The narrative painted about Iran by the American media is a depressing one—a landscape peppered with deserted lands, beheadings, extremists, and bombings. Hyperbole about Iran as part of an “axis of evil” is often accompanied by pictures of masked men with guns—the kind of pale-yellow journalism that passes through our newsfeeds while we strut to class, latté in hand.
The view we have of Iranian society as portrayed through the images we associate with the country are the same images that build a wall between us and a real understanding of the people we attempt to characterize. I don’t think it’s that we don’t want to understand: I think it’s that many of us aren’t handed the opportunity.
This void is where authors like British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai become admirable facilitators of entirely new perspectives. Her new book, City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and The Search for Truth in Tehran, chronicles stories built on conversations whispered among friends, tales of incredible episodes that happen to be the norm in Tehran.
Navai has been collecting stories for much of her life, travelling between Britain and Iran, listening to tales of extraordinary events happening to ordinary people. In her book, she gives voice to the truth beneath the cloud of misunderstanding and lies that hovers over Tehran, and unnoticed people finally come to light. Each chapter tells a different story: the forged marriage, the fearful blogger, the drug dealer, and the prostitute. Every single chapter digs deeper into a city that revolves on secrets and religious conflict. As Navai writes, “The Ayatollah publicly denounced his son, who was sucked into a cycle of beatings and imprisonment. Meanwhile the Ayatollah’s younger son released a pop video. Such is life in Tehran.”
From prostitutes of religious leaders to learned Muslims who sell their advice, Navai skillfully weaves together disparate narratives into a single cohesive novel. From story to story, the struggles that characters undergo, the people they meet, and the lives that change all seem connected by a love for Iran that feels like an athlete’s love for exercise: exhausting but exhilarating.
In one chapter, Navai tells the story of Farideh, an aging socialite who longs for an erstwhile Tehran. Before the Islamic Revolution, Tehran was a bustling, lively city filled with “discos and pool halls; juice bars and vodka bars; donkey carts and new cars.” And still to this day a section in North Tehran remains with the same vibes, except they are enclosed in an upper class bubble. The elite who live within it pretend that the rest of the diminishing city doesn’t exist, a circle that includes Farideh, but doesn’t describe her outlook on Iran.
Farideh is one of the few who choose to stay in her beloved city during and after the Islamic Revolution, while most of her friends flee to Paris, London, New York, and Los Angeles. She stays partly because of her devotion to the “cursed, wretched, beautiful land,” and now that the revolution is over, she tries to feel happiness, but can’t. She worries about the giant gulf that prevents her from connecting to the dahati, or illiterate peasants, who make up a majority of the population.
Hers is a narrative that I can personally relate to when I look back on this past summer I spent in my family’s home in the Philippines. The feeling of separation contrasting with a guttural desire to understand. I used to be a member of the diasporic youth who didn’t have any connection to the homeland, except some stories passed through the voices of my parents. Although I understood their needs, I had never been there, nor had I ever felt the uncertainties or struggles that plagued them.
When Farideh tries living in London for a few months, her ultimate conclusion sustains her love for Iran much the same way I came to love the Philippines. Cities like London filled with towering buildings and ambitious people may seem dazzling to some. But Farideh realizes that the beautiful, unaffected landscapes of Iran and the passionate people she feels connected to are irreplaceable. Reading City of Lies reveals the hidden heart of this conflicted country. You may find that sincere connections to Tehran’s people are more easily formed than you’d think.