New York Times Book Review - The Lonely War

Post Reply
Posts: 2071
Joined: Fri Jun 29, 2007 8:43 pm

New York Times Book Review - The Lonely War

Post by johnkarls »

The New York Times – 12/31/2014

Portrait of Iran, Where Revolution Is Ideological and the Costs Are Human
Nazila Fathi’s ‘The Lonely War’ Is a Memoir of Iran

By Nahid Mozaffari, who teaches Middle Eastern and Iranian history at New York University. She is the lead editor of “Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature.”

Nazila Fathi’s account of the turbulent years she spent in Iran as a child, a woman and a professional journalist is a personal story. But like most memoirs written by Iranian women in the last few decades, this personal story is intertwined with traumatic events — revolution and war, loss and betrayal.

“The Lonely War” begins by retelling a lesson from Ms. Fathi’s mother, imparted on the first day of third grade. “If anyone asks you whether your parents support the revolution, you must say, ‘Yes, they do.’ ” For many Iranians, having different public and private personas became an ordinary fact of life after the 1979 revolution, when Islamic forces led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power. In public, you had to conform to Islamic dress and profess religious beliefs, but at home and among friends, you could dress and act as you wished.

Ms. Fathi, who served as a reporter for The New York Times in Iran for nine years, was born in 1970 into a secular upper-middle-class family in Tehran. After the revolution that overthrew the shah, the family’s lives were changed forever as a result of “the metamorphosis of the society” around them. Her father, who worked in the Ministry of Energy, lost his job within a year and worked in his orchard to earn money. As the Islamic dress code became obligatory, Ms. Fathi and her sister, Goli, faced the tyranny of a “morality” teacher at school who tried to mold them into ideal Muslim girls.

The author remained steadfastly critical through it all. “To feel human,” she writes, “we needed to retake control of our minds as well as our bodies. We waged the war on both fronts.”

She studied English at Azad University and became a translator for foreign journalists. In 1992, she accompanied Judith Miller of The Times to a campaign event, and it was then, she says, that “the journalism bug bit me.” In 2009, the huge uprising known as the Green Movement erupted from those protesting what they saw as vote tampering. Ms. Fathi and visiting Times journalists covered many of the protests and reported on the violence by the authorities against peaceful demonstrators.

Defying a ban on covering the protests any further, Ms. Fathi was under surveillance at her home and tailed by government agents; her life was threatened. She, her husband and two children left Iran in June 2009.

“The Lonely War” is divided into the personal, political and social history of three decades, from 1979 to 2009. In short and lucid chapters about each period, Ms. Fathi conveys the experiences of people from different walks of life and intersperses these accounts with observations about how the new Islamic revolutionary ideology was conceived, anticipated, received and resisted. In her view, there have been intended and unintended consequences of revolutionary policies in this turbulent era. “The revolution is evolving,” she says, and she is right.

Ms. Fathi is sometimes on shaky historical ground, especially before the revolution. (For example, the National Front coalition was secular, not religious nationalist.) Nor was it, as she implies, only the modernization programs of the Pahlavi dynasty that created anger and resentment among traditional groups and toppled the shah. It was also the accompanying political repression, censorship, cronyism and bad economic and cultural policies, which the author underestimates, that alienated the modern middle class along with the poor. The book’s portrayal of the violence against dissidents after the revolution, the isolation of Iran during the American hostage crisis of 1979-81, and the traumatic war with Iraq (1980-1988) is precise and poignant. And this account is especially good regarding the state’s efforts to control women. “Our bodies became battlefields,” Ms. Fathi writes. “The Islamic regime was intent on controlling every dimension of our lives, and we were determined to resist.”

But the Islamic state’s report card is not all bad. Ms. Fathi is fair in discussing the government’s focus on improving the living standards for the urban and rural poor, including the delivery of electricity and water, and the construction of schools and universities. And she notes that while the Islamic laws restricted and discriminated against women, the Islamization of public space led more religious families to feel safe allowing their daughters and wives to go to school, to vote and to participate in the economy and society.

After Ayatollah Khomeini’s death in 1989 and the emergence of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the religious leader and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as president, different factions began to emerge within the leadership. As a young translator and journalist, Ms. Fathi was exposed both to the mind-sets of hard-line clerics and young Basij militia recruits as well as to emerging voices of dissent, including those of disgruntled former revolutionaries.

Her portraits of the women’s rights activists Faezeh Hashemi and Shahla Sherkat make for fascinating reading. So do her accounts of other courageous Iranian women like the lawyers Mehrangiz Kar and Shirin Ebadi (the first Muslim woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2003), who made legal challenges against discriminatory laws against women, and publishers like Shahla Lahiji who dared to print the work of those branded as “degar-andish,” literally, “those who think differently.”

Ms. Fathi argues that as poor and more strictly religious women became more educated, the differences between their views on women’s rights and those of secular women began to diminish. It was then that activists like Ms. Sherkat and Ms. Ebadi employed any available religious latitude to challenge the status quo and improve the legal circumstances of women. Such changes, in addition to higher levels of education for all and more access to information through technology, prepared the ground for the high voter turnout (80 percent) in the 1997 presidential elections and the victory of the reformist Mohammad Khatami.

The kinder, gentler face of Mr. Khatami’s government severely threatened hard-line factions, including Mr. Khamenei’s. Ms. Fathi vividly describes how the broadly based reformist movement — particularly the student movement — was crushed and felt betrayed as the reformist leadership backed down to avoid a major confrontation with Mr. Khamenei. The violent crackdown of student demonstrations in the summer of 1999 showed that the directly elected bodies of the Islamic republic had far less power than the unelected bodies, which are religious.

By the start of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first term as president (2005), Ms. Fathi had been under surveillance by the Intelligence Ministry (which did not frighten her), the Revolutionary Guards (which did) and the unpleasant person of her children’s nanny. But she bravely continued her reporting.

For this period, as Iran’s economic situation worsened, she provides an excellent account of rising tensions, intimidation and arrests in the run-up to the 2009 elections, and a harrowing description of the mass demonstrations that broke out once the result was announced prematurely.

Ms. Fathi’s book is a testament to her courage and to the brave struggles of many Iranians who continue to live there with patience, hope and determination. Considering that Iran now has a thriving civil society, vibrant youth and women’s movements, and some political change with the election of President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, perhaps hers isn’t such a lonely war after all.

Post Reply

Return to “Reference Materials – The Lonely War: One Woman’s Account of the Struggle for Modern Iran – July 15”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest