The Elusive Face of Iran
by Elaine Sciolino|
The Free Press, $26
Elaine Sciolino writes in "Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran," that Americans often think of two things
about Iran: terrorism and veils.
While parochial, the reasons aren't exactly baseless. After all, Iran still sponsors terrorist organizations.
The Iranian government, citing laws in the Koran, requires women to cover their heads in public. Those who
don't can be arrested or beaten up by vigilante "morals police."
But with fascinating details acquired through 20 years of reporting in Iran, Sciolino, formerly of Newsweek and
now a New York Times senior writer in Washington, D.C., probes far deeper into Iran than we are generally led
In "Persian Mirrors," there are parties in north Tehran where women peel off their dark, all-concealing garb at
the door to reveal low-cut dresses. There is a conversation with the nation's president, Mohammad Khatami, who
pays homage to Western philosophers and, defying tradition, dares to look Sciolino in the eyes during an
interview. There's the city of Tehran, where an anti-American billboard is still painted on the side of a
building, but also where pirated American videos are eagerly bought, and where Leonardo DiCaprio's face is
plastered on popular T-shirts.
"Iran is a contradiction," Sciolino writes. "A great battle is raging. ... It is a battle not over control of
territory but for the soul of the nation."
Her book is timely. Since the 1997 landslide election of Mohammad Khatami as Iran's president, Iran and the
United States have been slowly warming their relations after years of hostility, though large rifts remain and
the detente has been elusive.
Iran is also changing profoundly internally. Khatami's election - and the subsequent parliamentary elections in
which other so-called "reformists" were swept into office - is seen as a sign that many Iranians want their
nation to ease dress and public-behavior laws, open up their economy and allow greater freedom for the press.
The pressure for reform has come from Iran's citizens - particularly the young (65 percent of the nation of 65
million is under 25), reformist newspapers and even some clerics.
Change hasn't been easy, or peaceful. Sciolino introduces us to editors and intellectuals who were imprisoned
under the shah and fought in the revolution, but now have been threatened or arrested by the government; takes
us to trials of reformist politicians and clerics on trumped-up charges; and to the July 1999 student riots at
the University of Tehran, which were sparked by the banning of a popular newspaper.
Speaking for many of his contemporaries, one student articulates why he is fighting: "People today do not want
another revolution. We had our revolution. We are not revolutionaries. We are reformers." Another tells
Sciolino that all he wants to do are "normal things, like go out in shorts on a date."
What is missing from the book, however, are more interviews from the people intent on preserving the status quo
in the country's body of law. The reformers' positions are well presented. Not so for members of the "morals
police" who beat up students during the riots, and the conservative supreme council of ayatollahs, a
non-elected group of clerics that controls the armed forces and secret police and wields more power than the
"Persian Mirrors" is also about noncontemporary Iran. Sciolino makes a point of noting that Iran is an old
nation and an ancient civilization - the site of the Persepolis, which dates to the sixth century B.C., and the
homeland of the poet Hafiz, whose lines - even about love and wine - are recited by a cleric Sciolino has lunch
with. Her chapter on Bahai, Christian and Jewish Iranians is also particulary interesting.
"Persian Mirrors," in short, is a book about an Iran we're not used to seeing, a rich nation where life can't
be boiled down to terrorists and veils.
©Copyright 2000, The Seattle Times