Cautious but subtly optimistic account of Iran’s unfinished revolution by New York Times correspondent Fathi.
The author was still a child when, in 1979, an insurrection led by an uneasy alliance of leftists and Muslim fundamentalists forced the shah of Iran from his throne. As she notes, more than two-thirds of her compatriots were not even born when these transformative events occurred, and though the ayatollahs imposed an austere rule over the country, Iran’s young men and women have been “exposed to new ideas and opinions through technologies such as satellite television and the Internet.” In other words, Iran is not monolithic in its religious conservatism, nor in any other way; neither is it backward, though the suspicion that it is haunts Iranians: Backwardness, writes the author, “had embarrassing connotations of ignorance, poverty, and underdevelopment.” Crunching the numbers, it wouldn’t seem that the Iranians have much to worry about, for Fathi reckons that two-thirds of the country is also solidly middle-class, which would rival the statistics for the United States. The concept of backwardness, though, is a strong one, dating back many generations, and it has explanatory power for why Iran should so often make the news trying to assert itself in regional and even world events. Fathi’s combination of reportage and memoir is often effective, as when she writes of religion through the lens of an experience with a teacher who assured her that her prayers were “nullified” because her hood wasn’t arranged just so: “Her Islam was more about outward signs…to a point that was annoying.” Though, as the author notes, Iran has more than its share of dour by-the-book religionists, it is also refreshingly diverse and heterodox—if also in need of much change.
Readers keeping an eye on the contemporary Middle East will learn much from Fathi’s travels and observations.