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Conversations in Tehran

by Jean-Daniel Lafond and Fred A. Reed

Given recent spikes in demand for political books following major U.S. foreign policy decisions – leaving booksellers and libraries scrambling for titles on Afghanistan, Iraq, and, of course, Osama bin Laden – it’s likely many readers will soon be searching out material on the latest Bush administration obsession: Iran.

Partially filling that market niche is this collection of interviews with Iranian feminists, journalists, artists, and representatives of non-governmental organizations. They were conducted in 2004 by Lafond, a filmmaker whose works are screened surreptitiously in Iran, and Reed, an author and frequent visitor to the country.

Both are well positioned for the subject. They share a passionate love for the country and a willingness to go outside the usual channels to develop personal connections that make for honest portraits unfettered by fear or censorship.

At its best, the work focuses on a nation full of the contradictions one might expect in a place dominated by the daily push-pull tensions between republic and theocracy. It is a country suffused with the emotional toll of hopes crushed and the ironies of an ancient society struggling with the trappings of modernity.

Unfortunately, the book feels like it would work better in another format – radio, film, or over a few beers at the pub – and preferably with a good deal of editing. As with any collection of conversations, this one is full of repetition. As well, the chapters are often constructed in cookie-cutter fashion, with some brief introductory background followed by very lengthy quotes interspersed with the authors’ questions.

This is a shame, because the people Lafond and Reed present are certainly interesting enough, including a woman who travels an inadvertent but remarkable path from hairdresser to librarian, and an American convert to the Khomeini revolution who’s wanted in the U.S. for assassinating a former official of the Shah’s regime.

Conversations in Tehran does leave the patient reader with one important impression: that most Iranians are not two-dimensional people enslaved by nuke-seeking mullahs, but rather individuals who are struggling with the issues of how to run their country in a democratic, enlightened manner.