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A Look at Modern Iran in ‘The Lonely War’ by Nazila Fathi

the lonely war by nazila fathi coverI knew that The Lonely War by journalist Nazila Fathi was going to be a great read as soon as I finished the preface. In just six pages, Fathi gave, perhaps, the most clear, succinct and balanced account of the Iranian Revolution – a 1979 uprising that replaced the Iranian shah with a radical Islamic regime – and the aftermath that I have ever read. I was hooked from the start, and so happy to find that the book remains accessible and engaging until the last page.

I’ll leave it to Fathi to give a short summary of the book:

This book tells the story of a country and its people struggling to find their way, but it is also my story. I was nine years old when the revolution swept into Iran and set the country on its current course. As I grew up, I watched my homeland continue to change around me. So while the evolution described in this book is Iran’s it is also mind: the story of how a girl grew into a woman, discovered a world beyond the one she had imagined, and eventually was forced to choose between the two.

One thing I most appreciated about the book is that Fathi was careful to explore the nuances of life in Iran. In many books – and most contemporary political discussion in the United States – Iran is painted as a country full of clear divisions and factions, or situations that have a clear right and a clear wrong answer. As you might expect, that’s really not the way the country works. Before fleeing Iran, Fathi was the longest serving Iranian reporter for an American publication, and her background as a journalist shines through in these areas.

One example that stuck out to me is a discussion of Iran’s oil revenue. On the one hand, the huge amount of oil money coming into the country meant that leaders, “the kings before the revolution and later the clerics after the revolution” were no longer accountable to the Iranian people – they could just buy political support (and pay for violent enforcers) when they needed it. But this money also helped the government, before and after the revolution, expand the public sector to create universities, government ministries and other jobs that built the Iranian middle class. Oil money also helped build needed infrastructure and expand social services. Like many areas of Iranian life, both good and bad come from the same place.

In addition to this clear and balanced reporting, Fathi also skillfully weaves her own story throughout this memoir. In fact, some of the most memorable parts are pieces of her own history, especially late in the book when she started to draw the unwanted attention of regime spies because of her work as a reporter for the New York Times. Fathi soon discovers there is a spy placed very close to her family, that, for complicated reasons, she is unable to avoid. Reading this deeply personal account of being terrorized by the Iranian government sent chills down my spine and made me so grateful to live in a place where it’s unlikely I will ever be persecuted for reporting the truth.

The Lonely War is both informative and entertaining, and provides reasons for both optimism and caution when thinking about the future of Iran. I tore through this book and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

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  • Kailana February 10, 2015, 6:50 am

    sounds good! Not something I would typically run out and buy, but sounds worth doing that now. 🙂

    • Kim February 11, 2015, 9:27 pm

      It may be worth asking your library to order? Memoirs are right up my alley, but I do also think this one is particularly good.

  • BermudaOnion(Kathy) February 10, 2015, 8:03 am

    I got married in 1979 and was too absorbed in my own little world to pay attention to what was going on in the rest of the world. I need to read this book~

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes February 10, 2015, 9:20 am

    Wow, this sounds fantastic. The few things I have read about the Iranian revolution felt kind of muddled, so I’m excited to hear how accessible this book is. I’m requesting it from the library right now!

    • Kim February 11, 2015, 9:29 pm

      That’s how I’ve felt too — as much as I’ve read about that time, the details and the players have always felt a little out of grasp. I feel like I understand the basics much better after reading this book.

  • susan February 10, 2015, 4:02 pm

    These books coming out of Iran seem fascinating — I wish the people had more freedom over there. I really liked Reading Lolita in Tehran too. Informative.

  • Savvy February 10, 2015, 8:33 pm

    This sounds like a good one for my travel the world in books challenge.

  • Jennine G. February 11, 2015, 7:01 am

    These are the kinds of books that leave me struck silent. I can’t imagine living through some of these hardships!

    • Kim February 11, 2015, 9:30 pm

      A lot of the book was shocking to me, but probably the part where I felt like even I wouldn’t have been able to cope was the last third, after a spy started affecting their family life. It was astonishing.

  • Hillary February 11, 2015, 2:12 pm

    This sounds like a great book! I love books that shows the reality of a place.

  • Trisha February 11, 2015, 9:17 pm

    Considering my disgraceful ignorance regarding Iran, I should read this for sure.

    • Kim February 11, 2015, 9:31 pm

      You are not alone! I still feel like I know very little about what has happened there 🙂

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey February 13, 2015, 10:25 pm

    Reading Lolita in Tehran was set during this time period but never really explained the political and social context of the story, so I’d really like to revisit that time period in a fair, factual account to learn more. This sounds like a great book!

    • Kim February 14, 2015, 5:52 pm

      Reading Lolita is one of the books I was thinking of in the intro of this post — a great read, but light on context for some of the bigger issues. They would be great paired reads.

  • Heather February 14, 2015, 7:31 am

    My uncle is Iranian and lived there until he came to the US for college when he was in his early twenties, and although I am always interested in books about Iran, I don’t read enough of them. This sounds like a great book for me.

  • Athira February 15, 2015, 7:39 am

    For some reason, I am very fascinated with Iranian politics and the history of the country. Probably has something to do with reading and loving Persepolis. This one sounds just perfect. I am usually leery of history books because they tend to be biased or incomplete, but this one seems pretty balanced.

  • Christy February 15, 2015, 8:45 pm

    Like you and Katie said above, I remember reading Lolita in Tehran and just having no knowledge of the context to understand her personal history. I was pretty young then as well.

    I just started reading Azadeh Moaveni’s Honeymoon in Tehran, and she is also a journalist so near the beginning of the book, she talks about her government minder who she is required to meet with on a regular basis. The events in this book occur after the publication of her book Lipstick Jihad, which I’ve heard of, but not read.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End February 25, 2015, 6:20 am

    Mmmm, yes thank you! I will indeed be trying this out as soon as my library acquires it. I’ll read almost anything about Iran — it’s such a fascinating, contradictory country.