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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #39 (September 25, 2007), page 16.

Truth or dare

Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth

By Camelia Entekhabifard

Seven Stories Press, 2007

Hardcover, 255 pages, $23.95

By Douglas Spangle

Things would have been a great deal different in our world had Riza Shah Pahlevi of Iran not been subject to a major identity crisis.

Buoyed by generous reserves of oil and the support of the U.K. and the United States, which saw Iran not only as a petro-cow but also as an ally in the Cold War against the Soviets, the Shah encouraged Western ways. Foreign aid and oil money followed.

The Shah was in many ways a forward-looking head of state. Desirous of pushing his country into the modern age, he instituted public works, education, and culture. Iran enjoyed relative prosperity. On the other hand, he remained a thoroughgoing autocrat; vain and suspicious, he liberally employed the SAVAK, his feared security police, to keep the repercussions of his social policies from shaking his place on the throne. He spent lavishly on spectacles designed to display his grandeur and authority.

All that came to an end in 1979, when the Shah was overthrown by a coalition of socialists and Islamic fundamentalists. The mullahs disposed of the socialists in short order and Iran rapidly changed into the Islamic Republic, sworn enemy of its former benefactors, the British and Americans. Western pop music and blue jeans became symbols of apostasy.

Camelia Entekhabifard was a young girl at the time, from a well-off family that prospered during the Shah’s reign, her mother being particularly outspoken in favor of modern ways. As Camelia went through school, she, with her Western-sounding name, often fell afoul of fundamentalist customs. Talented as a writer, she grew to be a journalist, again falling afoul of the Islamic Republic’s strict rules. Finally, she was convicted of religious and political impropriety and thrown into prison. She has since been released and now lives and works in the U.S.

She tells her story in a zigzag fashion, backtracking and jumping forward, so what the reader gets is a patchwork accounting, dramatic and personal. What emerges is a sense of the insidious takeover of society on all levels by not only zealots but by hypocrites out for their own enrichment or to settle personal scores. We are reminded that Iran is not a monoculture, that people are inspired by Western popular culture, and that, far from being strictly Muslims, Iranians also follow Zoroastrianism, Baha’i, and even Judaism.

This is just the sort of well-observed account that inspires a look over the shoulder, just to see if informers are watching.

Finally, imprisoned for writing impolitic truth, Entekhabifard ensnares her jailer with a gambit that combines the wiles of Sheherazade with the functioning of the Stockholm Syndrome, and makes her getaway. Camelia comes to America, the land of the Constitution and Oprah, where people speak freely and walk the street with faces unmasked, free to think and worship as they choose.

Because, of course, it can’t happen here.


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