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Book review: The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, By Hooman Majd

 

When the Iranian-born but Western-raised writer Hooman Majd decided to take his wife and baby son to live in Iran for a year, he knew the powers-that-be would not festoon his path with roses.

The negative and split infinitive of the title are testimony to this, and partly refer to his interrogation on an earlier visit. But he wanted his wife and son to experience life in the country of his birth, and so he persisted, accepting restrictions such as the refusal of a work permit and regular anonymous phone calls from government officials.

This book is the fruit of that year, written in Majd's wry, laconic style, in which gentle comical lampooning combines with the relaying of facts. He takes us through daily life: negotiating traffic jams and pollution; dealing with unsolicited advice on childcare; observing high inflation and high unemployment in an increasingly tech-savvy and young population. The morality squads, Gasht-e Ershad, which stop women deemed to be indecently dressed, harass his wife, but she is spared the trip to the police station and a fine.

Majd is relatively kind about Iran's appalling human-rights record, but there is testimony from a prisoner in the notorious Evin prison. Although we are told that "sodomy" is illegal, those imprisoned or murdered because of their sexual orientation are not discussed. Nor is Iran's legal practice of marrying young girls to far older men. The circles in which Majd moves are intellectual ones, where people are Westernised. Under decorous shawls, they sport designer clothes and liberal views.

The political insights are fascinating. Majd analyses why no new revolution has arisen despite the Arab Spring – he suggests a mixture of apathy and fear – and considers the fate of reformists such as Rafsanjani, Khatami and Mousavi in an insightful, appealing read.

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