Book review: I’m Writing You From Tehran, by Delphine Minoui (Amazon / Book Depository)
The taxi rolls along gray lines. That’s all we can make out in the darkness: gray lines, as far as the eye can see, marking out the road to the airport. Outside, beyond the window, the night devours the last forbidden words I heard. How many will still dare to shout “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) and “Death to the dictator” from the rooftops of Tehran?
This is no article – it is a stillborn idea, just a thought. A thought that stretches out as the taxi speeds along those never-ending gray lines. This time, though, is no false start, no trial run. I am leaving for good.
Newly translated from French, journalist Delphine Minoui’s memoir recounts her time living in her family’s native Iran, where she returned after being born and raised in France.
Minoui was drawn to Iran because of her family’s heritage and the strength of her connection to her enigmatic grandfather, who’d died in Paris without returning home. He’d passed away before she felt her native land’s pull, and seeking more insight into his life, she eventually decided to live for a time in the troubled country, coinciding with some significant events in its recent political and social upheavals.
The book is written as a letter to him, as she explores aspects of his life, staying in the apartment building with his widow, her surviving grandmother, in Tehran. While there, she takes advantage of the country’s moment in contemporary history, investigating the turbulent sociopolitical changes that were pulling Iran to various extremes.
You had left too soon. And I had come too late to meet you. The irony of history: you, who had always wanted to remain in your country had, for reasons I was unaware of at the time, ended up dying beyond its borders.
She interrogates the mystery and hypocrisy of their actions in Iran’s morally strict but also hypocritical culture, like when discovering that her grandfather had a longtime mistress, who later becomes friends with his widow. The two women stay up late together, raucously laughing, and this funny, unexpected friendship serves almost as metaphor for the unpredictability and dual nature of the country itself. But otherwise, on the whole it doesn’t entirely succeed in shedding light on the author’s family’s role, and her grandfather remains to some extent an enigma.
As a window into Iran’s complicated past and politics, it’s more thorough, although uneven. Sometimes I was captivated, elsewhere, my interest flagged without a particularly strong contextual background of my own. It’s not quite as readable an explanation of government and social policy as Manal al-Sharif’s Daring to Drive is for Saudi politics, for example, but it does clarify some aspects.
In the acknowledgements, Minoui writes of an editor’s frustration at her slowness in finishing the book, referencing rewrites and time’s introspection that led to “a narrative thread that was much more personal than the simple journalistic testimony I had set out to create.” She says that as a journalist, she’s preferred to hide emotions behind facts, and that it was a novelist friend who encouraged her to center the story around her family history, leading her to “express this ‘me’ buried beneath a veil of modesty.”
I found this such an interesting and valuable insight, because her own stories far outweighed the journalistic forays, in my reading. When she’s describing that unlikely friendship between her grandmother and her grandfather’s rowdy mistress, or a fairly tame party raided by the modesty police, or perhaps especially the devoutly religious man who proposes the Iranian workaround of a temporary marriage so they can sleep together (to her horror), the stories she’s telling hold so much power through this personal lens. Sections tied more explicitly to the political or general make less of an impression.
Minoui’s strength is beautiful expository writing telling these stories of her own experiences and those of the people she connects with. They’re harrowing. One scene that impresses is of the chaos when the aforementioned typical apartment party gets shut down by the morality police. Niloufar, the host, would later go on to serve time in prison for various offenses against the strictures of the social regime. When meeting later with Minoui in France, she explains that she still feels drawn to the country despite her harsh treatment and unjust imprisonments. This complicated nature of how national identity can feel versus the reality of that country’s treatment and control of its citizens is well explored and depicted, if still ultimately baffling, though Minoui has the language to construct apt comparisons.
Despite the suffering she had endured, she was attached to her country. She forgave it everything, just as some battered women forgive their violent husbands.
One of the most striking scenes from Minoui’s own experience, demonstrating the frightening conditions she faced not only as a woman but as a western journalist, is when a young mullah (an educated cleric in Islam) she’s interviewing tricks her into participating in a prayer service at his mosque. She says she’s never prayed in her life, and to have to do it at a service in devout Iran was terrifying, as she worried she’d be sniffed out as an imposter.
The mullah explains, “The fanatics keep an eye out for even the slightest faux pas. Many times, the neighborhood Basij have tried to block access to my mosque. They accused me of blaspheming Islam, of presenting a skewed image of it. A young mullah who speaks English – they don’t like that. So imagine if they learned that I had a meeting with a Western female journalist in my mosque.”
Upon the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Minoui observes the country is “one torn between a nationalist retreat and the desire for openness.” There’s a theme of this kind of dichotomy throughout, underscoring the difficulty of living there, or even living abroad and still being connected to there – Minoui also experiences the reach of Iran’s threatening control after a spooky incident in her Paris apartment.
It’s a bit uneven, with gorgeously written and vividly depicted passages and others more forgettable, and something similar could be said of the events it depicts in general. A worthwhile examination of Iran’s tumultuous modern history and complex national identity with telling personal memoir. 3.75/5
I’m Writing You From Tehran:
A Granddaughter’s Search for Her Family’s Past and Their Country’s Future
by Delphine Minoui
translated from French by Emma Ramadan
published April 2 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
I’m going to have to read this because of my Persian heritage. (My dad is from Iran.) I’ve never been there. I am fascinated by it, though, all the contradictions. Such a beautiful country, an educated and overall young population, but still under the umbrella of strict Islamic control culturally. Thanks for this great review.
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I would love to hear what you think of it, knowing more about the culture and history as you do. I think you’d like it, she mentions a lot of these kind of contradictions and how they were coming close to moving in a more progressive direction. It’s fascinating. Hope you like it!
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Wonderful review! Matching the quality of Daring to Drive’s analysis of government/social policy is a tall order, but I’m glad to see that the personal story at the heart of this memoir was movingly told.
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I know, it was such a high bar, wasn’t it? That one just impressed me so much and I hoped for similar because this author had such a smooth writing style too, but Iranian history still felt hazy or hard to grasp here…I think my hopes were too high!
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This sounds fascinating – I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, but otherwise I have read very little about Iran, especially contemporary Iran. Even though you felt this was uneven in places, I think I am still going to pick it up, as it sounds very interesting.
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I have an old copy of Reading Lolita in Tehran I’ve been meaning to get to forever, maybe reading it now would be helpful. This one is definitely still worth the read, it was very revealing in some aspects and I learned a lot, I just felt like if I already had some background I might’ve gotten more from it.