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December 2, 2013

“The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay”

by Anne Paddock

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.

Iran and its people interest me although my experience with the country has been limited to a brother, who traveled to Tehran in 1978 and successfully smuggled into the US an abandoned puppy found on the streets, and my daughter, whose dearest childhood friend is Persian (but living in Switzerland). Surrounded by Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, Iran is in a hotbed of countries that have a long history of contentious relations with the US and is therefore not a country most Americans can travel to or know much about.

For those who don’t know the recent history of Iran, which is very relevant to the story, here is the short two paragraph version:

In 1901, Iran allowed the British to explore for oil, which they found in 1908. In 1909, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) was formed which the Brits controlled from 1914 – 1951. Resenting British and US interference and what the Iranians viewed as unfair financial agreements, the petroleum industry was nationalized in 1951, much to the dismay of the Brits and Americans who were greatly benefiting from the decades long arrangement (Iran has the largest gas and the third largest oil reserves in the world).

In 1953, a coup (funded and secretly led by the British and Americans) ousted the democratically elected prime minister which paved the way for a new petroleum agreement with the newly installed Shah, an autocratic man who was viewed as a pawn for foreign interests by the Iranians who wanted to run their country without foreign interference. In 1979, the Islamic Revolution ousted the Shah which resulted in a several political parties vying for power, with the extreme conservatives winning control and establishing an autocratic government in which human rights, free speech, and the women’s movement have been disregarded.

At the core of Iran’s government is the Supreme Leader – a conservative fundamentalist leader – who with the support of the religious cleric (elected by the people), the military, and the secret police – has the power to override virtually anything the “democratically” elected President does.  In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative candidate won the Presidential election and served a 4-year term. In 2009, he ran for re-election and “won” which led to uprisings, especially among the young (three-quarters of Iran’s population are under age 30) who alleged voter fraud. The protests – referred to as The Green Movement (reflecting an opposing presidential candidate’s campaign color) – were quickly extinguished by the military and the secret police.

41y4hKnmaNL._SL500_AA300_In 2011, after the dissension and mid-way through Ahmadinejad’s second term, Hooman Majd, a 50-year old Iranian-born American citizen who was raised in the US and England brings his 39-year old blue-eyed blond yoga loving American wife, Karri and 8 month old son Khash to Tehran where they plan to live for a year. A journalist by trade, Majd is the grandson of a former ayatollah and the nephew of a former President and would conceivably have access to the inner workings of Iran, from which he planned to write a book although the authorities told Majd: “just because you have an Iranian passport doesn’t mean you can come here and write whatever you want when you leave…”

The Ministry of Guidance Invites You To Not Stay is the story of the ten months the family spent living in Iran. Settling in an apartment in Tehran, the family is somewhat protected by Majd’s connections but at the same time under constant surveillance by the authorities who are deeply suspicious of Majd’s motives for a long-term stay in a country that doesn’t offer the journalistic freedom he is used to in the west.

Majd exposes the difficulties of living in his home country – the “maddeningly contradictory behavior of government officials” and the power of the The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (the morality police) who regulate the day-to-day public behavior of its citizens – and the benefits which include the parties, the food, and the Persian tendency to adulate children.Throughout their stay, the family must grapple with a fluctuating currency, a disregard for basic automotive safety (i.e. no infant car seats or seat belts), pollution, and a culture that doesn’t often question authority, is distrustful of strangers, and believes at its core that life is shameful.

The reader learns about the effects of the sanctions – poor and dangerous airline service because replacement parts cannot be obtained, limited credit card use because merchants cannot settle accounts through the Iranian Central Bank – the two currency system and inflation, mandatory national service in the army, that every non-pious family has a good internet connection, a satellite television connection, and a steady liquor supply  (despite alcohol being banned in Iran), the architecture and historical sites cut off from the rest of the world, and most significantly that the Iranians have an unwavering loyalty to their country despite different political views:

Iranians today hold too many wildly opposing views of what the country should be to form any real united opposition to the regime; even the supporters of an Islamic system, who are most likely to be able to effect change, believe the regime has merely strayed from the path of Islamic democracy and needs a course correction.

But, “at the core of all the dissension is a united support of Persian nationalism” which is the key to understanding Iran. Towards the end of Majd’s stay, he sits down with his uncle, the former President Khatami who tells him:

We have always wanted freedom, democracy, human rights and so on but we never instituted the culture for them. We haven’t figured out how to reconcile those concepts with our culture. We can’t be completely modern, or reject all modernity. Neither works in our culture, as much as we might try.

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