City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran, by Ramita Navai, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£18.99, 320 pages

There are countless ways to talk about Iran as a nation divided. The most conventional is to point to the rift between secular opponents and religious supporters of the Islamic government, with the regime diehards estimated at anywhere from 10 per cent to 35 per cent of the country’s 70m people. Using this kind of calculus, the question of why Iranians have alternately risen up or failed to rise against the system becomes a simple numbers game.

In City of Lies, the British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai paints a more nuanced picture. Telling the story of Tehran through a cast of characters who inhabit both the city’s centres of political influence and its most deprived margins, Navai illustrates how Iranians are far more bound by what they have in common: a strong awareness of class, an irrepressible drive for upward mobility, daily clashes with the forces of modernity and tradition, and a profound disillusionment with the opportunities society has on offer.

Fast-paced and saturated with detail, each chapter describes a Tehrani whose life the treacherous, glittering city has disfigured in some way. A street prostitute rises to become a fashionable call girl and porn star whose best clients are a judge and a cleric. Many are able to save themselves only by shedding taboos around divorce and sexuality, such as the pious girl from south Tehran who decides to leave her drug-addict husband, or the gay militiaman who struggles with his faith and finally changes gender.

In this Tehran – “a city that tempts you till it saps your soul”, as Navai quotes the rapper Hichkas describing it – even regime loyalists suffer. A repentant hanging judge stalks the adult child of two dissidents he sentenced to death in the late 1980s, desperate for forgiveness. Morteza, a young man from a poor neighbourhood, joins the Basij paramilitary force and witnesses how those in authority use their power to terrorise the vulnerable. Most of Morteza’s fellow militiamen have joined for the perks, the free meals and low-interest loans, but after many nights of running checkpoints and dragging other poor young Tehranis to the police station for drinking or listening to western music, one of them resigns, not wanting to be “the arsehole that hassles people”.

The Basiji families who dissent, recoiling at the militia’s bullying and befriending families with less strict piety, hide their true feelings. As Navai writes, “any liberal outlooks that might have crept into their world were ferociously shielded from view”.

This habit of dissimulation makes Iranians virtually unknowable even to one another, and the question Navai grapples with is whether any of them feel real agency in their lives. It is only when a Tehrani is pushed to the edge that the truth erupts, as in a scene at a police station where the disabled husband of an arrested prostitute shouts from his wheelchair: “She sells her body for money because that’s the only way she can pay for my medicine. This is how the Islamic Republic treats its war veterans!”

What Navai so deftly shows is that the values outsiders ascribe to fixed social categories – the traditional pious, the bazaari merchants, the Hezbollahi hardliners, the wealthy aristocrats, the pragmatic poor – overlap with great complexity. That is why it is possible for many to revere the Shia imams and yet despise the mullahs and Supreme Leader, or to be atheistic critics of the regime and yet distrust the west.

One could have wished for Navai to dwell more on what these individual experiences tell us about Iranian society. But what she has done is extraordinary. Despite the bleakness of life in their “city of lies”, her Iranians continue to soldier on, hoping that the future holds something better.

Azadeh Moaveni is author of ‘Honeymoon in Tehran’ (Random House)

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