Written by Azadeh Moaveni, Liptsick Jihad is, as its subtitle suggests, a memoir of the author’s growing up Iranian in America…and then experiencing life in Iran as an American. I’m a sucker for any memoir that gives me a glimpse into another culture, and Moaveni’s compact and beautifully written book fits the bill perfectly.
Although routinely compared to writers like Marjane Satrapi (Being as how they’re both women? Of Iranian ancestry? I MEAN THEY MUST BE TWINS. Ugh.), Moaveni has a voice all her own, and infuses her journey to understand her sort of conflicted, dual history (as well as the conflicted, dual history of Iran) with humor, heart, and whole heap of honesty.
Growing up in California in the wake of the hostage crisis, Moaveni longs to just fit in … and shut out her mother’s incessant yapping about how she needs to respect her Iranian heritage. But when she goes to college and is encouraged to truly embrace her background, she does a 180 and gets it in her mind that she needs to move to Iran to truly experience what her family left behind. And while she eventually makes it to Tehran—as a fancy pants journalist for Time, no less--she’s struck with the realization that the Iran she and her family idealize is simply not existent any more. In its stead, she finds the Islamic Republic. And while some of the deep historic traditions still remain, the cultural rug was essentially pulled out from under society during the revolution, leaving a stagnant city full of people who daily face some pretty serious repression....or at least the fear of it in the form of the marauding morality police.
While I won't spoil the ending and tell you where Moaveni ultimately lands--physically or emotionally--I will tell you that my favorite parts of the book were when she digs into the agency question. Sure, in the early 2000s--the period of the time the book covers--women's scarves got a little more colorful, their roopooshes a little more snug, and their ability to stroll hand-in-hand with a boyfriend in a park a little less restricted. But Moaveni struggles with the fact that these changes are so, so minuscule, so incremental when viewed through a longer historic lens, considering what was permissible in the secular Iran of the mid 20th century. It's in these moments that she realizes that she's never going to live in the Iran her parents and grandparents experienced. And in some moments, she wants to fight for that possibility regardless of the odds, and in others she's inclined to just get out of dodge.
Lipstick Jihad is one of the most insightful, open memoirs I've read in a long time, and I appreciated the "insider's view" of Tehran in the early 21st-century, a place that, frustratingly, seems to take one step forward and two steps back. Yet throughout the book, Moaveni never leaves the reader feeling hopeless. Sure, she suggests, it might not be in her lifetime, but the Iran in her parents memory, the Iran in her heart, surely can't stay buried forever. It's this sense of hope, this sense that this is by far the final chapter in Iran's long history that pushes the memoir along through periods of frustration and sadness. Along the way the reader gets glimpses of city and a country that remain fairly inaccessible to a number of us.
And so, since I won't be traveling there any time in the near future, it was good to experience Iran through Moaveni's open eyes, willing to see the country for all its beauty and all its flaws.