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Qantara.de - Dialogue with the Islamic World

An army of uniform noses populates this book. They are narrow and fine and well-formed - because almost all of them were operated on by a cosmetic surgeon. But in between, one or the other natural character nose appears and stands out. That of Ana, for example, a single woman in her late twenties: "She was one of the few Iranians who still had the imperfect nose she was born with, a stately, powerful, curved nose that has become a proud trademark of her strength and individuality was. " And this despite the fact that relatives, friends, even strangers on the street, have urged Ana to "have her nose cut to a more acceptable, marriage-friendly size".

The noses are just one of the wonderfully observed details in the literary report volume "City of Lies. Love, Sex and Death in Tehran", which has now been published in German. In eight portraits, the British-Iranian journalist Ramita Navai looks at the lives of Tehrans, who have to submit to such strict rules of their state and religion and are also exposed to so much social pressure and leveling that a perfectly normal nose has symbolic power can. That young people dancing in the street are like a mass rebellion. That a picnic on the edge of a four-lane road means freedom.

Exploit the smallest of freedoms

Ramita Navai has closely observed these possibilities of exhausting the smallest freedoms and setting standards over the past few years. And the lies that are necessary to lead life a little more according to your own ideas and a little less according to the ideas of those in power, without being targeted by religious leaders, the moral police or the secret service. These lies are the basic tenor of the book, which therefore begins with the sentence: "I want to make one thing clear from the start: If you want to live in Tehran, you have to lie."

Ramita Navai lives there herself. She was born in Tehran, her family left Iran when she was six years old during the 1979 revolution. She grew up in England, later worked as a journalist and finally became a correspondent in Tehran in 2003 until she ran the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance revoked the work permit. She then worked as a volunteer English teacher teaching street children in the poor south of Tehran, which is in stark contrast to the rich villa districts of the north, where she got to know a drug addict prostitute who showed her her world - and thus a part of the city that was previously unknown to her . She continued researching, spoke to countless people from different backgrounds and accompanied them in their everyday lives.

Not a fiction

The eight portraits that resulted from this research read like narratives, interspersed with the history of Iran before, after and during the Islamic Revolution, the protests in 2009, Khomeini, Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and Rouhani. And yet they are not stories, but reports.

"Nothing about this book is fiction," Navai said in a recent interview. That is, every story is based on a true story. Or several true stories. The portraits are collages, composed of different people and scenes, which have been arranged and interwoven into a stringent plot.

How dangerous it can be for Tehrans to tell their stories can be seen in the acknowledgment at the back of the book: Although everyone the author has spoken to is named there - but with their first name, a pseudonym or even just an initial .

Ramita Navai has settled her protagonists along Valiasr Street, the long boulevard that connects North Tehran with South Tehran, and with it the villas and the often more "western" lifestyle with poverty, crime and strict religiosity. Each portrait bears the name of a person, but also takes place in certain places in the city, which are mentioned in subheadings and can be traced on the map drawn in the book.

You quickly get the feeling that you are standing on Hafte-Tir-Platz with the young blogger and dissident Amir, whose parents were executed, or with the prostitute Leyla, who has left her husband, on the street on Takhte-Tavoos-Straße - and to really know the city at some point. How it smells, feels and looks like who lives there.

Controlled sexuality

Some of the portraits are just a spotlight on a life, others are closed stories with development, suspense and a moving ending. And each one sheds light on a specific topic, such as divorce, homosexuality and transsexuality, terrorism or prostitution, and what suffering, but also what dangers all these things entail in the Islamic Republic.

And how you have to use tricks and lies to survive. Everything that has to do with sex is particularly explosive, because the regime controls sexuality in a particularly rigid manner - which in Tehran apparently leads to a hidden oversexualization.

In "City of Lies" sex is a constant theme, sometimes suppressed, sometimes violent, sometimes longed for, sometimes absurd. You can find him on the flourishing black market for pornography, with the boys of the Islamic volunteer militia "Basij", who are only too happy to control young girls, with their commanding officer who molests little boys, with the older gentleman who pretends to go to Mecca on a regular basis make a pilgrimage and fly to Thailand instead, with the young divorced woman who prays and fasts to get rid of her lust, or with the prostitute who enters into short marriages with her clients, so-called "Sigheh", in order to legalize the act.

Dirty jokes are circulating in the city about mullahs who let naked women into the house, or "Tehran as the cosmopolitan city of anal sex" because as a young woman you can have sex and still marry with an intact hymen - otherwise you still stay the surgeon patching it up again. You quickly notice that sex in Tehran is much more than a sexual act. It is an instrument of power or a means of rebellion - and also the only way for many women to lead a reasonably independent life.

The strange thing is: in the end, after all the madness, the suffering, the oppression and the absurdity, after a stoning and an abuse case, drug crime and several unhappy marriages, you are still in love with this city. Because fate touches you so much. Because Ramita Navai manages to understand the deep religiousness of the young Somayeh as well as Amir's atheism. Because helpful people keep popping up and two people really love each other again and again. You then have the feeling that everything is possible in this city where nothing is allowed.

In the last report, the aging Farideh leaves the country for a new start in London. At first she enjoys the freedom there. But then you notice how cool and dispassionate many people are there, and how aggressive many others are. How much it rains and how expensive life is. She gets homesick and eventually she returns. You can understand them.

Nadja Schlueter

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2016

Ramita Navai: "City of Lies. Love, Sex and Death in Tehran", afrom the English by Yamin von Rauch, Verlag No & But, 288 pages, ISBN: 978-3-0369-5750-0