July 21, 2005
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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.