Wednesday 10 November 2010

Nahal Tajadod, Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes

A cutting edge non-fiction portrayal of a bustling, contradictory Iranian city.

Extract from the book cover, designed by Lyndon Hayes 

In modern Tehran, an ancient image of womanhood reigns. It was ushered in by the Islamic revolution and cruelly veils Iran’s true history as a civilisation that was the pinnacle of Persian culture, language and architecture. Now, writes Nahal Tajadod, “Everything is uniformly ugly.”

Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes is not, as its flippant and self-belittling title implies, a chick lit novel about a young Iranian gal trying to make it in love, life and whatever. Quite the opposite. A Francophone intellectual who lives in Paris and is an expert in Chinese culture and Persian history, Tajadod is from one of Iran’s elite families. Her grandfather was the Sheikh of Iran and Iraq and her father helped overthrow the Qadjar dynasty. The surname Tajadod is one he assumed. It means ‘modernity’.

The book, translated expertly by Adriana Hunter, is a non-fiction account of what ought to be a simple procedure. Tajadod is in Iran for a short time before returning to Paris and she needs to get her Iranian passport renewed. First, she must commission professional photographs in which she has transformed herself into a woman of whom the Islamic regime approves: “no hair appearing beneath the scarf, no visible make-up, no smile.” At the photo place she sees an advert for wedding photos. It’s a groom holding flowers for his bride. Except that there’s no bride in the picture as the law forbids displaying photos of women. Women are also forbidden from wearing high heels, “because the clicking of a woman’s heels as she walks could always arouse a good Muslim [man], therefore provoking dangerous sensations.” In the entrance to all government administrative buildings is a compulsory clothing check. Women’s handbags must contain no make-up or nail varnish, veils must permit no peek of hair and sleeves, trousers and coats must be of the right length and looseness.

It seems, in this early pages, like an Iran that readers in the West are all too aware of. There is the policing of women’s behaviour and appearance and the malicious double-think of blaming a woman for men’s violence against them. But Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes develops into a viciously witty, perceptive and unique portrait of an Iranian people, women and men, suffering under the yoke of an oppressive, illogical and absurd regime. The passport quest turns into a thrill ride through the black market, populated by photographers who double as hairdryer mechanics, a passport-agency insider who’s also a surgeon who trades body parts out of the morgue of a local hospital while doing property deals and taxi drivers who are also maths professors trying to supplement their incomes. In the shadow of the Islamic regime is a maze of alternative routes to getting things done. A fittingly smart and human counterpoint to the rigid bureaucracy of the regime, Tajadod’s experiences reflect not just the comedy but also the necessity of contingency. It is only through fixers, lucky encounters, bribes, clandestine meetings and helpful strangers that anything gets done. Tajadod’s girlfriends are a network of seemingly meek and nice good Islamic ladies who, in fact, are educated, intelligent, worldly and hell bent on proving that Tajadod, with her Parisian ways, is being hoodwinked and cheated at every turn.

Tajadod’s position as a highly international Iranian sophisticate, simultaneously loving of her country’s past and appalled by its present, makes her the perfect guide. Tehran’s people, by and large, emerge extremely well. Its government, not so much. Along with Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, this is set to become another modern classic in writing about the cultural conundrum that is today’s Iran.

Tehran, Lipstick and Loopholes is published in Virago paperback original, £11.99