Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has rarely been off the western news agenda. The recent outcry over the diplomatic blunders of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a case in point. But the picture of Iran presented in the west has seldom been accurate in the past, and it is unlikely to improve with the publication of Nasrin Alavi’s collection of Iranian blogs, We Are Iran.
As official media channels are tightly controlled by the state, Iran now has more web diarists than most countries. Though Persian (or Farsi) is only the 28th most spoken language in the world, it is the fourth most popular language for blogging. There are about 64,000 Iranian bloggers currently online, of whom a small sample is represented here. Iran’s bloggers face real threats. Some of the most vocal and politically active among them are being arrested, as the government clamps down on dissent.
Alavi intends to paint a picture of the Iranian people’s struggle to develop a civil society based on democratic principles, but reproducing excerpts of blogs – intended to be read as evolving portraits of the writers’ thoughts and ideas – is problematic. It is curious, therefore, that We Are Iran has no preface, no introduction, no foreword, no author’s note and no acknowledgements. Editorial context – such as how many bloggers were approached, over what period the blogs were read, how many agreed to have their blogs used for the book and how many refused – is absent. Given the risks to the bloggers themselves, and Iran’s fraught relations with the west, these are serious omissions.
Alavi’s book most often reads like a political polemic, dressed up as an insight into the hearts and minds of young Iranians. The bloggers’ Iran “is not the Iran of bearded ayatollahs and thuggish militias”, the dust jacket proclaims. One has to conclude that being a bearded cleric is, in and of itself, a Very Bad Thing (rest easy, Dr Rowan Williams, they are not talking about you). Only one Iranian cleric, a moderate with his own blog, makes an appearance, lumped together with the blog of an extremist pro-revolution Hezbollah group. This amounts to Alavi’s stab at balance.
Her commentary makes no secret of her deep distaste for the present government in Iran, whose style of Islam she brands “mutant”. In this book, anything positive that has happened in Iran since 1979 is in spite of the revolution, and all the bad things that have happened are because of it. Even the clerics’ policy of free education has, according to Alavi, resulted only “paradoxically” in women accounting for a third of all doctors, 60 per cent of civil servants and 80 per cent of teachers, as well as outnumbering men in universities. Anything that fails to fit the anti-government agenda is described as a paradox: the “Shia Paradox”, “Cultural Paradoxes”, “The Paradox of Education for the Masses”, “Womanly Paradoxes”. So there you have it. Iran, land of paradoxes.
The blogs themselves are, however, admirably articulate, brave, heartfelt, funny and sad – in fact, pretty much as you’d expect. Where the bloggers express political views, they are overwhelmingly critical of the government, and there is little doubt that the excerpts have been selected to decry various aspects of life under the Iranian regime, leavened by occasional forays into lighter matter. But is this really a surprise? Need we be told that the educated youth in any country, including Iran, are out of tune with their rulers?
We Are Iran claims to be “a group portrait of today’s real Iranians”. But as another Iranian blogger, who does not appear in the book, points out, the vast majority of Iranians do not have access to the web. As in most countries, Iranian bloggers “represent the views of a very limited demographic group – affluent and otherwise privileged individuals”. I liked reading the blogs in this book, but I want to know the views of the majority of Iranians without blogs.
This book may be well intentioned, but it is not terribly sophisticated. There will continue to be, as there has been in recent years, a blossoming of writers, commentators and film-makers who have emerged as heroic rebels from within. They are eager to blast inequities at home to a fanfare of applause from the west, ever hungry for horror stories from this country that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing portrayed as forbidding and fearful. But the truth about Iran is more complex than this. If there should be a second edition of this book, the publishers could usefully revise the title to Are We Iran? Less catchy, but I dare say more accurate.
Amir Amirani is an Iranian film-maker and journalist living in London.