Reading Lolita in Tehran: A memoir in Books
We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent-namely ideology. This was a country where all gestures, even the most private, were interpreted in political terms. The colors of my headscarf or my father's tie were symbols of Western decadence and imperialist tendencies. Not wearing a beard, shaking hands with members of the opposite sex clapping or whistling in public meetings, were likewise considered Western and therefore decadent, part of the plot to bring down our culture.
….The streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities are patrolled by militia, who ride in white Toyota patrols, four gun-carrying men and women, sometimes followed by a minibus. They are called the Blood of God. They patrol the streets to make sure that women line Sanaz wear their veils properly, do not wear makeup, do not walk in public with men who are not their fathers, brothers or husbands.
If she gets on a bus, the seating is segregated. She must enter through the rear door and sit in the back seats, allocated to women. Yet in taxi, which accept as many as five passengers, men and women are squeezed together like sardines, as the saying goes, and the same goes with minibuses, where so many of my students complain of being harassed by bearded and God-fearing men.
"Nima tells me we don't understand the difficulty men face here," said Manna with a hint of sarcasm. "They too don't know how to act. Sometimes they are like macho bullies because they feel vulnerable."
"Well, that's to an extent true," I said. "After all, it takes two to create a relationship, and when you make half the population invisible, the other half suffers as well."
"Can you imagine the kind of man who'd get sexually provoked just by looking at a strand of my hair?" said Nassrin. "Someone who goes crazy at the sight of a woman's toe…wow!" she continued, "My toe as a lethal weapon!"
…Most revolutionary groups were in agreement with the government on the subject of individual freedoms, which they condescendingly called "bourgeois" and "decadent." This made it easier for the new ruling elite to pass some of the most reactionary laws, going so far as to outlaw certain gestures and expressions of emotions, including love. Before it established a new constitution or parliament, the new regime had annulled the marriage-protection law. It banned ballet and dancing and told ballerinas they had a choice between acting or singing. Later women were banned from singing, because a woman's voice, like her hair, was sexually provocative and should be kept hidden.
From the beginning of the revolution there had been many aborted attempts to impose the veil on women; these attempts failed because of persistent and militant resistance put up mainly by Iranian women. In many important ways the veil had gained a symbolic significance for the regime. Its reimposition would signify the complete victory of the Islamic aspect of the revolution, which in those first years was not a foregone conclusion. The unveiling of women mandated by Reza Shah in 1936 had been a controversial symbol of modernization, a powerful sign of the reduction of the clergy's power. It was important for the ruling clerics to reassert that power. All this I can explain now, with the advantage of hindsight, but it was far from clear then.
…They claimed that there were bigger fish to fry, that the imperialists and their lackeys needed to be dealt with first. Focusing on women's rights was individualistic and bourgeois and played into their hands. What imperialists, which lackeys? Do you mean those battered and bruised faces shown on nightly television confessing to their crimes? Do you mean the prostitutes they recently stoned to death or my former school principal, Mrs. Parsa, who, like the prostitutes, was accused of "corruption on earth," "sexual offenses" and "violation of decency and morality," for having been the minister of education? For which alleged offenses was she put in a sack and either stoned or shot to death? Are those the lackeys you are talking about, and is it in order to wipe these people out that we have to defer and not protest?
Thus every event, every social gesture, also embodied a symbolic allegiance. The new regime had reached far beyond the romantic symbolism more or less prevalent in every political system to inhabit a realm of pure myth, with devastating consequences. The Islamic Republic was not merely modeled on the order established by the Prophet Muhammad during his reign over Arabia; it was the Prophet's rule itself. Iran's war with Iraq was the same as the war carried on by the third and most militant imam, Imam Hussein, against the infidels, and the Iranians were going to conquer Karballa, the holy city in Iraq where Imam Hussein's shrine was located.
The government didn't take long to pass regulations restricting women's clothing in public and forcing us to wear either a chador or a long robe and scarf. Experience had proven that the only way these regulations would be heeded was if they were implemented by force. Because of women's overwhelming objection to the laws, the government enforced the new rule first in the workplace and later in shops, which were forbidden from transacting with unveiled women. Disobedience was punished by fines, up to seventy-six lashes and jail terms. Later, the government created the notorious morality squads: four armed men and women in white Toyota patrols, monitoring the streets, ensuring the enforcement of the laws.
I told her I did not want to wear the veil in the classroom. Did I not wear the veil, she asked, whenever I went out? Did I not wear it in the grocery store and walking down the street? It seemed I constantly had to remind people that the university was not a grocery store. What is more important, she countered, the veil or the thousands of young people eager to learn? What about the freedom to teach what I wanted? What about it? She asked conspiratorially. Haven't they banned any discussion of relations between men and women, drinking, politics, religion-what is there left to talk about? For you, she said, they would make an exception.
...urgent meeting was set up, for late afternoon in a favorite coffee shop. It was a tiny place, a bar in its pre-revolution days, now reincarnated as a café. It belonged to an Armenian, and forever shall I see on the glass door next to the name of the restaurant, which was in small letters, the compulsory sign in large black letters: RELIGIOUS MINORITY. All restaurants run by non-Muslims had to carry this sign on their doors so that good Muslims, who considered all non-Muslims dirty and did not eat from the same dishes, would be forewarned.
Cross-ref with Sayyed - how they are good and accepting of religious minorities.
…I had by now become something of an expert in the manners of pious men. They showed their opinion of you by the manner in which they avoided looking at you. Some made an aggressive point of averting their gaze. Once, a high functionary for whose organization I had prepared an evaluation report at the request of a male colleague, pointedly looked the other way throughout the thirty minutes of my report, and later addressed his points and questions to my male colleague….
……our intellectual elite has not acted better than the clerics. Haven't you heard about the conversation between Mr. Davaii, our foremost novelist, and the translator of Daisy Miller? One day they were introduced. The novelist says, Your name is familiar-aren't you the translator of Henry Miller? No, Daisy Miller. Right, didn't James Joyce write that? No. Henry James. Oh yes, of course, Henry James. By the way what's Henry James doing nowadays? He's dead-been dead since 1916.
…As the war raged on, with no victories, into the eighth year, signs of exhaustion were apparent even among the most zealous. By now, in the streets and in public places, people expressed anti-war sentiments or cursed the perpetrators of the war, while on television and radio the regime's ideal continued to play itself out undeterred. The recurrent image in those days was that of an elderly, bearded, turbaned man calling for unceasing jihad to an audience of adolescent boys with red "martyrs'" bands stretched across their foreheads. These were the dwindling remainders of a once vast group of young people who had been mobilized by the excitement of carrying real guns and the promise of keys to a heaven where they could finally enjoy all the pleasures from which they had abstained in life. Theirs was a world in which defeat was impossible, hence compromise meaningless.
p. 253 A young man burns himself in the university
One did not have to agree with him or approve of him to understand his positions. He had returned from a war where he belonged to a university he had never been a part of. No one wanted to hear his stories. Only his moment of death could spark interest. It was ironic that this man, whose life had been so determined by doctrinal certainty, would now gain so much complexity in death.
"How about a temporary marriage?" said Nassrin, rearranging the orange peels on her plate like pieces of a puzzle. "You seem to have forgotten our president's enlightened alternative." She was referring to an Islamic rule peculiar to Iran, according to which men could have four official wives and as many temporary waves as they wished. The logic behind this was that they had to satisfy their own needs when their wives were unavailable, or unable, to satisfy them. A man could enter into such a contract for as short a period as ten minutes or as long as ninety-nine years. President Rafsanjani, then honored with the title of reformist, had proposed that young people should enter into temporary marriages. This angered both the reactionaries, who felt it was a shrewd move on the president's part to curry favor with the young, and the progressives, who were equally skeptical of the president's motives and, in addition, found it insulting, especially to women. Some went so far as to call the temporary marriage a sanctified form of prostitution.
At the start of the twentieth century, the age of marriage in Iran-nine, according to sharia laws-was changed to thirteen and then later to eighteen. My mother had chosen whom she wanted to marry and she had been one of the first six women elected to Parliament in 1963. When I was growing up, in the 1960s, there was little difference between my rights and the rights of women in Western democracies. But it was not the fashion then to think that our culture was not compatible with modern democracy, that there were Western and Islamic versions of democracy and human rights. We all wanted opportunities and freedom. That is why we supported revolutionary change-we were demanding more rights, not fewer.
….the laws had regressed to what they had been before my grandmother's time: the first law to be repealed, months before the ratification of a new constitution, was the family-protection law, which guaranteed women's rights at home and at work. The age of marriage was lowered to nine-eight and a half lunar years, we were told; adultery and prostitution were to be punished by stoning to death; and women, under law, were considered to have half the worth of men. Sharia law replaced the existing system of jurisprudence and became the norm. My youthful years had witnessed the rise of two women to the tank of cabinet minister. After the revolution, these same two women were sentenced to death for sins of warring with God and spreading prostitution.
But this same person, the new Supreme Leader-who now held the highest religious and political title in the country, demanding the greatest respect-was a fake. He knew it, we knew it and, what was worse, his own colleagues and fellow clerics, who had chosen him, knew it. The media and government propaganda had omitted the fact that this man had been raised overnight to the rank of ayatollah; such a position had to be earned before it could be bestowed, and his elevation was a clear violation of the clerical rule and regulations. Khamenei chose to join the side of the most reactionary. It was not just his religious beliefs that guided his decision; he did it out of necessity, for political support and protection, to compensate for the lack of respect from his own peers. From a tepid liberal he turned overnight into an irredeemable hard-liner. In a moment of rare candor Mrs. Rezvan had said, I know these people better than you; they change their words more often than their clothes. Islam has become a business, she went on, like oil for Texaco. These people who deal in Islam-each one tries to package it better than the next. And we are stuck with them. You don't think they'd ever admit that we could live better without oil, do you? Can they say Islam is not needed for good government? No, but the reformers are shrewder; they will give you the oil a little cheaper, and promise to make it cleaner.
Our president, the powerful former speaker of the house, Hojatol-Islam Rafsanjani, the first to earn the title of reformist, was the new hope, but he who called himself the general of reconstruction and was nicknamed Ayatollah Gorbachov was notorious for financial and political corruption and for his involvement in terrorizing dissidents both at home and abroad. He did talk about some liberalization of the laws-again, as Manna reminded us, these reforms meant that you could be a little Islamic, you could cheat around the edges, show a bit of hair from under your scarf. It was like saying you could be a little fascist, a moderate fascist or communist, I added….
….But the president's liberalism, as would later be the case with his successor, President Khatami, stopped there. Those who took his reforms seriously paid a heavy price, sometimes with their lives, while their captors went free and unpunished. When the dissident writer Saidi Sirjani, who had the illusion of presidential support, was jailed, tortured and finally murdered, no one came to his assistance-another example of the constant struggle between the Islamic republic of words and deeds, one that continues to this day. Their own interests precede everything, Mrs. Rezvan was fond of reminding me. No matter how liberal they claim to be, they never give up the Islamic façade: that's their trademark. Who would need Mr. Rafsanjani in a democratic Iran?
This was a period of hope, true, but we harbor the illusion that times of hope are devoid of tensions and conflicts when, in my experience, they are the most dangerous. Hope for some means its loss for others; when the hopeless regain some hope, those in power-the ones who had taken it away-become afraid, more protective of their endangered interests, more repressive. In many ways these times of hope, of greater leniency, were as disquieting as before.
…Dr. A, the one who said his only reason for leaving was because he liked to drink beer freely. I am getting sick of people who cloak their personal flaws and desires in the guise of patriotic fervor. They stay because they have no means of living anywhere else, because if they leave, they won't be the big shots they are over here; but they talk about sacrifice for the homeland. And then those who do leave claim they've gone in order to criticize and expose the regime. Why all these justifications?
p. 301 Concert in Iran
It is hard to conjure an accurate image of what went on that night. The group consisted of four young Iranian men, all amateurs, who entertained us with their rendition of the Gipsy King. Only they weren't allowed to sing; they could only play their instruments. Nor could they demonstrate any enthusiasm for what they were doing: to show emotion would be un-Islamic. As I sat there in that packed house, I decided that the only way the night could possibly be turned into an entertainment was if I pretended to be an outside observer who had come not to have fun but to report a night out in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Yet despite these restrictions and the quality of the performance, our young musicians could not have found anywhere in the world an audience so receptive, so forgiving of their flaws, so grateful to hear their music. Every time the audience, mostly young and not necessarily rich, started to move or clap, two men in suits appeared from either side of the stage and gesticulated for them to stop clapping or humming or moving to the music. Even when we tried to listen, to forget these acrobats, they managed to impose themselves on our field of vision, always present, ready to jump out and intervene. Always, we were guilty.
The players were solemn. Since it was almost impossible to play with no expression at all, their expressions had become morose. The lead guitarist seemed to be angry with the audience; he frowned, trying to prevent his body from moving-a difficult task, since he was playing the Gipsy King.
"I feel sorry for these kinds," he said. "They're not entirely without talent, but they'll never be judged by the quality of their music. The regime criticizes them for being Western and decadent, and the audience gives them uncritical praise-not because they're first-rate but because they play forbidden music. So," he added, addressing us in general, "how will they ever learn to play?"
"People usually deserve what they get," said Reza, biting his ham and cheese. I gave him a reproachful look. "I mean it," he said. "If we are prepared to be duped by every so-called election-we all know they aren't real elections when only Muslims with impeccable revolutionary credentials, chosen by the Council of Guardians and approved by the Supreme Leader, can become candidates. Anyway, the pint is that as long as we accept this charade called lections and hope that some Rafsanjani or Khatami can save us, we deserve our later disenchantments."
…Mahshid later wrote in her class diary: "Both Yassi and I know that we have been losing our faith. We have been questioning it with every move. During the Shah's time, it was different. I felt I was in the minority and I had to guard my faith against all odds. Now that my religion is in power, I feel more helpless than ever before, and more alienated." She wrote about how ever since she could remember, she had been told that life in the land of infidels was pure hell. She had been promised that all would be different under a just Islamic rule. Islamic rule! It was a pageant of hypocrisy and shame. She wrote about how at work her male supervisors never look her in the eye, about how in movies even a six-year-old girl must wear a scarf and cannot play with boys. Although she wore the veil, she described the pain of being required to wear it, calling it a mask behind which women were forced to hide. She talked about all of this coldly, furiously, always with a question mark after each point?
Things are definitely better for men, said Azin. Look at the marriage and divorce laws; look at how many so-called secular men have taken second wives. Especially some of the intellectuals, said Manna, those who make the headlines with their claims about freedom and all that.