Ramita Navai

Ramita Navai Ramita Navai Ramita Navai
01 Jun
2014
Ramita Navai is a British–Iranian journalist and broadcaster. Her first book, City of Lies: Love, Sex, Death and the Search for Truth in Tehran, details the extraordinary stories of the ordinary people she met in southern Tehran

I was born in Tehran and spent the first few years of my life moving between there and London. We went to join my dad in Iran on Black Friday [8 September 1978, when soldiers opened fire on protestors in Zhaleh (or Jaleh) Square in Tehran], which was really the beginning of the revolution in Iran. We were hoping to make a life there, but nine months later, we were on a plane back.

I clearly remember the day the Shah left. We were driving over to my granny’s house in Tehran, traffic was at a standstill, and the whole street just erupted in jubilation. My parents propped me up so I could see the people dancing on the cars and throwing sweets around. I was only five years old at the time.

Part of the reason I went back to work as a journalist in Tehran in 2003 was because I wanted to get to know the country of my roots. Growing up, I felt Iranian because we ate different food at home and spoke Persian, but when I lived in Tehran, I realised I wasn’t as Iranian as I had thought. I now know that I’m a Londoner above everything, but Tehran will always be my second city; I feel very at home there.

I love and hate Tehran in equal measure. Tehranis are extremely warm and kind, and I enjoy the smells, the chaos, the city’s craziness, the irregularities and the contradictions. It can be staggeringly beautiful – the hidden gardens, the crumbling manor houses, the mountains in the north – but disgustingly polluted, too, and shockingly ugly. It’s a real mix.

It’s undeniably much easier for men in Tehran. As a woman, you don’t have the same rights as a man. It can be frustrating, especially in official environments, where people talk down to you. But it’s hugely beneficial for my job because women will discuss topics with me that they wouldn’t dream of discussing with a man.

I called the book City of Lies because everybody lies in Tehran – you have to if you want to survive. A very repressive government that makes it its business to know about the private lives of its people creates conditions that are ripe for lying.

I was always fascinated by south Tehran. I lived in this little bubble in north Tehran, where most posh, upper-class Tehranis live. In south Tehran, I found the ordinary Joe Tehran, where the stories aren’t about political intrigue or the nuclear crisis, they’re about surviving, and they weren’t being covered. I wanted people to understand the whole breadth of humanity in south Tehran – the humour, the struggles, the love, the life, the poverty. It was about depicting the people as real human beings, not just as statistics.

Iranians are far more sophisticated and complex than the one-dimensional way in which they can be portrayed. I wanted to show these complexities in the book; show that you can be a really religious, really conservative man whose wife
and daughters wear the chador, yet still believe that there should be separation between state and religion, and not think the hijab should be compulsory.

In my view, the [1979] Iranian Revolution happened for a reason. If life had been free, liberated and wonderful, the revolution wouldn’t have happened. Many people were very unhappy with the Shah. They felt that the Shah was just a puppet of imperialism, and imperialist America. But it descended into chaos and violence, and 30 years later, people are living with the legacy of what happened.

Many people are happy with the current regime and feel a part of society in a way that they never did under the Shah, but other people are very unhappy. I think that the regime will stay and I’m against intervention. I think change has to come from within for safety and the country’s stability. I think that’s the only way, especially now, when you consider the destablisation of Iran’s neighbours and the mess that the Middle East is in.

I leave the rebelling up to the younger generation, and, boy, do they rebel. Sometimes, I’m amazed at how far they push the boundaries in what they can wear. They’re very self-expressive and try to assert themselves in any way they can.

People are surprisingly urbane in Iran; it’s not like Afghanistan. There has always been an underground music scene, there has always been quite a thriving black market, you can always get banned books. It’s an evolving society. It’s probably getting more and more difficult for the government to control. I think the regime is aware of this, and every now and again it loosens the social strictures a little bit. It’s like lifting the lid of a boiling pot; it lets out a bit of steam.

 

CV

1973 Born in Tehran
1979 Left Tehran with her family to live in London full time
1984–91 Putney High School
1998 Graduated from the University of Westminster with a degree in modern languages
2003 Postgraduate degree in broadcast journalism from City University London
2003 Won the Broadcast Journalism Training Council’s Young Journalist of the Year award
2003–06 Tehran correspondent for The Times
2006–present Made 20 documentaries for Unreported World
2012 Won an Emmy award for PBS Frontline report from Syria

This story was published in the June 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

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