Should you wonder what it's like to live through a utopian revolution, you might try imagining yourself in the audience of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini upon his return to Iran in 1979, when he promised the whole country free electricity and water – and was believed. When Nazila Fathi's father, a senior manager at Iran's Ministry of Power, heard Khomeini's promise on television, he laughed it off with a sarcastic "good luck." Yet at the time, the cleric's offer of free utilities must have seemed relatively modest. Khomeini's more ecstatic supporters proclaimed him an angel and a saint. Some believed he was literally the man in the moon.
The revolution cast Fathi and her skeptical family into political solitude. Her parents – unusual for their generation and even for their social circle – still supported the Shah. When she was ten, they told Fathi and her sister, "If anyone asks you whether your parents support the revolution, you must say, 'Yes.'" And while Khomeini had also promised to give away power in another form – by returning to the seminary and not seeking to rule – he instead laid the foundations of theocracy, isolating other revolutionaries, including students, leftists, and nationalists, from the new society they had hoped to shape.
The "lonely war" of Fathi's title is the Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988, during which nearly all Iran's Arab neighbours turned against it, the great powers outwardly shunned it, and the unsound regimes of Syria and North Korea became its most reliable partners. Inside Iran these were dystopian years, as the government shredded the legal rights of women, sent a generation of young men and boys to their deaths, and shot and strangled first hundreds, then thousands of political prisoners. For all that, The Lonely War is hopeful memoir that recalls the good that took root in Iran in those terrible days – and has since flowered.
Fathi recalls the Khomeini years, during which she was a teenager, as a time of ironies, subversions and inversions. Even as the new government withdrew from women a range of professions and legal rights, its efforts to Islamicize society brought "traditional" women into the public sphere, eroding a long-standing demarcation between religious and secular families and broadening the middle class. The government's suppression of film spawned "movie men," underground video dealers who helped to expand a now world-renowned culture of cinephilia. Austere enforcement of religious sanctities in schools produced not automatons, but an ironical, secular generation.
For Fathi, the future opened with news of Khomeini's death in 1989. At Khomeini's funeral, jostling mourners dropped his body out of its coffin and tore at its shroud, exposing the dead man's naked legs in a scene that must have given even lingering utopians a shiver. Khomeini's successors – Ali Khamenei, who became supreme leader, and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who became president – put reconstruction and regime security ahead of Khomeinist ideology. As Iran's isolation lifted a little, Fathi found work as a fixer for foreign journalists (notably for The New York Times' Judith Miller), and out of that, a career in journalism.
Those in power in Iran have tended to view journalists as spies, traitors, and foreign agents, thanks in part to a history of British imperial mischief, and in part to a paranoid style of politics sustained by autocracy. Fathi, like all journalists working openly in the country, had from the outset of her career to negotiate the suspicions of a minder from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and to assume that she was always under a degree of surveillance. Nevertheless, she could plausibly assert that her wish to portray the human face of a country that had gone behind the moon for ten years did not contradict the interests of the state. (That point was, and remains, contested in Iran).
Throughout the 1990s, Fathi explains, Iranians forcefully rejected their solitude by acquiring satellite dishes and Internet connections that secured their access to global culture, even as the Iranian state remained constituted for isolation. Attempts to elide this tension – notably by the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who promoted civil society and a "dialogue of civilizations" when he took office in 1997 – failed because Iran's security organs rejected them through violence and intimidation. Fathi first heard the anti-regime slogan "Death to the Dictator" after Khatami failed to stand up to the security state in 1999, and would hear it again following Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's contested re-election in 2009.
By 2009, Fathi had been the Times' Tehran correspondent for nine years, and had helped document the most intellectually and civically active decades in Iran's modern history. The rejection of political solitude she had witnessed culminated in great crowds chanting, "Don't be scared, we're all together." Security forces' smashing of the Green Movement in 2009, she writes, created a police state, as people accused security organs of staging a coup d'état. Under threat and fearing arrest from those same organs, she and her family fled to Canada before moving to the United States. Although exile remains a lonely fate for Iranians, they have learned to expect great things from their compatriots; their hopes for a happy return to Iran are, if optimistic, not utopian.
Roland Elliott Brown lives in London. He has written on Iran for Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Spectator and IranWire.com.