst the craziness, there is a lot change and progress. No longer do women have to wear the black, formless cloak and veil. There are more form-fitting ones in all colors. Iranian youth develop their personal lives via mobile phones and the Internet, using public holidays and celebrations to discretely pass their phone numbers to members of the opposite sex. Still, in this generation raised on segregated gender, they don't know how to act around the opposite sex, and the religious goverment that banned all things remotely sexual has accidentally created a society that constantly talks about sex.

I think this book is an especially relatable take on the current Iranian situation because Moaveni is Iranian-American and a journalist. There is a very interesting moment when she is in New York as part of the Iranian president's press corp and has to decide whether to wear the veil. And after reading the book, Iran isn't any less of a mess of contradictions to me (in fact, it's even more so now), but I have a better sense of the people in the country who have to live through these contradictions every day.

Other good books: These are both books I haven't read, but I still think they're worth mentioning given the sources and praise for both of them. My friend Ashley read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and couldn't say enough good things about it. And a coworker of mine is currently reading Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, which, like The Kite Runner, received tons of good press when it came out.

Next book up: The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

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