Hooman Majd is a man in search of a country – his own country, that is. For Majd, home has always been an elusive concept, having been born in Tehran and, as the son of an Iranian diplomat, growing up in half a dozen countries. Ten years ago, after a relaxation of Iranian laws that prohibited dual citizenship, Majd was able to renew his Iranian passport and begin traveling back to the country of his birth.
After writing his first book, the award-winning “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ” (2008), Majd followed up with “The Ayatollahs’ Democracy” (2010) which examined Iranian politics and society in the aftermath of the 2009 bloody crackdown on the Green Movement.
Now Majd has written his most personal book, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay: An American Family in Iran, an account of life in Iran during annus horribilis (2011), when political tensions between Tehran and the West reached a low point as crippling economic sanctions began to bite ordinary Iranians and mutual distrust flourished.
Enter Majd and his Wisconsin-born wife, a yoga instructor with a penchant for organic food, and their not-quite-one-year old baby boy Khash. Despite parental efforts to dissuade him, Majd relocates his family from Brooklyn to Tehran. Majd’s wife, who has obtained an Iranian passport, is keen to join her husband who wants his infant son to “breathe the air, drink the water, and eat the food” of Iran, just as Majd did at his age.
Majd’s account of their nearly-year long stay in Iran starts on an ominous note when Majd, who is accompanying an NBC news crew in Tehran, is summoned to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. There he is interrogated by two government officials he calls “bad cop” and “worse cop” who present a bulging file with what they consider damning evidence of his past writings.
When Majd tells them he plans to return to Iran soon after with his family, they want assurance that he won’t write about the encounter. “No, I won’t write about it,” he lies.
But such lies are for the purpose of telling the truth, a twist of reality and preview of the complex, frequently contradictory, and occasionally comedic life Majd leads in the year ahead.
After a month living with a friend in a religious part of Tehran, the Majd family secures their own flat (small but cozy) in the leafy north Tehran neighborhood of Tajrish. Here the Majds pursue a daily life that includes the search for organic produce (Majd’s wife Karri is told “everything is organic here.... It’s cheaper to let half the crop go bad than to spray it with chemicals”) and learning to cope with Tehran’s infamous air pollution.
“The Ministry of Guidance” reveals an Iran far more nuanced, sophisticated and affluent than most Western readers might imagine. Calling “the cable guy” in Tehran is not so different from home as is negotiating terms with a babysitter or connecting on Facebook (17 million Persian users, Majd writes). Iranians, it turns out, have a lot more in common with Americans than we’ve been told the past 30-some years.
But 2011 was a tough year in the Islamic Republic and Majd describes a people weary of isolation and increasingly disaffected with a government constantly at loggerheads with the West. He writes of a fiercely proud people who want reform and more freedom, though not necessarily as the West might imagine.
If you’ve never read a book about life in Iran, you may be surprised by frequent moments of levity. Life can be hard, but it’s inherently funny too, like when Majd is admonished by an old man in the street for carrying his son in a BabyBjörn (“he’ll get a hernia”). Iranians, as Majd describes, have an almost obsessive affection for children. They also love to party (really party), and, in a traditional tea culture, are finding a new love for coffee at “Starbucks” knockoffs.
Throughout the book, Majd is plagued by a dual fear: First, that he might never be allowed to return to the country of his birth and second, that once there, he might never be allowed to leave. In the end, Majd and his family do leave Iran, but not without self-doubt and a bittersweet sense of abandonment.
“The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay” completes a trilogy that illuminates the politics, society, and culture of modern Iran through the eyes of the decidedly hip, well-connected Majd. But it’s not just a book about Iran – it's a personal story that will speak to any readers who have ever been disassociated from home (whether by travel or migration), struggled to navigate a new culture (or return to a once familiar one), or attempted to come to terms with their own foreignness as they try to make a strange land a place they can call home.
Jon Letman is an independent journalist on the island of Kauai.