Lying to Survive: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth In Tehran

May 22, 2014

By Elliott Goat

“To live in Tehran you have to lie. Morals don’t come into it. Lying in Tehran is about survival.”

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Speaking at the Frontline Club on Wednesday 21 May about her new book City of Lies, Ramita Navai was joined in conversation by the BBC’s Middle East Correspondent Jeremy Bowen. She began by elaborating on the notion of lying as a means for survival and how each character in the book reflects these contractions within Iran:

“For me it was interesting to see how Iranian’s have adapted during the 30 years of the Islamic regime. One of the ways they have adapted is that lying [has become] an everyday common place activity. You have to do it and don’t think twice about it. Its really become part of the culture.”

Referencing an important theme running through the book, Bowen asked how this culture of lying manifests itself, specifically focusing on sex and how it is used as an act of rebellion in Tehran. Reading from the book, he continued:

“Sex is a form of protest. Only in sex do many of the younger generation feel truly free. Their bodies are weapons of revolt, a backlash against years of sexual repression.”

On the disconnect between Iran’s perception in the west of a totally sexually repressive society and the reality in Tehran, Navai described the explosive atmosphere which, nevertheless, demonstrates the inherent contradictions within the society:

“On one hand you could get killed for you sexual preferences yet it is still extraordinary what is happening with the youth and sex.”

Speaking specifically on the characters she encountered and chose to illustrate these contradictions, Navai described many of them as coming from the margins of society:

“To really understand a city and the way it ticks, the way it works, I am always drawn to the dark underbelly. While you have sex and drugs in every city, in Tehran everything is just so much more extreme because of the social strictures and because of the boundaries that you have.”

With so little of this known or reported outside of Iran, Bowen described the western perception as one based on “unreconstructed viewpoints” containing none of the subtleties that emerge in the book or any of the human frailties on display on the ground. Responding to this, Navai posits a misrepresented view of Iran “as this monolithic society”.

“One thing I wanted to do with my book is to show that it is actually so complex, that there are so many different layers where it is impossible to assume somebody’s views or how religious they are from their class or how much money they have.”

Navai commented that while the uprising of 2009 was ultimately repressed and failed, Iranian’s, having seen what has happened in Syria and as a consequence of the Arab spring, are now “resigned and yet happy with change happening very slowly”.

Citing Iran’s current brain drain, Navai questioned the failure of any one Mandela-like reformist figure to emerge and challenge the regime. Bowen responded by asking whether this meant any subsequent reform would have to come from the regime itself?

“I think so. Pretty much everyone that I spoke to, say seven or eight out of ten people, have said that they believe that the system can only change from within.”

Speaking of a gradual, organic process led by a Gorbachev-like figure, Navai commented that “they have been scared off by the Arab Spring and scared off by Afghanistan”.

In closing, Navai was again asked to elaborate on her choice of title, the reception it has had received within Iran and to define her conception of lying as an act akin to breathing – necessary as a means of survival.

“Most Tehrani’s have loved [the title] because they can relate to it. It is not said in a pejorative way. It is because of the everyday need to lie to be true to yourself. To me, it is testament to the spirit and Iranian’s romantic spirit that you must be true to yourself. The fact that Iranians are these adaptable people – that they want to lead the lives they want to lead, means that in order to do that they will lie.

“Names of books are symbolic as well. So it is symbolic of what happens in a city of 12 million people where you are forced to live two lives; your internal home life and your external public life.

“Of course you lie in every city, but the point with Tehran is that everything is more exaggerated because of the contradictions within the society.”

Watch and listen again here: