“Let’s get one thing straight: in order to live in Tehran you have to lie.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran stumbled into 2018 making headlines around the world. Thousands of citizens have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest the country’s staggering economy, corruption and rising prices. It is the first widespread opposition movement the Islamic Republic has seen since 2009, but this time, something’s different.
In 2009, the government brutally repressed demonstrators who took to the streets to dispute the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The demonstrators were mostly young people, many from the educated middle class. This time, elements of society that have traditionally been loyal to the government are angry and want change. While they face rising prices and worsening standards of living, the regime is visibly spending ever-increasing amounts on the military, bureaucracy and pursuing its foreign policy objectives in places like Syria.
For those trying to get a clearer picture of what’s going on, British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai’s book, City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran, is a must-read. This extraordinary book gives a unique and fascinating insight into life in Tehran and the issues at the heart of the current unrest.
The book follows the lives of eight Tehranis – whose names have been changed to protect their identities but whose stories are real – as they try to navigate their way through life in a city plagued by economic inequality, social conservatism and the pressure to abide by the rules of a corrupt, repressive regime. Their stories were collected by Navai during her time spent living in Tehran, when she worked as a journalist and teacher.
The book is structured around the city of Tehran itself. It follows the route of the main street, Vali Asr, that curves from the top to the bottom of the city, connecting the more affluent neighbourhoods of northern Tehran with poorer neighbourhoods in the south, where homelessness, poverty, drug abuse and organised crime reign.
Tehran was once a centre for trade and the heart of the powerful Persian Empire. It has played host to staggering wealth and witnessed violent uprisings that have toppled regimes, sending reverberations around the world and changing the course of history. Today, it is one of the most secretive cities on Earth. Extreme social conservatism, intense repression of opposition and censorship of the media mean it’s very rare to read an account of life in Iran as candid and open as this.
City of Lies tells the captivating stories of a cross section of Iranian society. Its characters range from the trapped young housewife to the pious but sexually confused paramilitary soldier; from the reformed gangster to a famous Mullah’s prostitute of choice. It exposes the secrets of a troubled city and the lies its inhabitants tell others – and themselves – in order to survive. This extraordinary book offers a unique insight into a country shrouded in mystery and a people so often overshadowed by hostile politics.
“Morals don’t come into it: lying in Tehran is about survival.”
Navai captures the character of the city, beautifully describing its sights, sounds and smells. She sheds light on what has changed in Tehran and what has remained the same since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 toppled the Shah and transformed the lives of its millions of citizens. For the poor and the pious, the birth of the Islamic Republic was a welcome development. But for the city’s wealthier, more educated residents who had prospered during the days of the Shah, the revolution meant the end of life as they knew it.
Through her storytelling, Navai skilfully shows how the political situation in Iran impacts the daily lives of each and every Tehrani. She explores controversial themes throughout the book including women’s rights, sexuality, inequality and severe pollution, illustrating how both the state and its citizens hide and manipulate the truth in order to get by.
She shares the ironic ways that Tehranis get around the conservatism imposed on them by the law and society, such as girls practising anal sex to preserve their virginity and men having sex changes because it’s more socially acceptable to be transgender than it is to be gay.
“Sex is an act of rebellion in Tehran. A form of protest. Only in sex do many of the younger generation feel truly free.”
Navai highlights the inequality that exists in the city, from the now famous “rich kids of Tehran”, who treat the northern boulevards like a playground, to the slum-like neighbourhood of Shoosh in the south, where children beg for money to fund their parents’ heroin addictions.
She exposes the ways that the state’s strict interpretation of religion shapes culture and behaviour; the sons of “new money” happily sleep around and watch porn, yet when it comes to marriage they want a pious, conservative wife who will preserve their reputation and social standing; men practice the sigeh prayer with prostitutes, which grants them a temporary marriage and therefore makes intercourse and adultery acceptable in the eyes of God.
A lot happens in Tehran behind closed doors, yet it is the façade put on for the public that is most interesting. Appearances are everything. Plastic surgery is an obsession, yet, somewhat paradoxically, whether a woman wears the chador or not determines her reputation.
And when it comes to hiding the truth in Tehran, the people learn from the best. Navai explains throughout the book how the regime manipulates the truth on a daily basis, blaming the country’s problems on the West and using thinly veiled appeals to religious legitimacy to threaten people into silence and submission.
“Better the lie that keeps the peace than the truth that disrupts” – the quote that opens the book, by Sa’adi Shirazi
While some of the regime’s efforts to maintain control might seem outrageously brazen – such as the billboards that read “Let’s not spend too much time discussing society’s problems in our homes” – the regime has proven resilient over the last 40 years. Yet, as City of Lies and the recent protests show, resistance to the regime is growing.
This resistance might take the form of a physical protest, an online activist blogging to voice dissent or a girl wearing her hijab so far back it shows half of her hair. These smaller acts of resistance would not be given much attention in many countries, but in Iran, this is a way of pushing back against the regime’s attempts to control its citizens’ bodies and their self-expression.
City of Lies is a fascinating and important read for anyone attempting to understand the complex politics and culture of one of the Middle East’s most misunderstood countries. While it highlights the resilience of the Islamic Republic, it also sheds light on the precarious scaffolding of lies upon which it is built and explains the context for the current protest movement…
Which begs the question, will this be the unravelling of Iran’s web of lies?
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