July 2010

Ian Epstein

nonfiction

Death to the Dictator!: A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price by Afsaneh Moqadam

Afsaneh Moqdam's Death to the Dictator! A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price is a fast, thin book about a revolutionary election, democracy in the Middle East, and the burdens of being a political dissident in Iran. It starts with what is most distant from the American experience of those events in Iran that came to us in photographs and YouTube clips shot through with streaks of green last summer: the repercussions. It starts with what here in the United States we would find unimaginable: backlash from speaking out against a political regime subsequent to an election -- in this case, the Iranian presidential re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to the widespread disbelief of middle-class Tehran.

Death to the Dictator! starts when "they" jettison Mohsen Abbaspour, wearing nothing but a t-shirt and pajama pants, out of a white van somewhere in the dark, southern outskirts of Tehran around two in the morning. This "they" is the book's antagonist, a political vague pronoun that encompasses everyone from abusive Iranian Basij officers on the street to Ahmadinejad and even, at times, Supreme Ayatollah Khamenei himself -- in other words, "they" is the third person plural shorthand for the ruling theological-political regime in Iran. 

Death to the Dictator! opens on August 29, 2009 with Mohsen, tattered and sallow, arriving home for the first time in weeks, barely recognizable. His parents rejoice and soak themselves with tears before excusing Mohsen for a moment alone with Shadi, a friend from the movement, from before the nightmarish weeks of abuse in prison. She incites him to begin by telling her what happened, just tell a story. The story begins after we've already glimpsed the ending. It begins and is narrated, in a way, from the private haven of Mohsen's room in his parents' apartment. Presumably, the reader sits in Shadi's seat, across from Mohsen. 

This is where the narrative folds in on itself, and we lurch backwards from this ending dressed as a prologue, all the way to Chapter One, where it's nearly three months earlier: June 8, 2009. And the air is thick with optimism because it is four days before the election, and the eloquent reformer and once-upon-a-Prime-Minister Mir-Hossein Mousavi has a shot at nabbing the Office of the Iranian Presidency from Ahmadinejad.

In what follows, Death to the Dictator! unfolds as a summer story dressed serious in the dark clothes of political unrest. Michael Chabon has observed how conveniently summer provides "an inherent dramatics structure in three acts: I. June II. July III. August." Death to the Dictator!'s execution in this format throws certain aspects into sharp relief -- most noticeably, the absence of the July act; that important fulcrum where, between the optimism of June and the nostalgia of August, dreams are granted or ground into dust. 

The book is clear on its politics: Ahmadinejad = bad, Mousavi = good. Yet it's vague on details. Is the Mousavi campaign a reform effort, a revolutionary movement, a nonviolent uprising, a counterrevolutionary movement? These are all terms thrown in as though they might neatly align with an American understanding without further explanation. Death to the Dictator! plays a little fast and loose with these ready-made, though far from simple, expressions. It glides past the places where a dash of history or pinch of context would take the English-speaking, presumably American, intended audience a long way. Instead of slowing to explain, Death to the Dictator! thunders on, through protests, talk of revolution, gatherings on rooftops where crowds invisibly fill the night air with chants of "Allahu Akbar!" It has a pounding pulse that gallops through all these and arrives demonstrations that veer towards the violent and towards incarceration. The book details the weeks of June in much detail, but a smudged silence follows. For the middle months, Death to the Dictator! is mostly, and perhaps thankfully, a narrative blackout. 

Ostensibly, memoir and nonfiction derive a certain (and differing) part of their value from the indexical relationship between the story that appears in writing, and the actual person referenced by the name that appears on the cover. In this case, that would be Afsaneh Moqadam. The tension, or whatever name the force that compels a reader to continue a story goes by, stems in part from the fact that what's told is more than a story -- it's a story that happened. It happened to the person whose name is on the cover, or else that person whose name appears bore witness to it all happening to someone nearby. Afsaneh Moqadam's Death to the Dictator! strives to emulate this documentary reality while blurring the characters in the book beyond what someone might be able to piece back together. Reading it, I found myself coming back, perhaps more than I should have, to whether or not the story contributes to a better understanding of the election and of Iranian political history since '79. And while I am no Farsi speaker, Afsaneh, so far as I can tell, is a girl's name with a conspicuous semantic connection to the Farsi word for 'fairy tale.'

Death to the Dictator!: A Young Man Casts a Vote in Iran's 2009 Election and Pays a Devastating Price by Afsaneh Moqadam
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374139636
160 Pages