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4.6 out of 5 stars54
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The author is a British-Iranian journalist who worked for The Times in Tehran from 2003 to 2006. While she was there, she was told the stories of the eight Teheranis which make up this book. She tells us in the introduction that she has changed names, some details, time frames and locations, but that the events recounted did actually happen. Although she says that "the defining trait of Tehranis is their kindness" and that Tehran is "the city I love", little of that appears in this book which focusses unremittingly on its seamiest side. Corruption or decadence or deceit or hypocrisy or fear or violence mark all these stories. The mullahs may crack down on alcohol, on unmarried sex, on immodest female clothes and on gambling; but all these flourish more or less underground. The city of Tehran is itself a character in the book, the nature of its different quarters well described; in general the picture is one of squalor, pollution, and, in certain districts, vulgar opulence. (In the Kindle edition, the map of Tehran is too small and too awkward to read.)

The eight chapters are about

1. Dariush. He is member of an Islamic opposition group in exile - the MEK - sent to Teheran in 2001 to assassinate an ex-police chief.

2. Somayeh. She is the pious seventeen-year-old daughter of a religious family who support the rule of the mullahs, are devoted to the Supreme leader Ali Khamenei, but some members of their circle are not necessarily supporters of President Ahmedinajad, and are not afraid to criticize him, or later his successor Rouhani. Her father is respected in the neighbourhood for the number of times he has been away on a hajj (pilgrimage). Somayeh will be married (not an arranged marriage), and we learnt a lot about that comes about in a family like hers. And then we find out how lies have permeated so much in Somayeh's family.

3. Amir. His parents were left-wing dissidents who held meetings in their home. In 1988, when he was six years old, they were arrested and condemned to death during a wave of political executions. When he is an adult, he is approached by the judge who had sentenced his parents to death. By that time Amir, too, is a dissident, and is in some danger as the 2013 elections approach, though in the end the election of Rouhani as President offers some hope that there can be some change without the upheavals of an Arab Spring elsewhere in the Islamic world.

4. Bijan. He is one of the gangsters who flourish in one area of Tehran - everything happens there, from drug selling to arms running to gang murders. The police chief is in the pay of Bijan, and he gives Bijan warning of impending raids.

5. Leyla. Poverty drives Leyla to prostitution (which the mullahs cannot stop and in some cases facilitate by issuing a "sigheh", a temporary marriage document). The police can't stop it either and often let the girls off in exchange for sex, though the feared basijis, the religious morality police, were a more serious danger, and the punishment was flogging. Leyla graduates from street-work to having private clients (including a judge and an important cleric), and then, through one of her clients, to become a porn star, and her DVDs, in which her face was never seen, make her a lot of money. Perhaps she can leave Iran for a steadier life elsewhere?

6. Morteza. Morteza's elder brothers had been killed in the Iran-Iraq war and were regarded as heroes and martyrs. Morteza was a weakly child, but, in an effort to live up to the reputation of his brothers, he had as a boy joined the Basij, and we are given a description of the origin and nature of these warriors for Allah. Being a Basiji gives him standing in his school and in his community. He absorbs their teaching on moral decay, and is troubled by his own homosexual feelings. Later, when he is part of a Basij morality patrol whose other members hint that he is gay, he shows himself exceptionally keen to attack a young man whose hair is too long. But he can resist his urges no longer, and realizes he can no longer remain in the Basij. What does the future hold for him?

7. Asghar. Before the Revolution, Asghar had been the respected chief of a Robin-Hood type gang of jahels. He married a girl who had been driven into prostitution, but who, on marriage, became very devout. It seems that the Revolution was more successful in crushing the jahels than it was in dealing other gangs such as those to whom Bijan in chapter fur belonged. Asghar and his wife had to move to the poorest and most squalid quarter of Tehran. He set up a gambling den; his pious wife would gate-crash it and remonstrate with him in front of his customers. How would he react?

8. Farideh. She is the only one of the eight characters who lives in the prosperous north of the city. She is the widow of a wealthy man, most of whose property has been confiscated by the Revolution; but she is still reasonably well off. The things she is interested in - belly dancing at a health club, life classes in an art studio - are closed down by the Basijis. She feels alienated from the glitzy people in her circle (very well described). Her son is part of the gilded youth of the area, among whom, apparently, homosexuality and lesbianism, high risk both, are widespread.

It is all very well written; but after this book, I do not suppose the author will be allowed back to work as a journalist in Iran.
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on 1 September 2014
These tales of real lives in Tehran - some names invented to protect identities - come together to form a vivid and gritty street level picture of Iran's capital: drug barons, prostitutes, porn stars, junkies, anti-government bloggers, corrupt judges and policemen, alcoholics, and spoilt children of the upper-class (cruising in flash cars to parties with cocaine and crystal meth). Housewives are bullied and neglected. Morality police units frighten women flashing an inch too much flesh. Dancing-for-fitness classes - held in private behind closed doors - are shut down. Homosexuals are harassed. Employers demand "special favours" of single women members of staff. Bribes are par for the course just about everywhere.

The feeling of repression, the desire of many to escape and the rank hypocrisy of most interactions oozes from the pages. Ramita Navai, a journalist who has covered the city for more than a decade and is British-Iranian (she lived briefly in Tehran as a child in 1978), has captured the twitchy everyday paranoia of the Iranian regime, offering a glimpse of another country that we usually only learn of from news reports handling big issues such as the question of the state's nuclear programme or relations with neighbouring countries. The recent history is also comprehensively covered, without getting bogged down in details - the revolution against the Shah a constant backdrop to what has arisen in place of those more liberal times.

City of Lies has an unusual format that works, an almost novelised account of the city from the perspective of eight individuals. Each chapter stands alone as a colourful short story. The writing is crystal clear and the dialogue draws you along. Much of what is described is shocking - prison deaths, suicides, hangings. Navai has not backed away from difficult subjects. Yet her love for Tehran - despite it all - shines through, from the poorer suburbs of the south of the city, to the rich enclaves in the north, with the river-like Vali Asr road connecting them both. That love is clearly shared by many, with exiles returning to savour its chaotic clamour: 'the mulberry trees and the jasmine, the layers of dust, the splutter of vans, the man selling puppies at the side of the road, the swarms of motorbikes criss-crossing between beautiful girls in defiant clothes, the juice stands, the gold shops, the ancient bazaars and tunnelled walkways, the chipped blue tiles on magnificent, crumbling manor houses and the hidden gardens."

Highly recommended.
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on 21 September 2014
I went to the author's talk in the Frontline Club in London about the book, where she was interviewed by the excellent Jeremy Bowen. This inspired me to buy it and I've read it a few times and bought it least 5 copies for various family and friends. The stories of 8 different lives in Tehran are compelling and fascinating. I knew very little about modern Iran despite a romantic fascination with the area and the usual media slant on newsworthy stories.
I loved the format of the book that was almost like reading little short stories but with the twist that they are real people's lives and real people's tragedies that are laid before us. Their tales are told admirably by Navai, never sentimentally, always with empathy and humour and an evocative sense of place and culture. The author does not badger us or force us to fall in line with a particular opinion but tells the individuals tales with a light tough making some of the inevitable tragedy more devastating by her careful and sparing prose. The book is not a political tool but an excellent and well drawn insight into Tehran, its culture, society and the life of its people in a tumultuous time.
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on 13 June 2014
Tehran, Iran: a city I had minimal knowledge of, and certainly no insider info. City of Lies consists of eight intimate written portraits of eight Tehranian souls. Navai reveals their lives, their times, and (more often than not) their crimes, at least in the eyes of Iranian authorities.

It’s hard for me not to compare it to Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a book which I recently read and really enjoyed. Both tell stories of real lives in cities few westerners stop to consider beyond the news, but told in the form of fiction. It’s clear that corruption, sexual taboos, hypocrisy and the desire to better oneself dominate in all parts of the world. The devil is in the detail though – how birth and circumstance make us who we are.

There are key differences though. Boo puts her “characters” (i.e. interviewees) all on the stage together and shows us continuous scenes of their lives in the squalor of an Indian slum. Navai instead brings each “character” onto the stage individually, with no connections between them other than the city itself. This has the benefit of allowing us to see a much broader range of what Tehran can produce, from the high-flying to the bottom-feeders to people who have been both.

My only complaint here is that, at an average of about thirty pages per person (which includes backstory), it does sometimes feel a little like speed-dating. I just begin to feel like I’m getting to know someone before their story is wrapped up and we move on to the next, never to see them again. Thankfully the aforementioned “next” was generally just as compelling as the last so I don’t feel like it ruined my enjoyment.

I really appreciated what I suppose must be called the “supplemental information” at the front and back of the book. The map, the historical timeline and the glossary all helped build up a richer picture of Tehran. At the end of the book, Navai also provides a source summary for each of the eight stories clearly explaining what strands of information (interviewees, news pieces etc) she used to construct each character, which I liked.

I would give this book 4.5 stars but I shall round it up to 5 stars because the overall reading experience was compelling, interesting and informative. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to experience real lives in a part of the world they may not have considered before.

Disclaimer: I received this book free from a Goodreads Giveaway.
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on 3 June 2014
The storytelling is professionally slick and captivating. Navai delivers surprising insights into an unknown Tehran, each time well told, never with happy ending. She smoothly includes statististics, bizarre press releases and sociology. Navai reports from a very unique country about the most unique figures an ambitious journalist in the very competitive anglophone press market can find. You'll even learn a little Farsi (Persian) and current events such as the failed Green Revolution of 2009 and Rohani's election of 2013 appear occasionally.

But Navai's fictionalized reports do feel a bit "writered" or manufactured: She hunts for dramatic story introductions, writes in present tense, keeps a cool voice, in some stories jumps between different eras. And story after story, Navai fishes for attention with: Prostitution, execution, homosexuality, transexuality, anal sex, anal rape, heroin, porn production, porn language (occasionally), big money, horny mullahs, beating militants, crying soldiers. And all that in Tehran, Iran, a country that many see (unjustifiedly) as inaccessable.

In spite of her trained reporter's muscle, Navai doesn't have full control of her material; her love for Iran and some subjects is stronger than her writer's discipline. The stories splinter:
- each fictional report gets an extra page at the book's end with more backgrounds
- even more explanations follow in an additional afterword, a time table starting from 1921 and a glossary
- one story gets yet another, dedicated epilogue on the book's last pages
- often Navai packs too many facts and figures into one story, the focus shifts and blurs - perhaps a problem of fictional reports
- overconscientously, Navai mentions Vali Asr Avenue here and there and again in one of the afterwords; Tehran's longest and most famous street was perhaps meant as a connector for all stories, but this function isn't fully realised.
- the book's title and subtitle are a tiring convolution of clichés
A little more editing and smoothing could have made for a better-rounded reading experience.

If you do like Youtube, MTV, comedy and Secret Diary of a Call Girl, you will happily consume Navai's market-conforming reporting. I personally would have preferred more about "normal" people and in a less professional voice - yet Navai often prefers bandits, prostitutes and gross fanatics. There is no story centering on a high mullah. For excellent reading about less excentric figures in Tehran, you could turn to Azadeh Moaveni (who praises City of Lies in the FT) and to V.S. Naipaul's islam books.
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on 8 March 2016
This is one of those books that illustrate the type of vile and appalling behaviour people still think they can get away with if they say that they are doing it in the name of god. These stories range from the truly shocking to the deeply heart breaking and really paint a vivid and varied portrait of Tehran and some of its people from a number of confronting and compelling perspectives.

It appears to be a place ruled by ignorant cowards, bullies and hypocrites who rule by medieval inhumanity dressed as religion. The story of “Somayeh” seemed a bit fuzzy and took an awful long time to get to the point. I understand that the author has chosen to embellish and alter some of the names and facts in order to protect people and sources etc but there’s enough “story merging” and changing of details to blur the lines. I thought the story of “Leyla” was particularly misleading…spoiler alert etc…when the story finishes by saying she was hanged and then we go to the Sources section at the back when the author tells us that “the real” Leyla actually survived but another woman guilty of the same crime was killed but in a different way to how it was described in the story. It turns out that many of the protagonists are actually composite characters from several other sources which did take the edge of the authenticity for me, but still the real gritty horror does come through loud and clear and this is a really interesting piece of writing.
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on 10 August 2014
This is a remarkable piece of writing. Each personal story is as gripping as a work of pure fiction, yet all are as close to fact as RN can safely make them. There is a wealth of detail about everyday life in Tehran, as well as helpful explanatory reminders of the recent historical context, woven into the narratives.
Some might be irritated by the liberal use of Farsi words (always accompanied by their meaning in English), but since they are italicised you can simply ignore them if you wish; for me they were a plus, as were the pages at the end on 'Sources', which added yet another layer of authenticity.
I am hugely impressed by RN's skill in not only unearthing these stories but presenting them in such a readable and informative way. It is a real page-turner, but at the same time I feel I learnt so much about Tehran on so many levels (I have not been to Iran myself). I would recommend it highly, while warning any sensitive potential readers about the frank descriptions of sexuality as well as the reality of corruption, intimidation and repression.
RN's tone is not judgmental; she lets the facts speak for themselves. In the face of such overwhelming evidence, one can draw one's own conclusions - not least that when moral strictures are imposed from above, they are likely, just as they were in Prohibition-era America, to be counter-productive.
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on 12 June 2014
I finished City of Lies in 2 days! It is a Masterful work of creative nonfiction! Navai has combined story telling in the grand Persian style of her ancestors with journalistic reality to create a captivating and beautifully written tale. Think Arabian Nights meet Weeds.

The back pages, where Navai explains how she protected the people she has written about, are hard to comprehend. The amount of work that has gone into this book in order to tell the truth is extraordinary and heroic. You will love and care about the Iranians you meet as you journey up the Vali Asr, Tehran's own Champs Elysee.

My only regret is that I can't visit Iran and enjoy it's magic for myself. I can visit Turkey and Indonesia and other Muslim countries that I love, but not Iran--not today anyway. Some day though - I hope that we can all visit this historic country and walk down the Vali Asr stop in a sidewalk cafe and meet Ramita Navai, should she ever be allowed back to Iran.

This is a love story, a love letter to Iran and the Iranian people--it's message is not one that you expect. And everyone should read this book so we can understand the truth about Iran--not the rhetoric. Congratulations to the author on creating a stirring and marvelous work of art and literature.
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on 26 October 2014
You can sink your teeth into the fabric of Tehran and discover a true understanding of how people are why they are ...but the parts that resonated the most for me were Navai's scoring of the duality of being human - exploring conviction, and what face people will show given the situation in order to survive.

These are visceral stories, not for the faint hearted. They come from the sharper edge of society, and play out the pain and anguish when you are born into circumstance that compels you to walk a tightrope, for fear of your life. A life you are disillusioned with.

It is a rich story of duplicity, illusion and amidst layers of compelling suffering, heart and humour - six lanes of roaring traffic and a family sit down to a picnic. Nothing could get in the way of an Iranian and a picnic, she writes. This is a love story, lovers in a city, or loving the city, or loving the dream of something other. Navai's prose comes at you fast. Popular culture is weaved into a complex narrative of cause and effect. This is an informative read, where Tehrani's continue on in hope that all that is better will come.
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on 29 June 2014
Having worked in Iran under the Shah I found it interesting as I could relate to some of the areas reported in the book. It has certainly changed since my last visit.

Very interesting insight to the deterioration of standards under the new administration.
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