Orphans of the Revolution

Reviewed by Tara Bahrampour
Sunday, March 20, 2005

LIPSTICK JIHADA Memoir of Growing Up Iranian inAmerica and American in IranBy Azadeh Moaveni. PublicAffairs. 249 pp. $25EVEN AFTER ALL THIS TIMEA Story of Love, Revolution, and Leaving IranBy Afschineh Latifi with Pablo F. Fenjves. Regan. 320 pp. $24.95

Like characters in a play whose first act takes place in the lush summer and whose second act is set against barren winter trees, Iranians have spent the last quarter-century defining themselves against the contrasting backdrops of pre- and post-1979 Iran. Those who stayed in Iran after the Islamic revolution are faced with its consequences every day; those who fled the country are only somewhat more removed. Haunted by loss (of loved ones, of fortunes, of social networks) and sometimes by guilt (for supporting the shah or the revolution too blindly, or for staying too much out of the fray), many have spent these 26 years licking their wounds and mourning their old lives.

It has fallen largely to the younger generation to analyze this experience for Western readers. With a few exceptions, the recent crop of Iran memoirs has been written by women who were children when the revolution struck. Now in their twenties and thirties, they are fluent in English but still conversant in their parents' language, able to explain the intricate latticework of Persian society in the easy, often self-deprecating style of the American autobiography.

Lipstick Jihad , by Azadeh Moaveni, and Even After All This Time , by Afschineh Latifi, offer two versions of this, one of which works better than the other. For Latifi, an Iranian-born New York attorney, Iran switched from dream to nightmare when her father, a colonel in the shah's army, was executed after the revolution. Goodbye to BMWs, swimming clubs and a happy, secure family; hello to relatives seeking to marry off the preteen Latifi sisters to uneducated villagers while angling for the family's remaining assets. The sisters were sent abroad, but Europe and America proved in some ways as traumatic as what they had fled. Eventually they found professional success and were reunited with their mother and brothers in the United States.

Latifi's story is emblematic of many immigrants' experiences -- the fashion faux pas, the English learned from "The Brady Bunch" -- but her book often reads like a litany of these experiences instead of a distillation of them. She seems to have recorded every scene she can remember from her life, in faithful order, giving each equal weight -- a technique that may work in a legal document but feels diffuse in a memoir. She records the date of each sibling's and parent's birthday, provides a staggering 113 family snapshots, and includes minutiae about short-term jobs and law school parties that seem unrelated to the book's themes. Yet the scene in which her mother reveals to her brothers how their father died, years after the fact, gets only a page and is summed up with "there was a great deal of crying in the house that night."

At age 9, Latifi was told that the revolution was engineered by the "intensely fanatical . . . fundamentalist mujahedeen"; as she grew older, she didn't examine it much beyond that. If she ever reflected, during her lonely teenage exile, on why the uprising was so popular, if she ever felt ambivalence about her family's former privileged position or anger at her father's tragic refusal to flee, these feelings are trumped by loyalty to her parents, whose absence of flaws in her eyes makes them lack dimension as characters. Latifi's view of Iran is black and white, and a quick trip back there at the end of the book doesn't add nuance; after she and her mother have trouble at a hotel because they are unaccompanied women, she laments that "these people have ruined Iran" and hurries back to New York.

Azadeh Moaveni was born in 1976 into an Iranian expatriate community in northern California that similarly viewed Iran as "a place of light, poetry and nightingales" taken over by "a dark, evil force called the Revolution." As a child she absorbed these "distorting myths of exile," and as a teenager she added her own cultural identity crises to the brew. But having missed the revolution herself, Moaveni grew up less encumbered by the history that weighed on the adults around her, and when she decided to try living and working as a journalist in Tehran, she became a conduit for Iranians and Westerners to gain new perspectives on the country.

She arrived in 2000, when Iran's reformists had started to lose their teeth and their rock-star appeal and the conservatives had eased up on sartorial restrictions while continuing their assault on political freedoms. Moaveni is part of Iran's largest generation, the two-thirds of the country who are under 30 and are more interested in the latest rhinoplasty surgeons and bloggers than in the university's Friday prayer sessions. Some there saw her as a foreigner, and some considered her a wash-up for still being unmarried at 24, but on the whole she blended in with other Iranians and joined in their complex relationship with a country that evokes both fierce love and utter despair from its inhabitants. Years of civil rights abuses make Iranians "dream more modestly," but the criminalization of sexuality makes them crackle with sexual energy. Teenagers in 5-inch heels use martyrs' holidays as an excuse to throw make-out parties; disillusioned matrons trade Islam for yoga; mullahs who rail against "bourgeois" miniature poodles try to get Moaveni's cell phone number for a date.

Lipstick Jihad 's sensational-sounding title is in fact apt. It refers to Iranians who, despite the regime's dictates, insist on what Moaveni calls an "as if" lifestyle, living as if it were permitted to "speak your mind, challenge authority . . . wear too much lipstick." Women especially engage every day in this "slow, deliberate, widespread act of defiance. A jihad, in the classical sense of the word: a struggle."

Moaveni has a journalist's eye for that struggle and a memoirist's knack for finding meaning in her own internal conflicts. For her, living in Iran meant inhabiting the "what if" world she might have grown up in, the oft-imagined world made flesh. Much of the time she felt alienated by it, but she writes affectingly of a moment in which her two worlds converged, on a ski slope when a friend used a Farsi term for "dear" that Moaveni recalled from the Iranians in California. "Until then, I had believed smells were the keys that unlocked memory, uniquely able to transport you back to some distant point in the past, in a heady flash. . . . But when I heard the word aziz, that endearment woven into the fabric of my childhood . . . I melted like a cat picked up by the scruff of its neck."

Despite such moments, Moaveni eventually abandoned the struggle to live in Iran. But her journey there provides a welcome alternative to the dark/light vision of it she grew up with. Her book shows us what Iran looks like in spring and fall, with all those seasons' biting winds and unexpected days of sunshine. •

Tara Bahrampour is the author of "To See and See Again: A Life in Iran and America" and a staff writer at The Washington Post.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company