In early 2011, Hooman Majd moved with his wife, Karri, and their eight-month-old son, Khash, from the United States to Iran, the country where he was born, to live for a year in Tehran. It was a trip that helped him sort out his complex relationship with a place that is both home and not home. Majd documents this year in his new book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay. Many books and articles on Iran describe the political, from which the reader construes the domestic. Here the reverse is true, as a clearer picture of the political arises from Majd's documentation of his daily life, its impediments and their solutions and the similarities and differences between life in America and Iran.
It may come as a surprise that Majd's life in Tehran is fairly normal and he’s able to recreate some semblance of a Western lifestyle in his new home. Iran “doesn't fit the preconceived notions that many Westerners or foreigners have,” Majd says. “There are many things that are similar to the West in terms of daily life.” For example, Majd notes, an estimated 17 million Iranians are active on Facebook, and “Iranians have the greatest rate of higher education as well as Internet penetration in the region.”
But Facebook is illegal, and social networking sites are blocked by the state. Citizens must use virtual private networks, or VPNs, to bypass the state firewall to access such websites. Not that the government isn't aware of what's going on. Such activity is hard to crack down on because of its scale, so it exists in a sort of limbo. “Most such things in Iran go unpunished,” Majd says. “It's just that you can't do things very openly.”
These paradoxes permeate everyday life in Iran. Alcohol is also illegal—restaurants are dry, bars nonexistent—yet alcohol is easily accessible through illicit vendors, and it is widely available and shared at home and house parties. “You have to constantly remember—where do I throw my empty liquor bottles because what if, then, somebody sees and reports me?” Majd says. Perhaps these small indignities—tolerated, yet a way to hierarchically impose a kind of structure on society—are the most striking difference between life in Iran and America.
This is Majd's third book about Iran—after The Ayatollahs' Democracy (2010) and The Ayatollah Begs to Differ (2008)—but it is his first written from the perspective of a resident, the first time Majd has lived in the country since he was a child. While his previous books have been more policy-o
riented, this memoir explores Majd's day-to-day life in Tehran—and here, in the insight he brings to describing that life, he finds more than just paradoxes. The city is enormous, its metropolitan area home to some 14 million people. As Majd describes it: “It's not a pretty city. It's not an old city. It's just a heavily crowded, overly polluted place.” Despite this, he says, “There's a simplicity to life in Iran, as complex and as difficult as it can be. Every neighborhood has a local baker and a local fruit guy. Even though you also go to supermarkets, it's just the idea about this pace of life.”
At its heart, this book is Majd's dialogue with a place once and again called home. It is not a science experiment in transplantation, or an anthropological inquiry, but a catalogue of his emotional need to engage in a relationship at once complex and fraught with problems, both personal and geopolitical. As an Iranian, Majd is able to access a culture and a place off limits to most Americans, and as an American he is able to write about it from both perspectives. “It is a personal book. I try to bring the Iranian DNA into it. So many American have dual identities—it's such a mishmash,” Majd says. “But Iran itself and the people and the food, yes, my wife certainly misses it, and I'd like my son to see more of it. I'd have to see how the political situation evolves before I make that decision.”
Walter Heymann is a freelance writer and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.