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Lipstick Jihad

A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America And American in Iran

by Azadeh Moaveni

Paperback, 260 pages, Perseus Books Group, List Price: $13 |


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Lipstick Jihad
A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America And American in Iran
Azadeh Moaveni

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Book Summary

The story of the Iranian-American author's search for identity between two cultures torn apart by a violent history paints a portrait of Iran's next generation.

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Excerpt: Lipstick Jihad

Lipstick Jihad

A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America and American in Iran


Copyright © 2005 Azadeh Moaveni
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781586483784

Chapter One

The Secret Garden

* * *

You ask me about that country, whose details now escape me, I don't remember its geography, nothing of its history. And should I visit it in memory, It would be as I would a past lover, After years, for a night, no longer restless with passion, With no fear of regret. I have reached that age when one visits the heart merely as a courtesy. -Faiz Ahmed Faiz

It was so cool and quiet up in the toot (mulberry) tree that I never wanted to come down. I didn't have to; the orchard was so dense that I could scramble from the limb of one tree to another, plucking the plump, red berries as I went along. The sweet juice made my fingers stick together, but I couldn't stop climbing. The trees stretched out as far as I could see, a glorious forest of mulberries, ripe for my picking. I loved mulberries, but until that summer in Tehran, I had only tasted them dried, from little plastic packets sold in the Iranian grocery story in San Jose. Riveted by the abundance, and the squishy texture of the berry in its fresh form-a whole new delight-I had spent the better part of the afternoon perched in the shady canopy of the orchard. "Azadeh jan, I am going to count to three, and you had better come down," came Maman's glaring voice from somewhere far below. I gave in, but only because of the preliminary pangs of the hideous stomachache to come. Sedigheh Khanoum, one of the farmers who took care of the orchards at Farahzad and who had tended Maman's stomach when she was little, made me tea with sugar crystals, to soothe the cramps. And I lay content on my back on the Persian rug outside, as Maman chatted with Sedigheh about our life in America, debating whether tomorrow I should go after the delicate white toot, or the dark red.

Only a very small child in the safety of a walled family compound would have felt liberated in Iran one year after the Islamic Revolution, but I was blissfully unaware of such matters. Finally, I was unleashed, and wanted to stay forever in this country where I could romp about freely. In Iran I could play wherever and with whomever I wanted-in the street, in the backyard, with the caretaker's daughter, with my brand-new duck. When my cousins and I played at our grandparents' apartment complex in California, we had to be visible and within hearing distance at all times. We were tethered to our parents' fears: that we might consort with "street children"-which I later realized only meant normal kids who were allowed to play outside-or that some terrible fate might befall us in this as yet foreign country. If we were to blip off the radar for more than a few minutes, a search and rescue squad would fan out in our pursuit. Neither I nor my cousins tolerated this cloying protectiveness well, and occasionally we would dial 911 in revenge, for the pleasure of watching our poor grandmother or aunt explain to a stern policeman who knocked on the door that "Surely, sir, there is mistake; here we are having no emergency."

In Tehran that summer, I wasn't the only one unleashed. My mother could barely stay put, flitting from house to house, from Tehran to the Caspian and back again; even when she was at home, sitting down, she was gulping in space-high ceilings, drawing rooms vast enough that I could race a tricycle down from one end to the other-as though her lungs had only been partially breathing the whole time she'd been away. I finally saw Maman, my beautiful, proud, mad mother, laughing gustily, instead of the tight-lipped smile she wore as she chauffeured me around San Jose, to piano lessons, to ice skating lessons, to gymnastics, back and forth to school, all by herself. It was often just the two of us, on this trip to Iran, and back in California as well. My parents had divorced shortly after they permanently moved to America in 1976, just a few months after I was born.

She took me to the pastry shop on Pahlavi Boulevard, where we bought the bite-sized creampuffs we had labored over in our kitchen in San Jose, and the ice cream that I forever after associated with that summer in Tehran, that fleeting glimpse of the life we might have had. Akbar-mashti, it was called, saffron-colored, dotted with bits of cream and bright flecks of pistachio, perfumed with rose water. Pahlavi ran north-south through Tehran, from the foot of the Alborz mountains downtown, and we walked its northern length, licking our ice cream as it dripped between two thin wafers. Later I would learn that Reza Shah, the late Shah of Iran's father, modeled the boulevard after the arteries of Paris, and that it had been renamed by the revolution Vali Ar (after the Mahdi, the occulted, final iman of Shiism), but that everyone still called it Pahlavi. Years later I would flee down its side streets, tripping in flimsy sandals, away from Islamic vigilantes with clubs who would kill and die to make sure the name never changed back. But that summer it was only an elegant slope of sycamores where Maman would take me for bastani (ice cream), where I first discovered that a boulevard could be lined on both sides with a flowing stream, a joob, covered with little bridges.

To my five-year-old suburban American sensibilities, exposed to nothing more mystical than the Smurfs, Iran was suffused with drama and magic. After Friday lunch at my grandfather's, once the last plates of sliced cantaloupe were cleared away, everyone retired to the bedrooms to nap. Inevitably there was a willing aunt or cousin on hand to scratch my back as I fell asleep. Unused to the siesta ritual, I woke up after half an hour to find the bed I was sharing with my cousin swathed in a tower of creamy gauze that stretched high up to the ceiling. "Wake up," I nudged him, "we're surrounded!" "It's for the mosquitoes, khareh, ass, go back to sleep." To me it was like a fairy tale, and I peered through the netting to the living room, to the table heaped with plump dates and the dense, aromatic baklava we would nibble on later with tea. The day before I had helped my grandmother, Razi joon, make ash-e gooshvareh, "earring stew"; we made hoops out of the fresh pasta, and dropped them into the vat of simmering herbs and lamb. Here even the ordinary had charm, even the names of stews.

It was high summer, so many nights we slept outdoors, on the roof of my uncle's building in Shemroon, north Tehran. The servants would carry out the mattresses, the piles of pillows and linens, and we would talk until late, sipping sour cherry juice, before falling asleep under the stars. When the weather turned cold, one of the rooms inside was transformed into a korsi-a cozy heap of cushions, carpets, and blankets, arranged in a circle around a central fire of coals, a sort of giant, round, heated bed that served as the venue for winter salons. Each morning, I would sit at my spot at the long table in the airy kitchen, and spin the silver jam wheel, deciding whether to heap carrot, quince, or fig jam on my hot, buttered barbari bread, before sneaking off to snuggle under the korsi.

It was only once we arrived in Iran that the mystery of our life in California began to make sense. I finally saw the world that had been left behind, and the world our existence in California was dedicated to recapturing. Before that summer, my first visit back, I had suspected my family of collective dissimulation. I would ask my grandfather countless times, "Agha Joon, were you really a judge in Iran?" I couldn't conceive how, if the stories were true, they could be reconciled with the only reality that I knew.

I was entirely unconscious at that age of the revolution, and how in classic revolutionary fashion, one social class had overthrown another. Before that came to pass, Iranian society was divided into a tiny upper class, a wide middle with its own distinguishable upper and lower parts, and a sizable body of poor or working class. My mother's family fell somewhere in the area between middle and upper-middle, which meant that they were landowners, and able to send four children to the West for university. Most strands of my father's family were wealthy, and belonged to that upper class that the revolutionaries of 1979 were bent on unseating. One of my uncles had been roommates at Berkeley with Mustafa Chamran, who became one of the leaders in the uprising. They had been friendly in those college days, and when at the dawn of the revolution my uncle was taken to prison, he contacted his old roommate Chamran. No reply. "Your type must go," came a message, through a friend.

Leaving Tehran broke my heart. My pet duck died the week we were to go, and Maman tried to console me with promises of a kitten back home. I was too young to understand that what I didn't want to part with was a newfound sense of wholeness-a sense of belonging in a world that embraced us. The memories of those few months colored the rest of our life in America. They flooded back vividly, when my grandmother cooked jam, when Maman took me with her to the bank, to visit the safety-deposit box where she kept all the jewelry she no longer wore, the gold bangles and dainty earrings our relatives had bestowed on me in Tehran. In times of acute alienation, they were a reminder that things could be different; proof that the often awkward fusion of East and West in our American lives didn't necessarily point to our failure, but the inherent tension of the attempt. At those times when I was most furious with Maman, I would recall the lightness of our days in Tehran, her easy smile and fluid movements, and remind myself of the strength it took for her to build a life in a strange country, alone.

* * *

My maternal grandparents came to the United States in the mid-1970s, intending to base themselves for good near Stanford Hospital, where my grandmother's ailing heart could be sustained by a pacemaker and tended by skilled cardiologists. My own parents had attended university in California in the late sixties, along with their many siblings, but like most Iranian students of that generation, they chose not to stay. They returned to Iran with American degrees, and lofty dreams of modernizing the homeland, and discouraging the Shah of Iran from behaving like an authoritarian American puppet. In 1976, my parents married and came to the United States, with no fixed idea of staying forever, but a passing wish to be near my grandparents, lonely in their medical exile. The rest of the family, all their brothers and sisters, remained in Iran, intending to lead international lives traveling back and forth between Iran and the West, the twin poles of modernity and home. Until 1979, the year of the great catastrophe that tossed our lives up into the air, scattering us haphazardly like leaves in a storm.

It came to be known as the Islamic Revolution, though even that term is contested by people like my relatives, who insist it was a populist uprising stolen by fundamentalist clerics. Until 1979, Iran was ruled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, a detached, out-of-touch leader whose unpopular government was propped up in 1953 by an American-British coup. The Shah, in the classic style of Middle East potentates, reigned with an authoritarian hand and an allegiance to policies favored by his American backers. He spent vast reserves of oil money on the latest American military technology, but neglected to manage the urbanization and rapid growth that was transforming Iranian society. While he staged baroque, extravagant spectacles in honor of the Persian dynastic tradition, his critics were silenced, and great swaths of Iranian society stayed poor. The sliver that thrived did so flamboyantly, with a Western easiness that provoked the majority of Iranians too traditional and too poor to appreciate the advent of bikinis and Christian Dior. By the late 1970s, resentment against the Shah's regime-for its pro-Western tilt, for its stifling of political dissent, and for economic policies that widened the disparity in wealth-gained momentum, and the revolution unfolded. Some of my relatives left shortly before, when the rumblings grew louder. Of my father's two brothers, one went to prison for his ties to the monarchy; another stayed to cheer the great nationalist revolt.

When radical students took the American embassy hostage in 1979, they transformed a classic revolution into a dramatic confrontation with the United States. The hostage taking energized the uprising and added an iconoclastic dimension, a historic triumph of East over West. That is why, to this day, the Islamic Republic cultivates its stale anti-Americanism, once the life force of the revolution. The freshly minted regime immediately went to war with Iraq, and the two great strategic powers of the Middle East sapped each other's strength for nearly a decade.

To be Iranian in the United States during the 1980s meant living perpetually in the shadow of the hostage crisis. Many Iranians dealt with this by becoming the perfect immigrants: successful, assimilated, with flawless, relaxed American English and cheerfully pro-American political sentiments. Not Maman. I should've known the day I was flipping through old black and white photos of her college years in California. There she stood, with an elaborate beehive, wearing a mini-skirt covered with paisleys, hoisting a placard that read "Palestine is ours!" From my aunts, other relatives, and American family friends who had attended college at places like UC Berkeley and USC in the 1960s, I'd heard stories of a thriving expatriate Iranian student scene-they snorted cocaine, skied, drove fast cars, jet-setting between California, Europe, and Tehran. Why hadn't she been hanging out with them?

Maman imposed on our life in California her strict sense of justice, which others seemed to find noble but which to me was simply an effort to destroy my peace of mind. Often I'd come home from school to find a perfect stranger at the kitchen table, the latest Iranian charity case-an abused wife, a teenage runaway-she'd taken up to rescue. Sometimes these strangers would live with us for weeks, while Maman ignored my complaints that she should be concerned with baking cookies and acting like a normal American parent.

But fate, it seemed, had dealt me a mother who night after night shook her fist at the television, decrying America's latest interference in Latin America, or the brutal crimes being perpetrated against Palestinians. At the time, these tirades confused me. I didn't understand how what happened in Palestine related to us, living quietly in our corner of California. I didn't understand why these distant political conflicts were woven into her consciousness, why they resonated so forcefully.