Where nothing is allowed, yet anything is possible

Survival in Tehran is a matter of lying and bending the rules. In the Iranian theocracy, real life is conducted in secret. Nadja Schluter reports on what else we can learn from the wonderful book on Iran, "City of Lies"

By Nadja Schlüter

This book is populated by an army of standardised noses. They are slender and dainty and well-formed – because almost all of them were operated on by a cosmetic surgeon. But now and again, a natural and characterful nose appears and stands out from the crowd. The one belonging to Ana, for example, a single woman in her late 20s: "She was one of the few Iranian women with an imperfect nose, the one she was born with, a noble, sharply angular nose, which had become the proud hallmark of her strength and individuality." And this, although relatives, friends and even strangers on the street have urged Ana "to have her nose altered to a more acceptable, marriage-friendly size."

The noses are just one of the wonderfully observed details in the literary reportage volume ″City of lies. Love, sex, death and the search for truth in Tehran″. In eight portraits, the British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai observes the lives of the citizens of Tehran, forced to subjugate themselves to the strictest of regulatory regimes – as imposed by their country and their religion – and exposed to so much social pressure to conform, that a perfectly normal nose can have so much symbolic clout. That young people dancing on the street equates to a mass rebellion. That a picnic on the side of a four-lane highway signifies freedom.

Testing the limits

Over the past few years, Ramita Navai has closely observed these opportunities to test the limits of the smallest freedoms and take a stand. And the lies that are necessary to lead a life that is more in keeping with one's own ideas and has less in common with those of the nation's rulers, without coming to the attention of religious leaders, the morality police or the intelligence agency. These lies are the basic tenor of the book, which also begins with the sentence: "Let's get one thing straight: in order to live in Tehran you have to lie."[embed:render:embedded:node:23732]

Ramita Navai does live there. She was born in Tehran, her family left Iran when she was six years old, during the 1979 Revolution. She grew up in England, later working as a journalist and becoming a Tehran correspondent in 2003, until the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance withdrew her work permit. She then worked as a volunteer English teacher, teaching street children in the poor neighbourhoods of southern Tehran, which contrast sharply with the wealthy districts of villas to the north of the city. It was here in the south that she got to know a drug-addicted prostitute who showed Navai her world – and a part of the city thus far unfamiliar to the journalist. She continued her research, spoke to countless people from a variety of backgrounds, observing them as they went about their everyday lives.

No fiction

The eight portraits that arose from this research read like stories infused with the history of Iran, after and during the Islamic Revolution, the protests of 2009, Khomeini, Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani. But these are not stories, they are reportages.

Cover of Ramita Navai′s ″City of lies. Love, sex, death and the search for truth in Tehran″ (published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson)
Real-life accounts: the eight portraits that arose from this research read like stories infused with the history of Iran, after and during the Islamic Revolution, the protests of 2009, Khomeini, Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani. But these are not stories, they are reportages

"There is nothing fictional in this book," said Navai in a recent interview. In other words, each story is based on true events. Or several true events. The portraits are collages, composed of several people and scenes, woven and organised into a stringent narrative plot.

Just how dangerous it can be for the people of Tehran to tell their stories, is evident from the acknowledgements at the end of the book: all those who spoke to the author are named here – but only by their first names, a pseudonym or even just an initial.

Ramita Navai has located her protagonists along Vali Asr Street, the long boulevard that links north and south Tehran, or the villas and the frequently "western" lifestyle with poverty, criminality and strict religiosity. Each portrait carries the name of a person, but is also set in particular locations in the city, which are named in sub-headings and can be appreciated on the map drawn in the book.

This rapidly imparts a sense of standing on Hafte Tir Square with the young blogger and dissident Amir, whose parents were executed, or of working the Takhte Tavoos Street with the sex worker Leyla, who has left her husband – and at some point, a sense of really knowing the city. What it smells, feels and looks like, who lives there.

Controlled sexuality

Some of the portraits are only a spotlight on a life, others are contained stories with development, suspense and a moving end. And each and every one illuminates a particular issue, for example divorce, homosexuality, transsexuality, terrorism or prostitution, and the suffering, but also the dangers that come with all these things in the Islamic Republic.

And how people must deploy tricks and lies to survive. Anything to do with sex is especially inflammatory, as the regime imposes particularly rigid controls on sexuality – which apparently results in a concealed over-sexualisation in Tehran.

Sex is a theme that runs like a continuous thread through "City of Lies", at times suppressed, at times violent, at times longed for, at times absurd. It manifests itself in the thriving black market for pornography; in the boys of the Islamic volunteer militia "Basij", who are only too willing to monitor young girls; in their commander who abuses young boys; in the elderly man who regularly claims to be going on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and who instead flies to Thailand; in the young divorced woman who prays and fasts to rid herself of her desire; and in the prostitute who enters into a temporary marriage, or "sigheh" to legalise the act.

In the city, dirty jokes circulate about mullahs who allow naked women into the house, or "Tehran as the global capital of anal sex" because as a young woman, this is a way to have sex and still get married with an intact hymen – otherwise it can always be fixed up by a surgeon. Sex in Tehran, as it soon becomes evident, is much more than just a physical act. It is an instrument of power or a way of rebelling – and in addition for many women the only way to lead a reasonably independent life.

The funny thing is: in the end, after all the craziness, the suffering, the repression and absurdity, after a stoning and a case of abuse, drug crime and several unhappy marriages, you nevertheless feel quite enamoured with this city. Because you feel so moved by the stories. Because Ramita Navai understands the profound religiosity of the young Somayeh as much as the atheism of Amir. Because helpful people regularly crop up, as well as two people who really love each other. It leaves you with a sense that in this city, where nothing is allowed, anything is possible.

In the final reportage, the ageing Farideh leaves the country to try and make a fresh start in London. Initially, she enjoys the freedoms and opportunities there. But then it strikes her just how cold and dispassionate many people are – and how aggressively many others behave. How much it rains and how expensive life is. She feels homesick and eventually returns home. Her decision is understandable.

Nadja Schluter

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon