Thursday, August 18, 2016

City of Lies by Ramita Navai (Book Review #38 of 2016)

City of Lies - Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran Ramita Navai

I recently reviewed a host of books on the history and development of Islam and Middle Eastern history (list at bottom of this post). I also read several which included some critiques along with views to the future and reform. I then worked through a list of books by Muslim women, most of which bring light to and critique inhumane practices found in their home countries. Included in this list was Nick Kristof's Half the Sky which looks at women's rights globally, and I'm also including another by someone who left Islam after an extensive intellectual and spiritual search. This book review is in the context of all of those books as a whole. The list (some reviews forthcoming):

Reform and human rights:
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali (4.5 stars)
Heretic - Ayaann Hirsi Ali (4 stars)
Headscarves and Hymens - Mona Eltahawy (4 stars)
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (5 stars)
I Am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali (4.5 stars)
The Land of Invisible Women -  Qanta Ahmed (4.5 stars)
Between Two Worlds - Zainab Salbi (5 stars).
City of Lies - Ramita Navai (3 stars)
Half the Sky - Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (4 stars)
Seeking Allah Finding Jesus - Nabeel Qureshi (4.5 stars)

Similar to this book, I read and would recommend:
Reading Lolita in Tehran -  Azar Nafisi (I read this years before)
Children of Jihad - Jared Cohen (4 stars) (Spent time in Tehran).
Between Two Worlds - Roxana Saberi (2.5 stars) (American of Iranian descent detained in Iran).

Navai is a British-Iranian journalist who has seen quite a bit. She got the idea for this book while living in Iran in 2004. I finished this book not long after Cohen and Saberi's works that illustrate some of the similarly unseen aspects of life in Iran to the eyes of Americans. Navai is highlighting all of the seedy contradictions and hidden lives, the drugs, the parties, the sex, the underground movements. She does this via a series of short stories of people she encounters, all connected to the Vali Asr, a main thoroughfare in Iran. The author apparently worked at the upper end of the road, in the high class district, but her work took her to the poorer south end of town. The stories are a bit disjointed; I found I was losing interest about halfway through when I realized I was just going to get short bits of these peoples' lives. Some of the details seemed too in-depth, the author tells the story and subtle gestures, phone conversations, whispers, etc. as though they were first hand. Certainly, some liberties are taken with the stories, and that detracts from the book.

One of the first stories she tells is of an assassin with the MEK, the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, a dissident group trying to overthrow the Iranian government. He trains abroad at a time when the MEK was pulling off assassinations inside Iran. When caught, he tries to commit suicide with cyanide, but it was expired, so he endures eight years of rape and torture in prison. When the government grants amnesty, he claims he was never tortured.

There is the life of teenage girls in Tehran, the cultural pressures they face at school. There is the desire to be with guys, who expect to be wanted, but then the cultural shunning that comes if they are seen as loose. In a scene reminiscent of Reading Lolita in Tehran, a girl is molested by her cousins and acosted by her peers.

Can a wife and child bring a rebellious and spoiled son into responsible adulthood? No, and he eventually becomes deeply involved in pornographic addiction, sex with prostitutes in Thailand, and brings a host of pain on his family. Fortune-reading Mullahs give guidance in the situation as the people are deeply superstititious and use the Quran more like an amulet than something to recite.

There is a son confronted by a guilt-ridden and repentant judge who had sentenced the boy's dissident parents to death years earlier. The boy himself is a dissident blogger likely in danger.

One woman in the book experiments with Christianity before finding out that the underground group was funded by Campus Crusade or something American. There are scenes of the Japanese Yakuza at work underground, the spread of crystal meth and drug addiction-- Iran supposedly has some of the highest rates of drug addiction in the world. "Sex is rebellion in Tehran," and the author tells the story of a porn actress making underground videos, police who can be bribed with sex on the spot, a Muslim cleric who marries prostitutes temporarily, a homosexual Basij member who undergoes a sex change, a gay pedophile Islamic cleric, etc.

In all, I give this book three stars out of five. Besides where they live, it is hard to see what exactly unifies the characters in the book other than their self-deception. The authors intent is to make the whole country seem like a lie, and she almost succeeds.

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