Life in a city is about survival, and Tehran is no different. Survival is as much an evolutionary feature as an act of desperation, moreso when a city seems torn between tradition and modern, conflict and resolution, and truth and lies. To strike a balance between religious obligations and human desires, a majority of Tehranis are forced to lie to ensure survival. And they do so for no fear of retribution, an instinctive response to an oppressive regime that believes in interfering in the most intimate affairs of its over twelve million citizens.
Deception has become a way of life for Tehranis of all age groups. While children are trained to deny that daddy has any booze at home, teenage girls hide their promiscuity by passionately vowing their virginity. And if this is not enough, it is a city where gangsters rule the streets and the Mullahs are known to visit prostitutes. Moral policing by the state has led the pathology of subterfuge percolate across every corner of the city. Drawn from across the spectrum of society in the city, eight characters personify the compelling stories of deceit and deception. There are intimate stories within each story, depicting the past which cannot be escaped and a future that is equally inescapable.
The stories are located around the famous Vali Asr Street, which runs through the middle of the city, pumping life through it and spitting it out into the deepest corners of the city. These are real-life stories of ordinary people forced to live extraordinary lives: the assassin Dariush, the porn star Leyla, the gangster Bijan, the blogger Amir, the socialite Farideh, the thug Asghar, the militiaman Morteza, and the housewife Somayeh are connected by a common thread – they are all busy either running for or running from their lives, literally. Ramita Navai got to know these people while living and working as a journalist in Tehran that helped her draw intimate portraits of their survival strategies amidst unimaginable circumstances.
Like each of the eight characters most Tehranis are in constant conflict, on a quest to find their real selves and to free them from the repressive environment. Far from being judgmental, the author remains empathetic towards the protagonists as she finds them irrepressible warm ‘no matter how tight the regime turns the screw’. Even their over-indulgence in drugs and sex is contextual; an irresistible response by a majority who consider themselves always doomed, lied to and betrayed. A panacea for everything from aches to boredom to joblessness, opium has become a classless drug smoked along the length and breadth of Vali Asr and beyond. It gives temporary relief to ten million drug addicts in the county, even though two million are chronic addicts.
Sex, on the other hand, is an act of rebellion in Tehran, a form of protest. Only in sex do many of the younger generation feel truly free, asserts Navai. They have ultimate control over their bodies, if nothing else in their lives, and they have made it the weapon of revolt. It is a backlash against years of sexual repression; of having to continually lie and hide natural desires. This is a shocking portrait of a city where despite the ominous presence of a repressive state, the traditions and values are getting eroded. Political intrigues and religious beliefs have only trumped the glorious heritage of a picture postcard city. There is a hidden city within the facade of the city.
Ramita Navai’s writing is intense and powerful, engrossing and engaging, navigating through the lives of those who are torn between hope and despair, between twists and resolutions. In drawing an honest, intimate and true portrait of the city, the author finds a strange connect with the characters she has drawn on the pages of City of Lies. Despite the painful assertion that the limitations of life in an Islamic Republic require everyone to hide aspects of their selves, the author finds herself strangely in love with the city. So much so that she kept returning to the city long after foreign media had been banned from the country.
City of Lies is a courageous writing at its best. Written with passion and flair, the author has painstakingly unmasked the city that lies shrouded in lies. People will demonstrate, citizens will be executed, lovers abandoned and police corrupted but Vali Asr will remain a constant, stitching together the bloodlines, the clans, the kindness, the prying and the meddling.
Though complaining is a way of life in Tehran but not many seems to be complaining as yet. Strangely enough, neither are they mourning though Tehranis are known to make excellent mourners. City of Lies leaves the reader groping for an answer to the prevailing psychology of its inhabitants. Will they be ever liberated from the intricate web of lies or have they resigned themselves to their falsehoods?
City of Lies
by Ramita Navai
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London
Extent: 301, Price: £18.99
This review was first published in the Deccan Herald, May 3, 2015.