Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Q&A with Ramita Navai

Ramita Navai, photo by Graeme Robertson
Ramita Navai is the author of the new book City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran. She is a British-Iranian journalist whose work has taken her to more than 30 countries. 

Q: You write that "lying in Tehran is about survival." How has that characteristic developed, and has it become more pronounced in recent years?

A: I think that people have got used to hiding parts of their true selves in order either not to get in trouble with the authorities or not to be judged by society.

It has developed as a defense mechanism to deal with repressive laws, and ultimately it shows the great spirit of Iranians - their determination to live the lives they want to lead, not the lives they are told they must lead.

I started reporting from Iran in 2003, when I lived there, and in the 10 years that I either lived, travelled or worked in the country, I have not noticed this become more pronounced - it has always been a constant.

Q: When you returned to Tehran to work as a journalist, how did your experiences working align with or differ from what you had expected?

A: I never imagined that I could have such candid conversations about sex with very religious and conservative Iranians - I was surprised by how open people were prepared to be.

The image of Iran that you get in the West is one of a hate-filled and fuelled country; of course as an Iranian I knew that the reality is very different, but I was still surprised at how little animosity there is towards the USA and the UK among ordinary Iranians - even among some members of the government.

Working in Tehran as a correspondent was my first job as a foreign reporter, and it was the greatest learning curve as it was being thrown in at the deep end. I had no experience of security services, of being watched, monitored and censored - and I had to learn pretty fast.

The experience gave me immense and immeasurable respect for the work of local journalists and activists who risk so much for their beliefs, and who are so dedicated to fighting the oppression. I was always acutely aware that I had the opportunity to leave - to go back home to London, but they did not.

Q: You write in the book that some of the people you describe are based on composite characters. Why did you decide to take this approach?

A: Nearly every single person I interviewed for the book talked to me on condition of absolute anonymity - and most of them did not want me to reveal all the details of their lives.

For this reason, in order to protect them, I omitted the parts of their stories they did not want to share with the world (for fear of being recognized by loved ones, or the state); I had a duty to protect my sources and as a journalist doing the type of work I do, my interviewees' safety is paramount.

Q: Throughout the book, Tehran's Vali Asr street plays a large role. What is its importance for people in Tehran?

A: Vali Asr is such a magnificent road, just over 11 miles long and lined on either side by thousands of sycamore trees. Most Tehranis will say it's their favourite road in the city. It's where people gather to demonstrate, to celebrate; to mourn; to march; to eat; to shop; to stroll and soak up the city.

I love Vali Asr because there is something quite egalitarian about it, as it connects two very different Tehrans - to put it crudely, the poorer, more working-class and traditional south of the city with the richer, more "westernised" north of the city, and so it is used by people of all social classes.

It is not an exclusive road, which to me is especially important in a city where the gap between the rich and the poor keeps getting wider.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I've started scribbling thoughts and ideas for my next book, and I'm also back to the day job - reporting from around the world.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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