The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran, by Hooman Majd, Allen Lane, RRP£20 / Doubleday, RRP$26.95, 272 pages
One boozy evening during the year that Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd spent living in Iran, an artist friend unburdened himself over successive drinks.
The friend had spent weeks in prison in the aftermath of the country’s 2009 uprising, stuck first in solitary confinement and then in a cell with errant Revolutionary Guardsmen, and was eventually put on trial for sedition. He was not a political organiser, just an ordinary man who was out watching the mayhem on his street, but the Revolutionary Guards were envious of the Intelligence Ministry’s high-profile prisoners so they decided to manufacture some of their own. The artist, an apolitical man who quotes ancient Greek historians, was thrust before the cameras to confess to seeking to overthrow the regime.
It is a dark story, rivetingly told, that relays a great deal about Iran and its citizens’ discontent: the deep divides within the regime, the high cost of even bearing witness to dissent, and the many who have survived traumas but seek no vengeance. The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, Majd’s third book on Iran, is dense with such stories, making it by far his strongest and most nuanced writing on the country.
Majd’s previous books offered witty accounts of the Islamic republic’s Byzantine political culture, and the same cultivated, rakish persona is on display here. The reader is led through the fall of former president Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad and Iran’s deteriorating international relations, with detours to meetings of the Tehran Cigar Club.
As a gifted writer and the grandson of an ayatollah, Majd is well-placed to probe the role of cultural pride in Iranian diplomacy and the Shia exceptionalism that makes Iran both a fundamentalist state and a less tedious place to be during Ramadan than Dubai. He is especially strong on political culture and the art of the calculated sulk, which Iranian politicians from Mohammad Mossadegh to Ahmadi-Nejad have employed to the bafflement of westerners. He recounts his diplomat father’s epic career sulk, and explains how this form of withdrawal is underpinned by admiration for the other side and a desire for acceptance. Seen in this light, the Islamic Republic’s strained ties with the US, Majd says, are as much about wounded Iranian ego as ideology.
Majd is something of a bête noire among Iranians concerned with the regime’s human rights record because of his habit of calling Iran a democracy (of sorts) and an impulse to humanise the country for the west. This has, in the past, tilted his writing more towards corrective than unvarnished portrayal but here he is decidedly more critical of the country, his lively gaze shaded with genuine concern over what daily life has come to entail.
Having a child can make one less forgiving of society’s faults and Majd moved to Iran with his American wife and their baby son. Drivers hit the accelerator when he crossed the street with a pushchair, while strangers chastised his parenting and tried to kiss his baby without asking. Majd laments much of this behaviour, though he attributes it to Iranians’ innate character rather than the Islamic state, whose invasiveness has arguably amplified cultural qualities such as a lack of respect for personal privacy, and whose lawlessness has contributed to the country’s terrifying traffic.
Because Majd is related to – and spends time with – senior regime figures such as former president Mohammad Khatami, and, indeed, because he holds such reformists up as the system’s white knights, one could have wished for a more thorough accounting of what these men’s vision has to offer the country. Some of his economic assessments are also quibble-worthy, such as that sanctions have made Iran “strong in many ways”, and it being a “credit to the revolution” that the country has few slums – with the world’s second-largest oil reserves, and the largest of natural gas, its resources probably deserve a bit more credit.
Majd writes affectingly throughout the book of his passion for Iran but what touches the reader most is the sense of loss Iranians themselves tell him they feel. A loss of “our essence – as a people who valued poetry and beauty, family and pride, charity toward the poor, and honour in business, in politics, and in social intercourse”.
Azadeh Moaveni is author of ‘Honeymoon in Tehran’ (Random House)