Movaeni was born in America from educated, successful Irania emigrants. She returns to Iran as a columnist for Time Magazine and ends up falling love with and marrying an Iranian businessman from an elite famliy. She yearns to reconnect with the country of her ancestors and spends a couple of years living amidst her loving, extended Iranian family. By the end of the book, she is forced to leave Iran, due to the increased repression by the government and harrassment from Mr. X, her government minder. She moves to London, where her husband goes to study ancient Iranian languages at grad school and where she can be close enough to the Middle East to perform her journalistic duties.
Brain drain is a huge problem for Iran. Hundreds of thousands of educated, talented people have left for the West.
A recurring personality in the book is Moavani's government minder, Mr X. Periodically she needs to meet with him to inform him about what she's been working on. Moavani's presence in Iran depends on approval by the national press and security agencies. If she goes too far in her reports and criticisms of the government, she risks harassment, deportation, or imprisonment and torture. She's unsure whether Mr. X is merely following orders (and hence is good at heart) or really agrees with the government's repressive policies. Sometimes Mr. X behaves cruelly; other times he's almost amiable.
Class divisions in Iranian society underly political divisions. Often it's the poorer, more devoutly Muslim citizens who support conservative politicians like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad appeals to the underclass with a populist message of economic reform. (But mostly his reform efforts fail). More educated, urban citizens typically support the reformist candidates. The situation in Iran reminds me of the similar situation in America, where millions of fundamentalist, lower class Christians supported Republicans.
Most Iranians distrust and despise their government, for its corruption, repressiveness, and stupidity. But they still have nationalistic feelings and cannot tolerate American meddling. Ahmadinejad skillfully exploits the peoples' nationalsim. He was able to convince most Iranians that Iran has a right to pursue its nuclear program.
Life is very hard for the majority of Iranians, due to economic mismanagement, corruption, over-crowding, severe pollution, and unberable inflation ($1,000,000 for a two bedroom apartment in Tehran). But a privileged elite in Tehran live in elegant surroundings and consume expensive, Western goods.
Many of the regime's restrictions seem ridiculous. Numerous pages are filled with shocking tales of petty interference by the morality police in peoples' day-to-day affairs. Dating, music, dance, parties, alcohol, Western dress, and Western films are prohibited. (But most people do them anyway, in secret and in fear of snooping religious neighbors.) Internet access is severely censored; any website mentioning "woman" is unreachable. But many Iranians use (illegal) anti-filtering software to bypass government filters.
A big chunk of the book was devoted to the author's plans for her wedding, including whether and how to bribe the police to prevent interference with her wedding, wher they planned to drink alcohol and where they wanted men and women to attend the reception together. She tells the tale of attending a wedding of conservative Muslims: at the reception, men and women are herded into separate rooms. Afterwards, they emerge into the lobby and hook up with their partners. The mood picks up and everyone is having fun. The security guards then push everyone outside. Having fun is not allowed!
Before marriage, Iranian women aren't free. They must obey their parents and aren't allowed to go out on their own. They're harrassed by morality police. After marriage, women are finally left alone -- provided their husband's aren't too controlling. The legal marriage age in Iran is 13: the Islamicists seem not to like unwed single women.
Armed thugs (morality police) roam the street ready to harass or arrest women who dress too immodestly.
One ridiculous anecdote involved an English language class that was coed -- until the authorities decided that men and women studying together in the same room was inappropriate. They separated the students by gender -- and a third of the students dropped out.
Many Iranians have illegal satellite dishes, but government agents often confiscate them.
Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, and the ancient Iranian culture, language, and religion are widely suppressed by the mullahs. Islam has taken over the country.
The mullahs seem to continually swing between relaxation and tightening of the rules. During the book, the rules mostly tighten.
At the beginning of the book, Moaveni expresses considerable sympathy for Islam, which she was taught on her devout grandmother's lap. Even many Iranians who are angry about the repressiveness and backwardness of the regime stlil are devout, but moderate, Muslims. Moderate Islam is possible.
One thing she missed when she left Iran was the close, extended family that gave her support as a new mother. (Reading her account, I thought with some sadness about the lack of family and community that plagues many [secular] Americans.)
Despite Iran's many problems, its schools excel at educating students in math and the sciences. But schools also indoctrinate children in Islam and in Islamic political ideology (e..g, hatred of Israel and America).
When she and her husband fled Iran to London and moved into a neighborhood of Iranian exiles, she was distraught to find that many Iranian women in London wore full chador (showing no skin) and refused to integrate into British society. Some white Englishmen were openly racist towards her. She felt ambivalence about her heritage.
The book was published in 2009, just before the recent contested election and its violent aftermath. This week the New Yorker published an essay by an Iranian describing life since the election. Most New Yorker articles indicate the author's name, but this essay was an exception. Judging from the writing style, I surmise the author was Moaveni!
See this other review of the book in the New York Times.