Empty Mosques and Dance Clubs: The Iran You Never Knew Existed

French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui offers insights into the country's political, religious and social culture.

Gaby Levin
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An Iranian woman walks past graffiti in a southwestern street of Tehran on June 29, 2015.
An Iranian woman walks past graffiti in a southwestern street of Tehran on June 29, 2015.Credit: AFP
Gaby Levin

“Iran is like a broken glass whose pieces have been glued back together. It is holding in the meantime but it can shatter at any time.” This is how the journalist Delphine Minoui quotes her Iranian friend Niloufar, the “godmother of the young” and opponent of the regime of Ayatollah Khamenei, who was arrested in the student demonstrations of 1999 and severely punished. In her book “I write you from Tehran” recently published in France, Minoui describes years of ups and downs, demonstrations, encounters and friendships she experienced between 1997 and 2009 as a witness to one of Iran’s most fascinating periods.

In the book, which takes the form of a letter to her grandfather, Hossein Minoui (who was Iran’s representative to UNESCO in Paris) during the time of the shah, she writes of interrogations, threats, surveillance and even the theft of equipment, but also about encounters with a variety of figures from different backgrounds, secular and religious, who reflect the contrasts between the ancient culture and the desire to launch a dialogue with the West.

Minoui, 41, covered the 2003 American invasion to Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006, she won the coveted Albert Londres prize for her series of articles on Iran and Iraq. In recent years she covered the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

“I was born in Paris, my mother is French, my father is Iranian and arrived in France at age 11, so French culture is closer to him than that of his father,” she said in an email interview. Minoui is now completing a four-year posting to Cairo for the French daily Le Figaro, and will soon be moving to Istanbul for that same publication.

“I hardly have any childhood memories from Iran from the period before the Khomeini revolution, when I used to spend vacations at my grandfather’s house in Tehran,” she said. “I remember the rosewater ice cream, the pomegranates, the musicality of the Persian language, which I did not speak at the time. After the fall of the shah in 1979 and the rise of the ayatollahs’ regime, Iran’s image was summed up outwardly by three words: Islam, chadoor and terror.

“When the moderate Khatami was elected in 1997, voted for mainly by women and students, there were more signs of openness: Censorship softened and there was a feeling of the desire of a dialogue with the West. My beloved grandfather also came to Paris for the first time after many years, but he died shortly thereafter in the hospital. His death and the signs of political openness spurred me on to travel to Iran. To my surprise, I found a country very different from the image reflected in the media. The openness and hospitality of the Iranians, the delicate sophistication of the culture, the art – yes, the art – of breaking the laws in everyday life: the head coverings that became shorter and more colorful, the daring lipstick, colors, the sale of underground CDs of rock music, private dance parties, quality, subversive cinema, new newspapers, including women’s newspapers – all of these conquered me and showed a society alive and kicking under the head coverings and behind thick walls.”

In your book you write: “The more Iran harassed me, it was as if I demanded more, the way a battered woman refuses to recognize her scars.” Why did you agree to this?

“For years in Iran I learned to get to know the country and love it despite the contradictions. It was also a journey to my roots. I took in the culture, I learned the language and the poetry. And then, when I ran into problems with the militias and the security forces, I insisted on staying; for me to leave Iran would have been like divorce.”

In the book you claim that the “culture of the victim,” led to Iran’s nuclear policy. Is this culture still an actuality? Is support for Hezbollah part of it?

“From the outside Iran seems like a hostile state conveying threats to the United States and Israel. The militant rhetoric of the regime works overtime, but if you look closely you’ll understand that the Iranians feel like victims because of contemporary events; the constitutional revolution of 1906, which was brutally put down by Shah Qajar with the help of the British and the Russians, the American putsch in 1953 against Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh, who fought for the nationalization of oil, and mainly the trauma of the Iran-Iraq war that went on for eight years. “Saddam at the time was supported by the West, which was silent when he carried out a terrible war crime of gassing of the inhabitants of the village of Sardasht. From the point of view of the current regime, support for Hezbollah and involvement in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are a deterrent: ‘If you want to attack us, see what you’ll get.’ But President Rouhani prefers dialogue. Discussions toward an agreement with the Americans over the nuclear issue prove this.”

If so, why didn’t Hassan Rouhani criticize the infuriating statement by his predecessor Ahmadinejad about the Holocaust and his desire to wipe Israel off the map?

“From Rouhani’s point of view the fact that he does not reiterate his predecessor’s statements is a way of showing that he opposes them.”

Belligerent Islam

What are your insights into the Arab Spring after your posting as a journalist in Egypt, Libya and Iraq?

“There is a feeling that we moved from the Arab Spring to the ‘Arab winter’ and the balance is not encouraging. What is sure is that the various revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria were uprising against the rule of tyrants, social injustice, regime violence and corruption. From this point of view we witnessed the ‘awakening’ of the population. But revolution, as the French Revolution proved, is a long process. In terms of the Arab Spring the problem was that the only opposition group which managed to emerge from years of pressure were the islamists. Today, some of the belligerent Islamist groups, well organized and well funded, see themselves as avenging the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 - which is one of the many roots of the problems in the region.

Although Minoui left Iran under high pressure during the time of Ahmadinejad in 2007, with her husband, an American journalist of Iranian descent, when the foreign journalists were in danger, Minoui has remained loyal to the country and loves it deeply. Since Rouhani’s rise to power, she has visited Iran a number of times and met with those of her friends who remained there and are mentioned in the book: Mahmoud, who fought to become a martyr in the Iran-Iraq war but was too young; his wife, Fatma, who over the years became a feminist activist; Safida, who took part in all the student demonstrations and became an involved journalist; Baba Moses, a Jewish antiquities dealer whose wife lives in Tel Aviv, but who refused to leave Iran, claiming that Ahmadinejad hates his opponents more than he hates the Jews, and many others.

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