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A vivid account of the grim side of life in Tehran
on 5 October 2014
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.