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July 21, 2005

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Lipstick Jihad

Cross-culture conflict. Book wonders what if you are fish out of water everywhere.

by Amy Diaz

Lipstick Jihad: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran, by Azadeh Moaveni, PublicAffairs, 2005, 249 pages.

Iran seems like one of those places Iíd very much like to visit ó just not right now.

Maybe 40 years ago or 20 years from now, it would lead my list of exotic locales rich with historical and culinary delights. But for now, well, what kind of vacation is it if you have to keep yourself bundled up head to toe in a roopoosh (a slightly more fitted and less frumpy version of the chador)?

Lipstick Jihad balances these desires (to see this interesting country, to not dress like a sofa) pretty well because they are the twin interests of author Azadeh Moaveni, a journalist and American of Iranian descent. And, as it turns out, a girl my own age. In the imaginary world that develops in my head when I read the memoirs of a similarly aged author, we become buddies. Iím not simply hearing about her life; me and my Iranian-American buddy, who grew up in northern California, not so far from where I was born, are discussing her adventures over tea, a plate of baklava between us. She talks about being an exile from an Iran of corruption but of relative modernity, an Iran that no longer exists. Her experiences, though far more interesting and current-events-related than my own, nonetheless give us something to bond over because I am also a native U.S. citizen who didnít always feel completely American.

And this is what is particularly clever about Lipstick Jihad: replace a few words (communist for Islamic, for example) and you have the story of a 20-something trying to sort out her ancestral connection to Cuba. The book works best on this post-collegiate adventure, sorting-out-oneís-identity level because, though a journalist working in Iran, Moaveni is first and foremost a girl working in Iran. She is a girl putting up with her aunts and grandfather, she is a girl dating and breaking up with an assortment of international suitors, she is a girl who is trying to balance her desire to blend in with her desire to oppose the Islamic Republic with her desire to look cute.

Lipstick Jihad has quite a bit of lipstick in it. As the book explains and as the Iran of 1999 and 2000 demonstrated, there are a lot of young people in the country who want a more western lifestyle. They want to wear what they want, hang out with mixed groups of men and women in public, watch MTV and listen to Snoop Dogg. As the recent election pointed out, this group might not be as strong as the fatalistic disbelief in real reform and the devil-you-know attitude toward hardliners that offer, if nothing else, at least jobs. The lipstick represents not just the youth but the opening, the chance that Iran could see a brighter future and better relations with the west.

The book really covers the period of greatest hope (a hope that more or less vanishes entirely with the attacks of Sept. 11 and the whole ďaxis of evilĒ designation). Moaveni takes the small, sudden loosening of strict Islamic Republic rules as her opportunity to discover the country sheís known mostly only from relativesí stories. She dusts off her Farsi and turns her reporterís eye on her parentsí homeland.

Her story is engrossing and highly entertaining, in part because of how honest she is about her own occasional cowardice and her obsession with petty details. She gives you lively, very girly descriptions of the tarty teenagers of Iran (who dress up with typical high-school-girl overkill) who have been so separated by strict interpretations of Islam that they donít know how to relate to each other. And, in tones both horrified and gossipy, she talks about the corruption of the clerics ó so sanctimonious in public but frequently leering at her and even occasionally propositioning her.

At the end of the book, I was left with a sense of uneasy optimism ó optimistic because the will of the people of Iran does not seem to be behind their hardline government and uneasy because American attentions toward Iran appear to only more deeply entrench those leaders.