“Hello?” I didn’t recognize the number of the incoming call on my cell phone, but it was from Washington, D.C., so I answered, standing on a deserted stretch of the waterfront in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, on a September day in 2010.
“Agha-ye Majd? ”
“Baleh?” I answered, yes—in Farsi, since the caller was obviously Persian.
“I’m calling from the Iranian consulate, and I have a question about your applications for your wife and child.”
“Yes?” I said.
“You were married, it seems, after your child was born,” the lady said. My longtime girlfriend and I had had a son a few months prior, and we had finally gotten married in a civil ceremony a month before he was born. Realizing that in order to get them Iranian citizenship and passports, we had to be married in an Islamic ceremony—even before the Islamic Revolution, the only marriage Iran recognized was a religiously sanctioned one—we had done exactly that, three months later, at the Islamic Institute of New York, which shares a building with the Razi School (“Academic Excellence in a Distinctive Islamic Environment”!) in Queens. My wife was instantly converted to Islam, Shia Islam, as required. The mullah had patiently explained then, in Farsi while begging me to translate, that converting didn’t mean rejecting Christianity or Jesus Christ; it only meant that my wife was accepting Mohammad as the last in line of the holy Abrahamic prophets.
Yeah, whatever, let’s do this. That was what my wife’s expression had communicated from under a hastily improvised head scarf consisting of our son’s monkey-print blanket. I hadn’t realized that scarves were mandatory, although I should have checked the Razi School Web site, where the uniform for girls is listed as “navy overcoat, white scarf.” Meanwhile, our son, now deprived of his blanket, screamed and farted in what sounded to me like pretty good harmony. “How about Buddha?” my wife wondered. She told me to tell the mullah she accepted him, too. I nodded and ignored her request.
The lady calling me now was from the Iranian Interests Section at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C., the office that handles the consular affairs of Iranians in the United States in the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries. She was technically incorrect in identifying herself as “from the consulate,” since there is actually no such thing as an Iranian embassy or consulate on American soil, but it was a minor technicality; the Interests Section was authorized to issue citizenship papers for Iranians born in the United States and to issue passports to American wives of Iranian citizens—but not to American husbands of Iranian wives, or to children of those unions, who are not considered Iranian by virtue of marriage or birth to an Iranian woman.
“Well,” I said, “we were married before my son’s birth, but if you mean our Islamic marriage—”
“No,” she interrupted me, “it’s no problem really, but it seems you were married in 2010, and that was after—”
“No,” I said, my turn to interrupt. “We were married a month before he was born.”
“It’s no problem,” she repeated, “but I mean, umm, you were married after he was, umm, conceived.” She sounded embarrassed. “Was he adopted?”
“No!” I replied, taken aback by the question. “If he was adopted, we wouldn’t have been identified as his birth parents on his birth certificate, would we?” What I wanted to say to her was that it is, perhaps contrary to her beliefs, actually possible for a man and woman to have a child out of wedlock, that conception doesn’t happen only if the man and woman are married, but I bit my tongue. I knew that in the Islamic Republic authorities have to maintain the appearance, at least, that men and women do not—perhaps even cannot—have sex before marriage. Just the appearance, mind you, for no one is that naïve in Iran, not even employees of the Islamic state.
“Well,” she said, “it is possible to have you listed as the father if you adopted, but it’s no problem. We just ask you to fax us a letter saying that your son is not adopted, and Tehran will be able to issue his birth certificate, and then we can issue a passport.” It seems she still didn’t believe that I was the biological father, perhaps not just because of the premarital sex that may have offended her sensibilities, but also because of my age, which she must have thought far too old. Iranians my age tend to be grandfathers. But there was another ele- ment at play, too: this passive-aggressive (and very Persian) behavior in social intercourse really meant that she wanted me to agree and declare, to her and the Iranian bureaucratic world, that my son was conceived out of wedlock. Gotcha!
Getting citizenship papers for my family was actually much easier while we were still in the United States (or anywhere else outside Iran) than it would have been in Iran, and it had been something I was eager to do, since I was confident that a time would come when I would want to visit Iran with my wife and son. My wife had expressed her desire to travel to Iran with me in the past, when it was a practical impossibility, but now that we were married, her having an Iranian passport meant there would be no obstacles to her accompanying me on one of my trips, with our son if we wanted, even a trip that came up at the very last minute, as had often happened for me before. Appearances aside, paperwork is something the Iranian bureaucracy, the single largest employer of Iranians, excels in, even in the age of paperless communication and record keeping. “You know,” one Iranian official at the Interests Section, a longtime resident of Washington, mentioned to me when I told him I was sending in my applications, “Tehran won’t return the original American birth certificates of your son or your wife.” When I expressed surprise and was a little hesitant to just hand over these precious documents to the Iranian government, never to be recovered, he said, “Well, America is not like Iran, is it? It’s not like you have to jump through hoops to get a replacement birth certificate—you just ask for one in any U.S. state, and they’ll send it to you!”
I hadn’t thought of it, but of course he was right. It’s not that hard to get a birth certificate, a driver’s license, or even a passport in America or Europe. It’s not that hard to open a bank account, rent an apartment, register a child for school, or get a doctor’s appointment if you can afford it or have insurance. I may be Iranian by birth, and I may have traveled there often enough, and I may have friends and relatives and connections there across the political spectrum, but I hadn’t lived there as an adult, and only barely as a child. I was aware, at second hand, of what living in Tehran entails and understood Iranian bureaucracy, but if I ever wanted to live there myself, with a family no less, it was going to be another thing altogether. Doing anything concerning Iran is generally impossible, as a bureaucrat usually explains with a regretful shaking of the head, and the occasional tut-tut. But with passports in hand, I realized, if we ever decided we did want to live there, whatever the reason, it would be a simple matter of buying airplane tickets.
My wife, who comes from a small farming town in rural Wisconsin, was as eager to become an Iranian citizen (and secure her son’s dual citizenship) as I was, which was why she had readily converted to Islam. Before we had a child, she had expressed interest in traveling with me to my country of birth, mainly out of curiosity, I thought, but also because, she told me, she worried that if I ever got into trouble in Iran—and she had read reports of Americans and Iranian Americans who had been arrested there—she wanted to be able to get on the first plane to Tehran as easily as an Iranian could.
We had met years ago, and I would talk to her about Iran, well before I visited the country for the first time in adulthood, and she continually urged me to go there, to not let anything stand in the way of my reconnecting to the land of my birth. “You need to go home!” she once said, after I described my grandfather’s house to her. “You’ll never be happy with your life until you do.” She was right, I realized after I finally set foot in Iran. That was reason enough for me to want to take her there, too—to let her actually see why she was right. When it came to converting to Islam, she also understood well that for Iranians, the appearance of belief is paramount, not belief itself, so she humored the mullah who married us, and he seemingly understood the same, given his relaxed attitude, humor, and the almost dismissive manner in which he converted Karri to submission to Allah.
For years it has been extremely difficult for Americans to travel to Iran as tourists, obtaining a visa being the single biggest obstacle, but Karri, to my surprise, was keen on spending an extended period of time there—well, perhaps a month or two. In a way, it shouldn’t have been surprising, given what I knew about her. She wanted our son to see, feel, smell, and touch where her family had lived since the eighteenth century from an early age. We had taken him to Wisconsin and the family farm as an infant, and her sense of fair play, and her insistence that we all have a sense of our roots, made her want him to experience his father’s birthplace, too. It was her willingness, even eagerness, to travel to Iran, as well as the newly minted Iranian passports that showed up via FedEx not long after I sent in the applications, that persuaded me to look at the idea of actually moving to Iran for a year, more or less, to give me an opportunity to properly reconnect with my history, and to give Karri and our young son a proper introduction to my culture, but also to chronicle our lives as insider/outsiders in a land so few know very much about.
I imagined my story as one that could illustrate and illuminate the larger culture, not so much in the “gee whiz isn’t this fascinating” way that often prevails among memoirs of expatriates living abroad, or in the politicized form that most writing, even travel writing, on Iran has taken, but more as an account of what is to be an Iranian in Iran. Of course, an Iranian who is also fully American, or at least that’s how I, and my friends, imagine me to be. My wife warmed to the idea, even if it meant leaving her family, friends, and work behind, and she understood that the opportunity might never present itself again, especially now that we had a child who would, before we knew it, be in school and have a life that would be difficult to interrupt for any long period of time. Karri, who had over the years spent months alone in India on intensive yoga programs (and had lived alone in Italy, modeling and studying Italian after college), was still adventurous and even fearless, and a year, she reasoned, was not very long in the scheme of things. Our son would, if we went to Iran, be about the same age as I had been when I left it, less than a year old (I had accompanied my diplomatic family on my father’s first posting abroad, to London), and he would spend his first birthday in the country of his father’s birth. That probably mattered mostly to me, certainly not to him and by nature less to my wife, but I was happy that she was as keen on exposing our son to the culture of his father and his father’s father, even if he didn’t quite understand yet, early in his life. That Karri would finally see what she had heard about for so many years, and that I could show her something of my country of birth that might explain me better, was equally, if not more, appealing.
Like most Americans and Europeans, my wife had an image of Iran (and of Iranians) that was shaped by the headlines, and the headlines have not been kind to Iran or Iranians for over thirty years. Unlike most non-Iranians, however, her life was intertwined with that of an Iranian; and Persian culture, even Islamic Persian culture, to which she had been exposed through meeting the religious members of my family and which she recognized was quite different from Arab culture, was not completely unfamiliar to her. It is a culture that has been described to Westerners mostly by Iranians, but it is still very much hidden behind veils of modesty, furtiveness, and suspicion. We have an idea of what it is to be French or Italian, or to live in Paris or in Florence, based on a certain familiarity with those cultures and the writings of English-speakers who’ve lived there, but we have little idea of what it is to be Persian or what Iranian society is really like. The idea of trying to discover that, both for myself and for potential readers, began to hold greater and greater appeal.
“You don’t know, you don’t know, how life can be shameful.” Those are lyrics from a song, a piece of music in the classical Iranian form, written by playwright Bijan Mofid in the early 1970s and recorded by many different artists over the years. The song, “Dota cheshm-e seeyah daree” (“You Have Two Black Eyes”), can be searched today on Google, in Finglish, the term Iranians use to signify Farsi words written in the Latin alphabet, and an important tool in the days before most computers came with Arabic fonts installed. I often think of the song when I’m thinking of Iran and Iranians, of what defines our behavior and our view of life. (Unlike Western classical music, Iranian classical music coexists—and is equally popular among all age groups—with contemporary pop.) I think of the song because it had struck a chord with Iranians well before the revolution—when I was
a teenager, my father would listen to it while drinking his whiskey—and it continues to be relevant to Iranians today.
But life is shameful? Yes. The idea that life in this world can be (or even is) shameful resonates with Iranians, a Shia people who, regardless of their piety or lack of it, are culturally programmed to imagine human behavior as ignoble: as ignoble as the prophet’s successors’ murder of his offspring, and as ignoble as the tyranny that they suffer no matter what leaders rule them. There’s certainly an element of self-loathing to it, although not quite the self-loathing that Western psychology analyzes. The pizza deliveryman in Tehran believes it, as does the pizza restaurant owner, and so does the customer ordering from the comfort of his high-rise apartment, worth millions of dollars (yes, dollars). The Iranian government officials who wanted to know if my son was adopted believe it, as does the mullah who married my wife and me in New York while sheepishly acknowledging the greatness, but not the divinity, of Jesus Christ. Living in Iran, I knew, would mean confronting that concept head-on, something few non-Iranians have done in recent times, and writing about Iranians and Iranian culture, even if only about one’s own experiences, would mean understanding it. In Iran, life isn’t necessarily ugly or difficult, but regardless of one’s standing—whether one is rich or poor, a success or a failure in love—the idea that life is somehow shameful is powerful and one that I wanted to explore.
Iran, the country once known to Westerners as Persia, its name evoking exotic images of A Thousand and One Nights and bejeweled kings ruling over adoring masses, fully burst into the American consciousness in 1979 with the Islamic Revolution essentially reversing the image we had, if we had any at all, of the country that American politicians had usually described as our “staunchest ally in the Middle East.” After Israel, of course, which happened to be an ally of Iran then, too, albeit unofficially. Naturally, as long as Iran was America’s “staunchest ally,” ordinary Western folk had little interest in the country beyond the occasional news item related to oil or concerning some intriguing event in the royal family, say a marriage, a divorce, or a coronation. Iran was a curiosity at best, and although there were at one time some forty thousand Americans living there, most were expats in what we now think of as a colonial sense: they lived insulated and isolated from the native population, attended
their own schools and clubs, and undertook tourist jaunts to famous sites while rarely experiencing the culture of the land. Practically no Americans or Europeans moved to Iran simply to experience the Persian life. Although the shah once proclaimed, in his vainglory years, that Tehran would soon become the “Paris of the Middle East,” Tehran of the 1970s was certainly not Paris of the 1920s, and Iran held no attraction for artists and intellectuals looking for inspiration away from home. That was equally true for Iranian artists, most of whom, including one of my uncles who ran away from home to become a painter in Paris, at that time looked for inspiration in the cities of Europe.
The modernizing and Francophile shah of Iran (or as some Americans occasionally mistakenly wrote, the “Shaw of Iran,” unintentionally ascribing to him perhaps the one talent, playwright, that he didn’t claim) seemed to symbolize Iran, at least until the day he unceremoniously departed Tehran, and throngs of bearded men and chador-clad women flocked to the streets to celebrate his departure, along with whatever dreams he had of a Westernized Iran. When the revolution took hold and Ayatollah Khomeini became Iran’s new de facto “shaw”—unlike the shah, he actually did compose, in his case poetry—Americans moved on: How interesting could Iran be, now that its rulers wore robes and turbans, sat on the floor, and ate dates and yogurt for lunch? As long as the oil flowed, another backward country regressing even further wasn’t going to hold anyone’s attention for very long, and the culture was seemingly irrelevant to Western civilization in the twentieth century.
Indeed, interest in Iran faded until the new Persian royalty and the masses of angry Iranians who worshipped them stormed the U.S. embassy and took American diplomats hostage, in contravention of international law and all notions of international relations, to say nothing of civilized behavior or common decency. Iran was not only no longer the charmingly exotic East we once imagined it to be; it was an implacable enemy forever at odds with not just us but the community of nations at large. Iran, Khomeini proclaimed, needn’t recognize international law since she hadn’t been consulted on its various aspects. The impudence of the world’s nations! Not only that, his declaration that “America cannot do a damn thing” about its hostages was proven true in the end, much to Americans’ dismay, and the revolutionary government extended that ideal to anything America wanted to do vis-à-vis Iran—Khomeini’s slogan is still emblazoned on the walls of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, more than thirty years later. If the nuclear issue and Iran’s growing influence and power in the region (in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, or even in Gaza) and beyond (in Africa and South America) are any indicators, Khomeini’s wish is still coming true, much to the chagrin of President Obama—the sixth American president to have to deal with a worrisome Iran.
Thirty-plus years. Years marked by indifference, enmity, accusations, and recriminations, occasional flare-ups, and for the past few, deep disagreements over a nuclear program that appears to be leading inexorably to a nuclear-capable Iran at best and a nuclear-armed Iran at worst. What’s been happening in Iran in our absence? The population has more than tripled, and industry has grown to the point where Iran can be virtually self-sufficient in many ways, including militarily (albeit on a crude and somewhat outdated level), partly because unilateral (U.S.) and multilateral (UN) sanctions have forced Iranian industry to adapt in order to survive with little, if any, outside help. Superhighways crisscross the country, dotted with technical schools and universities, and Iranians have the greatest rate of higher education as well as Internet penetration in the region. Iranian artists sell their works at European and Persian Gulf cities’ auctions for millions of dollars, Iranian cinema is the nouvelle vague, and Iranian literature is slowly being recognized outside Farsi-speaking countries. Iranian cuisine is even making inroads in Western countries. “What’s the best Persian rice cooker?” a WASPy American customer asked the clerk at an international food store on Lexington Avenue in New York, not long after my experience with the Iranian Interests Section. I nosily volunteered a brand I own, whereupon he asked me, “Does it make good tahdig [crisped rice]?”
We’re certainly much more aware of Iran today than ever before, I’ve discovered. Just about every American and European can identify the country on a map, even if they cannot identify their own neighboring states and countries or principalities, and as awareness has increased, so, for many, has curiosity. Iran’s cultural influence—political and otherwise—seems to be on the rise, certainly in places we worry about, such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan; but can Iran, like China and to some degree India, become an influential economic and military power? One whose culture, from food to literature, from art to spiritual values, permeates Western civilization the way Chinese and Indian culture do? Today there are over one million Iranian Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians in Europe and all over the Western world, and their influence (good and bad, admittedly) is already being felt. Iran hawks, both in the United States and Europe, as well as in Israel, certainly believe Iran can become a power to be reckoned with and advocate confronting Iranian ambitions before it’s too late; others claim that Iran’s power and influence, even its nuclear capability, are greatly exaggerated. But if Iran does achieve what it seems to be striving for—a reborn empire of sorts—and if it remains an independent Islamic force allied with “neither West nor East,” as it declares on the walls of its Foreign Ministry, what will that mean?
Almost certainly Iran, regardless of whether its future government is fairly elected or otherwise, will continue along the path it forged in the early days of the Islamic Revolution. That path, one of modernity fused with religion—with very mixed results—is unique in the world today, but in the minds of the country’s leadership and of Iranians who believe at least half of its story, this path is the only one that can guarantee progress for Iranians. The Islamic Republic has raised the literacy rate to over 90 percent, educates far more women than men in its universities, and has made great strides in medicine, science, and the arts, all while insisting on a veneer of Shia Islam. A veneer? Yes, but not always a false front. Former president Mohammad Khatami, who served two terms, from 1997 to 2005, once said in a speech—at a time when he was under fire from progressives for not bringing about “change” fast enough; President Obama might relate—that in Iran, democracy would come about only if it were Islamic; otherwise, the country would be a dictatorship much like its neighbors. Perhaps he was right, or maybe over time Iran will become a democracy stripped of its religious veneer. Either way, Iran today is still mostly in the dark, much as China was until the 1990s, both in terms of opening up to the West and in terms of Western understanding of its culture. But Iranians are prepared to turn the lights back on at a moment’s notice. Until then, I hope that this book, born in Iran, might cast some light on their still-clouded story.
Excerpted from The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay by Hooman Majd. Copyright © 2013 by Hooman Majd. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.