Portraits from Contemporary Tehran

City of Lies:  Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran, by Ramita Navai, (Perseus Academic), 320 pages

Ramita Navi’s City of Lies is an interesting hybrid of a book—a sort of fictional nonfiction. In her forward, Navai tells readers that “I have changed all names and some details, time frames and locations to protect people, but everything here has happened or it still happening. These are all true stories from the city of lies.”

Navai explains that these lies are not the result of moral failings on the part of inviduals: “in order to live in Tehran you have to lie. Morals don’t come into it: lying in Tehran is about survival. This need to dissimulate is surprisingly egalitarian—there are no class boundaries and there is no religious discrimination when it comes to the world of deceit.” The liars in this collection of related tales range from a homemade porn star to a would-be political assassin to a male-to-female transsexual.

I found the story of Amir particularly riveting. At age six Amir, the son of  parents who will soon be executed because their personal lives challenge the regime, is “well versed in the art of lying. He has a ready stockpile of lies perched on the tip of his still-developing tongue, waiting for the cue for them to fall out of his baby mouth and into the ears of adults.” As an adult, Amir shares the secret of his parents’ fate with his girlfriend Bahar, who “read books; devoured them…. lived for the arts—theatre, film, and music…. loved Metallica, Radiohead, Zero and Zedbazi, an underground Iranian band that sang about drugs and sex (and who had all left the country).” Amir finds himself haunted by the judge who sentenced his parents to death, now seeking forgiveness as he prepares for his own death.

My primary complaint about this book pertains to its hybrid nature. While Navai assures us these stories are true, the lack of documentation makes them feel more like fiction than nonfiction—yet they aren’t effective as fiction, given Navai’s reportorial prose style. Nonetheless, for most U.S. readers, City of Lies will be a revelation, documenting a breadth and complexity that belie our more simplistic understanding of life in and the people of Tehran.

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