Ramita Navai is a foreign affairs journalist and documentary-maker and author of “City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran.”
By Nazila Fathi
Basic. 297 pp. $27.99
As the Middle East slides further into decay, thrashed by despotism, war and rebellion, the West appears a bewildered interloper. The Arab Spring and Islamic Winter took the world by surprise, but it is Iran that still stupefies with its unpredictability — despite being so rigorously scrutinized. The West remains confounded by the questions that have plagued it for too long, namely: What can you learn from foreign policy mistakes, and how can you tell when a country is about to explode into revolt?
After the United States and Britain were blindsided by the 1979 Islamic revolution, the British diplomat Nicholas Browne was tasked with investigating how they had so spectacularly failed to foresee the fall of the shah. His report, declassified in 2010, reveals a primitive foreign policy far removed from reality and driven by arms sales, with Washington unwilling to accept the shah’s fallibility. It is a revelatory read: Contrary to popular belief, the British behaved with obsequious deference to the shah.
Iranian-born journalist Nazila Fathi’s “The Lonely War” may not be packed with startling revelations — for those well-read on Iranian affairs, there is little that is unknown or unreported — but it neatly unravels the errors of the West and traces the roots of dissent, vital in understanding Iran.
Each episode that has chipped away at the Iranian psyche is here: the Arab conquest of Persia in 637 and the birth of Shiite Islam; the excesses of the Qajar kings that led to the country’s foreign exploitation; the tobacco revolt of the 1890s; the coup d’etat that installed the first Pahlavi monarch; and the 1953 CIA- and British-backed coup that ousted the much-loved prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, bringing Reza Shah to power. Dealt with swiftly, these serve as context for this portrait of Iran’s contemporary history, absorbingly told by Fathi through her own experiences, beginning with the tumult of the revolution and the brutality of the dark days of the nascent regime.
The eight-year Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) is perhaps the single most important event that has shaped the Islamic republic, helping the regime’s revolutionary ideology become entrenched. Fathi’s account is both unsentimental and intimate. As Tehran is pounded by missiles that regularly shatter the windows of her apartment block, we witness the country’s descent into a pariah state, ignored by the world yet attacked from many quarters. Even though aware that Saddam Hussein is using nerve gas, the United States provides Iraq with satellite imagery of Iranian troops. The country’s menacing isolation is mirrored in a sense of abandonment that leaves the author — 10 years old when the war begins — feeling trapped. “For us Iranians, it was a lonely war,” she says. Worn out by war and oppression, and suffering from intense malaise, she barely reacts to the latest attack: “I hadn’t moved out of my bed during the night when half a dozen missiles had exploded. I had just counted them, one-two-three-four-five-six, and tried to go back to sleep.”
A new social class is thrust to the surface, bringing with it a set of values that are an anachronistic incursion on middle-class life, kicking up intolerance and loathing, and too often manifesting as hypocrisy. Fathi is sent to the university court for flouting a ban on white socks (deemed immoral for attracting male attention). While there, she overhears a self-proclaimed judge lustfully summarize another defendant’s infraction: “Sister, I was behind you when you were climbing the stairs. I cannot explain how you were moving your behind, but you have to find a way to stop it.”
One reason outsiders find Iran so unpredictable is that every level of the country is in a continual state of transformation. Consider Fathi’s pro-regime neighbor. After being exposed to the liberal middle class and hanging out with Metallica-T-shirt-wearing locals, he maintains eye contact with women — probably for the first time in his life — and trims back his Islamic beard. And there is Fathi’s maid’s son Mehdi, a member of the Basij militia, who in just two years goes from absolute devotion to the supreme leader to questioning his judgment. Mehdi is now embracing “the mentality of Iran’s more educated citizens, those who favored moderation.”
Small day-to-day rebellions give way to the first post-revolutionary protest in 1995, which erupts after bus fares are doubled. The working classes turn against the regime they had so loyally supported. Disillusionment spreads like an infectious disease, reaching even the architects of the revolution, who become contemptuous of the system they installed. Some are disgusted by its corruption; some are influenced by visits to the West, returning home armed with more liberal ideas of religious democracy. Many start advocating reform, and so the division between the hard-liners and the reformists is born. By now a journalist working for the foreign media, Fathi is seen as a threat by both sides and soon is caught between the two, heavily monitored and used as a pawn for competing intelligence services as the power struggle between the reformists and the hard-liners rages.
Nicholas Browne’s report concluded that for American and British policy toward Iran to work, opposition groups and popular dissatisfaction must be tracked, and that the West should be cautious about sticking too closely to the old elite. Fathi, who now lives in Bethesda with her husband and two children, has taken care to note the signs of defiance at the grass-roots level and plotted its path so far, showing how easy it is for the West to be caught unawares.
This is not a dry, academic, political text; it is a personal and experiential account of how changes in the internecine politics of Iran since the revolution have affected the lives of millions. Fathi’s supremely accessible narrative is an excellent primer for those who want to understand the machinations of the regime; hers is a brave and important voice.