2009. Random House. ebook. 370 pages.
In a nutshell:
In this memoir, Azadeh Moaveni, journalist for Time magazine and author of the book Lipstick Jihad, describes life in Tehran from 2005 to 2007. The daughter of Iranian immigrants, Moaveni was raised in California, but had more or less been living in Beirut since 2003, taking a number of trips to Iran during that time. But for the events covered in this book – both personal and political – she calls Tehran home.
The book starts on the eve of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as President of Iran, a change of leadership which surprised nearly all observers. It is at this time that Moaveni meets the man who she will later marry, and she also has a child during the two years covered by this memoir.
Chronology is the primary driver of Moaveni’s narrative, both through her own life’s course of events, as well as the progression of events in Iran and the world. Within this loose framework, topics range from encounters with her government minder “Mr. X”, the common past-time of making homemade wine, the prevalence of c-section births in Iran, and the elusive answer to the question of who is actually in power in Iran. In a way, Honeymoon in Tehran has the spirit of a book of essays if not the format.
Honeymoon in Tehran succeeds in providing a nuanced portrayal of Iranian life – it is not just lives dominated by fear, though there is fear especially for prominent dissenters like lawyer Shirin Ebadi, who Moaveni meets with periodically. But there is also a culture Moaveni calls “as if” – “a mode that involved behaving ‘as if’ most of the regime’s rules did not exist.” According to Moaveni, Iran is divided “between a minority of religious militants . . . and the majority of moderate Iranians, who longed for stability and prosperity.” One of my favorite stories from the book is the following:
When I first moved to Tehran in 2000, this love of irony struck me as one of the most charming aspects of Iranian life, though I knew its purpose was to ease the pain of being ruled by heartless, inept, and hypocritical mullahs. During one of my first afternoons driving in the city, I struggled to execute a three-point turn across lanes of chaotic traffic. Halfway through the turn, my veil slipped off, and I froze, uncertain whether to clear the road or adjust my covering. As a man passing by surveyed the traffic jam I had caused, he noticed me fumbling with my scarf, grinned, and yelled, “Islam is in danger!”
I appreciated how Moaveni paid due attention to economic matters. Corruption in the government stifles innovation and economic sanctions further hamstring Iranian professionals. In Tehran, young people struggle to support themselves and usually cannot afford to live on their own. This state of economics affairs is a critical piece to understanding Iran.
As for the possibility of widespread political rebellion, Moaveni writes:
That [Iranian youth] were willing to shout down a police officer or flirt during a public Islamic ritual meant mostly that they were concerned with freedom in their immediate ten-foot radius . . . many young people envisioned their futures abroad, and were unwilling to compromise those hopes for the sake of somehow changing Iran, a notion they considered chimerical, costly, and best left to a future generation.
Of course Moaveni wrote this, at the latest, in 2008, and this portrait should not be considered as necessarily accurate today, but still I found it an insightful assessment of the mood of a nation.
As for the titular “honeymoon in Tehran”, I found Moaveni and her husband’s inclusion of traditional Persian and Zoroastrian elements in their wedding to be intriguing (and so do their guests, who are surprised and pleased when the ceremonial text is read in Farsi and not in Arabic, which few understand.) In fact, throughout the book, Moaveni makes reference to Iran’s pre-Islamic Persian culture and how vestiges of it still remain, despite the government’s efforts to suppress it by writing it out of history books and forbidding certain Persian and Zoroastrian baby names. It makes me want to learn more about traditional Persian culture.
In the end, increasing restrictions and unsettling incidents – paired with Moaveni’s concern for her son’s upbringing – lead Moaveni and her husband to relocate to London. That move itself is a tricky cultural adjustment which she describes briefly in the epilogue.
I read most of Honeymoon in Tehran on a snow day, home from work. I’ve seen other reviews that found the book too slow-moving and meandering for their tastes, and I can see how that could be. I may have benefited from having an unexpected pocket of time to read much of this book nearly in one sitting. In any case, I really enjoyed this memoir and the complex picture it provides of Iranian life.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
The 3 R’s Blog – “I learned a bit about Iranian life without feeling like I was being “educated,” and I was able to relate to much of her story, even though the details of our lives are very different.”
Devourer of Books – “Iran is depicted in a way that is very relatable and easy to grasp for any Americans – and certainly other Westerners as well – who are willing to discover the people of Iran, not just its administration.”
Sophisticated Dorkiness – “Moaveni’s second memoir is slow to start, but once it picks up provides an optimistic and honest look at what it’s like to live inside one of the world’s most unknown countries.”