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In 1992, not long after Nazila Fathi be-gan working as a reporter in her native Iran, she discovered a key figure in the resistance to the country’s Islamic regime. Satellite dishes had begun springing up on the roofs of middle- and upper-class homes, and she learned that many households were selling tickets to poorer men who wanted to take in Baywatch. No dubbing? No subtitles? No problem. “You can follow the story,” a laborer told her. “It’s not too complicated.”
Fathi doesn’t claim that Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff kindled the secular unrest that culminated in the Green Revolution in 2009. Before leaving the country for fear of her life that year—she now lives in Bethesda—she covered Iran for the New York Times, and her sharp new memoir, The Lonely War, reveals an expert understanding of the motivations of Iran’s tangled, self-contradictory religious and political leadership. But she’s not dismissing the power of those red one-pieces out of hand. Information is power, and any information about the West could help build a bulwark against the brutality of the country’s rulers after the 1979 revolution.
Fathi was 9 when the Ayatollah Khomeini took control of Iran, and the early chapters of her book are impressionistic, kid’s-eye-view set pieces about the anxious aftermath. Conversations in the living room of her family’s upper-crust Tehran home (her father worked for the country’s energy ministry until he fell afoul of the regime, in part for favoring Western business clothes) turned on the regime’s support for education and expanded roles for women, if not expanded autonomy. “Khomeini had successfully drawn poor and dispossessed Iranians, including women, from the margins of society into the center of the country’s politics,” Fathi writes. Whether that meant an improvement over the shah or just another control mechanism was an open question.
Either way, Fathi argues, the regime planted the seeds of the resistance it would face. As Fathi grew up increasingly aware of the West, from listening to samizdat Bon Jovi tapes as a teen to working as a stringer for the Times as an adult, she witnessed an increasing push and pull between the regime and its people. The literacy rate spiked, as did wages, stoking a stable class of protesters. But as the presidency swerved from weak reformers (Mohammad Khatami) to hard-liners (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), the regime remained thuggish and shameless. Close to Fathi’s home, her nanny was a poorly disguised informant for the country’s intelligence agency. “My relationship with her had become like Iranians’ relationship with the Islamic regime,” Fathi writes. “I was stuck with her whether I liked it or not.”
Fathi describes the Green Revolution as the product of a populace that’d had enough of brutality and enough information via satellite, the Internet, and cell phones to recognize that it had other options. “Technology was evolving faster than repression could, and it was clear that government was increasingly at a loss for how to respond,” she writes, optimistically. The collective pushback was indisputably heartening, but recent years have proven that pushback only goes so far. The fruits of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Iran are mixed at best; whatever power a smartphone has to affect change, it’s clear that military regimes are stubbornly eager to stifle it. Fathi’s book is a well-told story about Iran’s ongoing resistance to faith-based oppression. But as a tale of a burgeoning secular democracy, it’s a story whose real ending still seems a long way off.