The Ministry of Guidance Invites You Not to Stay
© 2010 Hooman Majd
Hooman Majd left Iran for the first time as a young boy, barely eight months old, and when his own son was eight months old, Majd returned. He returned with an American wife in tow, and with more than a little trepidation. Majd was no stranger to Iran: he did grow up there, leaving for good only in 1979, and since then he’d visited many times in his capacity as a journalist. His familial ties with reformists in Iran, and his less-than-complimentary remarks on the government there, made him an object of concern to the state authorities. Nevertheless, they allowed him to live again in Iran, this time for a year, so that his young boy could experience his familial homeland. The Ministry of Guidance Invites You Not to Stay records that year, as Majd digests the current state of Iran and the world. It is not a travel memoir or a cultural journey, though elements of both are present. Instead, this amusingly-titled book is largely driven by Majd wrestling with his Iranian identity: is it still home, despite the changes since his youth and his long years living as an American abroad?
Short answer…yes. Mostly. The longer answer is that while Majd is disturbed by the growth of a soft security state in Iran, distressed by the overcrowding and pollution in Tehran, and unsettled by the apathy of the rising generation, Iran is the irreplaceable land of his childhood, and one that accepted his wife and child with complete hospitality. His young son was fawned over by strangers in the street, so much so that it disturbed his New York wife Karri. (Why did they want to take photos?) Karri’s stumbling Farsi was accepted and aided with stumbling English by shopkeepers and cab drivers, none of whom gave her the kind of grief they gave Majd over fair prices. Although wealth for some in Iran is growing, decades of sanctions from the west have throttled opportunities for the young, but instead of exploding in furore many have lapsed into fatalism. Some of that fatalism is inimically Persian, Majd allows; even its practice of Islam, Shi’ism, is fatalistic in that it expects and sanctifies defeat and martyrdom. In his conversations with Iranians young and old, at parties and in private quarters with no bugged phones, Majd records a lot of disgruntlement about the government’s thought-and-morals police (the “Ministry of Guidance”), but people’s specific problems with the government are confused and divided. Many don’t like the present state of affairs, but they can’t agree on what to do about it, or what goal they should arrive for. Even the arch-reformist Mohammad Khatami admits that Iran can’t simply import the morals and politics of the west: liberal democracy has to grafted into Persian culture, not replace it., When Majd decides to end his year-long stay back in Tehran, it is with a mixture of sadness and hope that he looks back on the country of his birth.
The Ministry of Guidance Invites You Not To Stay’s recollection of everyday experiences, cut with Majd’s internal wrestling over his identity, may not make it attractive to readers who want to learn about contemporary Iran in broad strokes; The Ayatollah Begs to Differ is more amenable to that goal. If the reader is interested in every day life in Tehran, however, or a dual citizen’s view about Iranian-American relations and Iran’s promise, it’s quick reading.