Review: Honeymoon in Tehran by Azadeh Moaveni
Honeymoon in Tehran is an interesting title because not only does it describe the sequence of events in the story around Moaveni marrying an Iranian man, starting a family in the midst of reporting on local affairs and geopolitics of the middle-east, but it also does a great job of describing the memoir for what it is — a prolonged honeymoon phase of the author as she reconciles with the realities of life under the Islamic republic and its constant conflict with the very philosophies that it claims to uphold.
I picked this book up by complete happenstance at a store on the verge of shutting down in Cambridge. Having spent all of spring and summer learning Farsi, reading a memoir set in Iran seemed like a great idea.
Azadeh Moaveni is a reporter for Time, covering the middle-east. At the beginning of the book, she is based in Lebanon, and makes frequent trips to Iran in order to cover local politics and sentiments leading up to the 2005 election. In the early chapters, she candidly compares her experience in Iran to that of her Iranian-American friends and family, whose mental-model of the country has stayed frozen in the era that they left, and severely shaped by western media since. The events surrounding her reporting work make up most of the book, presented in a Seinfeld-esque format that includes the background context and processes surrounding her reporting from that period. This includes her collaboration with human rights activist and lawyer Shirin Ebadi on Iran Awakening, her foray into Basij-controlled lower class neighborhoods in covering pre-election expectations, and her interactions with Mr. X, an anonymous government-appointed minder that dictates the boundary conditions of her reporting in the country.
In doing so, the book frequently takes deep dives into the subjects of her work. For example, it tackles head on the costs of Iran’s attempt at seeking influence in the Levant via its military, financial and political support for Hezbollah. Moaveni contrasts her experience of Palestinian refugees in Beirut cheering at the sight of an Iranian, with the chagrin of a frustrated Iranian middle-class that is torn between commiserating with millitant group’s anti-Israel stance and the neglect of Islamic Republic towards the dire state of internal affairs. In other places, the book takes a closer look at Iran’s obsession with elective surgeries, specifically with nose jobs and caesarian section.
Moaveni uses her journalistic roots in combination with her personal connection to Iran at the service of illustrating the ways in which politics pervades people’s lives. A recurring theme is the government’s concerted effort in altering the history of Iran as perceived by its people — via banning Zoroastrian names, renaming streets and neighborhoods, and even recognizing certain holidays over others. This creates a fantastical aura around the country’s culture prior to establishment of the Islamic Republic. Moaveni describes this amnesia with hilarity, as is illustrated in a passage where a toddler earnestly asks his mom if she had a penis before the revolution.
While Khatami-era Iran saw the proliferation of moderate political thought in the form of social liberalization, open trade and better relations with the West, the country’s politically active youth had also been lured by marriage loans, fancy home appliances and conspicuous consumption as the administration steeped further in corruption against the backdrop of an inflating rial. By the mid-2000s, grassroots activism stemming out of university campuses had long lost steam either due to preoccupation or sheer disillusionment. The seemingly overnight rise of a hard-line conservative like Ahmadinejad to power on the message of “change”, after years of corrupt and ineffective centrist leadership struck as very similar to my own experience of having grown up during India’s period of being governed by the UPA, a centrist coalition with an illustrious track record of corruption, which fuelled many of the frustrations that contributed to the popularity of BJP and Narendra Modi in 2014.
By diving into the minutiae of everyday challenges in Iran, such as the aggressively censored internet, ephemeral restaurant menus adapting to authoritarian harassment, and the Kafkaesque bureaucracy around securing marriage licenses, Honeymoon in Tehran does an excellent job of showing the dense black box that Iranian leadership is. Brute-force authoritarianism that isn’t hesitant to engage in human rights violations is not new or even something the revolution brought to Iran; it was just as rampant if not more during the Pahlavi regime. The book does not shy away from this. On a contrary, it highlights how the various mechanisms of coping with tyrannical leadership are deeply embedded in the country’s culture, creating a variety of dichotomies that everyone is forced to delicately walk the tightrope between.
Airports play an interesting role in setting the tone for various parts of the memoir — starting with Moaveni arriving in Tehran, where she compares her experience walking through customs and into the country with prior visits, and ending with an incident at the airport that cements her decision to leave; the climax to a few chapters’ worth of vacillation.
Tehran is painted vividly — like the mish-mash of illegal satellite dishes peppering the skyline, the frequent smog obscuring Alborz mountains, intricate wedding rituals and the role of salesmen on Berlin St in easing the tensions arising from them. From the Arabic working-class south to the affluent and secular neighborhoods of Niavaran and Dar Abad, the city is shown as the sum moving parts that it is. It also dives into the local scenes, frequently covering bohemian galleries, jazz punk acts like 127 and contrasts them with classical tar music, whose mere performance is politically contentious. The slow escalation of Ahmadinejad-era restrictions creep up here too, in the form of female members in bands and orchestras being asked to play from backstage, or not perform altogether.
Overall, I really enjoyed Honeymoon In Tehran not only for its overarching narrative, its perspective on Iran’s history and role in international politics, but also for the little details about contemporary Persian culture that I now feel savvy to, having also studied the language for a few months. It bears mentioning that the book is 10 years old. If history is any indication, I bet Iran is significantly different from what I’ve read (it has since seen a leadership change and, more importantly, the Green movement). I intend to continue learning Farsi, and hope that this newfound context gives me the ability to appreciate whatever is to come.