Hooman Majd's latest book is a very personal recounting of the year he recently spent living in Tehran. It was his first time to live in Iran since his own infancy - Majd grew up living outside of Iran, primarily in the US and UK, and so he was living in Iran for the first time as an adult, bringing his American wife and infant son along with him.
Iran today is perhaps the most strategically important country in the world where the U.S. does not maintain a diplomatic presence. We need to understand one another better than we presently do. Although the U.S. is not officially represented in Iran, the UK did maintain an embassy until 2011 - and in fact it was on Nov 29, 2011, during Majd's stay in Tehran, when the British Embassy was stormed and subsequently shut down. The UK immediately expelled Iran's embassy staff from London, and only recently have the two countries began to talk together about reopening their respective embassies.
This book attracted me because I want to understand Iran better, at a personal level. Reading Majd's words, I have the impression that he is a very good and decent person. His pride of Iran and of his Iranian heritage is evident throughout. He is very honest in sharing his personal thoughts throughout his stay in Tehran, his anxieties as he lived in Iran and helped his wife and son to adapt to the country.
Their adjustment to life Tehran takes time. The pollution of Tehran is severe (Economist magazine in 2011 said that Tehran is one of the most unlivable cities in the world), and his descriptions of the prevalence of small scooters darting through congested traffic, and the adaptations needed to live with a small child in Tehran (they learn that toting a car seat while taking their son with them in taxis is unworkable), are interesting. Modern Iran is a security state, but on the surface life is ordinary and unremarkable. And despite the pollution, Majd remarks several times to how clean the city is maintained.
The life of `real' Iranians is interesting to observe, although to be fair Majd's experiences are almost entirely with upper-class and affluent members of society, often describing parties held at luxurious homes, behind high walls built for security, and with alcohol openly served. This educated and successful class of modern Iranian citizens, with their satellite television, cell phones, Facebook and twitter accounts, is not so much different from ourselves and others in western Europe and elsewhere throughout the world these days. It makes one wonder - why do people continue to tolerate the rules applied to their society, when so many clearly not only disagree with them, but also openly disregard them?
And to that point, he observes that Iran has not shared the "Arab Spring" that has caused such upheaval and change elsewhere in the Middle East. He expresses profound disappointment that the '79 Islamic Revolution in Iran did not lead to a democratic era but instead resulted in the Islamic regime that Iran now endures; and perhaps the experience and disappointment in the outcome of the '79 revolution helps explain why Iran's citizens do not rise up today in another revolution. Majd does provide some good insights into this, and there are also a few places in the book where he shares stories that open the door slightly into the dark side of how the current regime behaves - Chapter 8, for example, recounts the experience of an acquaintance of Majd who had been imprisoned in the infamous Evin cells in Tehran where political prisoners are held. In fact, it was at this point in the book, almost halfway through, that I began to feel that Majd was finally providing something of substance regarding life in Iran today, since the book had so far been almost entirely his personal thoughts while getting settled in Tehran with his family and adjusting to life there.
There are other interesting cultural insights. The concept of the "sulk" for example - how Iranian individuals may resort to using the sulk in order to express their disappointments or frustrations, even including the highest political leaders. The 2011 sulk of President Ahmadinejad - Majd refers to it as the "Big Sulk" in chapter 4 of the book - took place during Majd's year living in Tehran. And Ahmadinejad had plenty of precedent, going all the way back to pre-Shah days when President Mohammad Mosaddegh was known to behave similarly.
There were a few disappointments in the book too, when Majd has chosen to skim over details of life in Tehran that would be fascinating to read about. For example - he mentions going to an opium party, and obviously participated himself, but beyond mentioning it he goes no further. Here is one instance where he experienced something that few of us in the west would ever have the opportunity to even observe, and yet he gives no insight into it. Better that he left it out completely, than tease us with the brief mention without going any further.
This is not a book for someone who desires a hard analysis of the Iranian regime or political structure today (for that perhaps one of his earlier works would be better suited - either The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran or The Ayatollahs' Democracy: An Iranian Challenge). It is a personal recollection, and in personalizing the story, Majd again and again discusses his own anxieties regarding the risks he was taking in deciding to live in Iran with his wife and infant son. In the end, he had no serious problems whatsoever while living there, and so perhaps that was the point - emphasizing his fears while making it clear that none were realized.