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It was an annus horribilis for Iran's Supreme Leader. The Green Movement had been crushed, but the regime was on edge, anxious lest democratic protests resurge. International sanctions were dragging down the economy while talk of war with the West grew. Hooman Majd was there for all of it. A new father at age fifty, he decided to take his blonde, blue-eyed Midwestern yoga instructor wife Karri and his adorable, only-eats-organic infant son Khash from their hip Brooklyn neighborhood to spend a year in the land of his birth. It was to be a year of discovery for Majd, too, who had only lived in Iran as a child.
The book opens ominously as Majd is stopped at the airport by intelligence officers who show him a four-inch thick security file about his books and journalism and warn him not to write about Iran during his stay. Majd brushes it off-but doesn't tell Karri-and the family soon settles in to the rituals of middle class life in Tehran: finding an apartment (which requires many thousands of dollars, all of which, bafflingly, is returned to you when you leave), a secure internet connection (one that persuades the local censors you are in New York) and a bootlegger (self-explanatory). Karri masters the head scarf, but not before being stopped for mal-veiling, twice. They endure fasting at Ramadan and keep up with Khash in a country weirdly obsessed with children.
All the while, Majd fields calls from security officers and he and Karri eye the headlines-the arrest of an American "spy," the British embassy riots, the Arab Spring-and wonder if they are pushing their luck. The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay is a sparkling account of life under a quixotic authoritarian regime that offers rare and intimate insight into a country and its people, as well as a personal story of exile and a search for the meaning of home.
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Hooman Majd is an Iranian-American writer and journalist based in New York. He is the author of The Ayatollah Begs to Differ and The Ayatollahs' Democracy.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“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 succes...
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