Questions of identity have long suffused both my working and personal life.
Entire train journeys have been passed musing whether I am more Italian or Arab, why I rarely (if at all) feel British, and why my Balkan roots never exert as strong a pull as my Tunisian ones.
Since my doctoral supervisor gently steered me away from the guns’n’tanks of Middle East security studies towards the anthropological paradise that is gender, nationalism and identity, I have never been happier.
Identity is how we define ourselves; it is how we connect; it is how regimes connect with the population and it is how states connect with each other.
To be without an identity is to glance in the mirror and perceive no reflection.
The theories surrounding identity construction could – and have – consumed entire forests of books, but it is Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni that has proved wholly captivating.
Born in 1976 in Palo Alto, California, Moaveni grew up in San Jose and read politics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, before studying Arabic at the American University in Cairo as a Fulbright Fellow.
It is from Cairo that Moaveni finally returned to Tehran and it is the endeavour to situate herself within the new Iran, one that differs so greatly from that accounted by her parents and grandparents in California, that provides the crux of the novel.
Indeed, as well as locating her identity – American, Iranian, Iranian-American – the task of reconciling diasporic notions of the homeland proves equally arduous.
While the book itself provides a fascinating insight into the notion of hybrid identities, the true beauty lies in Moaveni’s dry wit, a wit that is deployed at crucial junctures, yet conspicuous in its absence when events are too dire to raise mirth in response.
A particular topic of derision, which elicited too many snorts on quiet trains, is the obsessive hatred nurtured by clerics for poodles:
The clerics’ hatred for miniature poodles, which they considered bourgeois lapdogs, was one of the most ridiculous things about Iran. An aghast ayatollah in the provincial city of Orumieh had even devoted a portion of his Friday sermon to condemning canines. “Happy are those who became martyrs and did not witness the playing with dogs!” he had bellowed, referring to those killed in the war with Iraq, who had luckily been spared the lapdog trend. (p. 48)
The clerics are portrayed by turns ridiculous and menacing, with the preoccupation with morals teetering into surreal territory:
There was even a television show devoted to such questions, and the presiding ayatollah responded to questions like: Say there’s a two-story house, with a woman sleeping on the first floor and her nephew on the second. If there’s an earthquake that brings down the second floor, and somehow the nephew falls on the aunt and she gets pregnant, is the child a bastard or not? Such urgent and sophisticated matters were often debated on state-controlled television. It was not a high moment for Islam. (p. 72)
Or, for those who have conducted interviews with self-professed pious individuals, familiar:
First fifteen minutes: Gaze averted, stares at own feet, wall, space, anywhere but two-foot radius around opposing female.
Second fifteen minutes: Slowly casts glances in direction of head and talking voice.
Third fifteen minutes: Makes eye contact and conducts normal conversation.
Last fifteen minutes: Begins making googooly eyes,smiling in impious fashion, and requesting one’s mobile phone number. (p. 100)
Amidst the humour is sobriety, a reminder that while Iranian society is vibrant and tenacious, it is also one fractured by inconsistencies and restrictions that are largely greeted with insouciance by the global community.
The word ‘democracy’ is all too often bandied about as a cure-all for the upheaval in the wider region, yet in my view democracy is overrated.
It is not a cookie-cutter solution – a point that is aptly clarified through the case of a mechanic fitting a Mustang with old Iranian parts that ultimately fail to work: “It’s the same with our politicians and intellectuals […] they borrow Western concepts like democracy, stick in Iranian parts, and can’t figure out why they’ve lost the juice.” (p. 77)
When it comes to books on Iran I am like a greedy child, gobbling the pages within days.
There is a piquancy and wryness inherent in contemporary Iranian literature that snares and holds my fascination in general; for now, however, I must single out Lipstick Jihad for sheer entertainment and elucidation.
Although published in 2005, it has lost little in relevance; reading it in the run-up to the recent elections provided an insight that would have, in its absence, dimmed my understanding of the salient social factors of Iranian politics.
Which is why I am positively poised to grab Honeymoon in Tehran, which chronicles Iran under the most recent of leaders, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran is published by PublicAffairs, 272 pages, 2005. ISBN: 1586483781.