With U.S.–Iran relations at a thirty-year low, Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd dared to take his young family on a year-long sojourn in Tehran. The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay traces their domestic adventures and closely tracks the political drama of a terrible year for Iran's government.
It was an annus horribilis for Iran's Supreme Leader. The Green Movement had been crushed, but the regime was on edge, anxious lest democratic protests resurge. International sanctions were dragging down the economy while talk of war with the West grew. Hooman Majd was there for all of it. A new father at age fifty, he decided to take his blonde, blue-eyed Midwestern yoga instructor wife Karri and his adorable, only-eats-organic infant son Khash from their hip Brooklyn neighborhood to spend a year in the land of his birth. It was to be a year of discovery for Majd, too, who had only lived in Iran as a child.
The book opens ominously as Majd is stopped at the airport by intelligence officers who show him a four-inch thick security file about his books and journalism and warn him not to write about Iran during his stay. Majd brushes it off—but doesn't tell Karri—and the family soon settles in to the rituals of middle class life in Tehran: finding an apartment (which requires many thousands of dollars, all of which, bafflingly, is returned to you when you leave), a secure internet connection (one that persuades the local censors you are in New York) and a bootlegger (self-explanatory). Karri masters the head scarf, but not before being stopped for mal-veiling, twice. They endure fasting at Ramadan and keep up with Khash in a country weirdly obsessed with children.
All the while, Majd fields calls from security officers and he and Karri eye the headlines—the arrest of an American "spy," the British embassy riots, the Arab Spring—and wonder if they are pushing their luck. The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay is a sparkling account of life under a quixotic authoritarian regime that offers rare and intimate insight into a country and its people, as well as a personal story of exile and a search for the meaning of home.
Having grown up mostly in America as the son of an Iranian diplomat, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based journalist and author Majd (The Ayatollah Begs to Differ) took his Wisconsin-born wife and young son for an experimental year's stay in Tehran in order to immerse himself in the strange, yet familiar, culture of Iran. Not such an easy task for the Westernized couple, considering that the country is still firmly in the grips of a 30-year-old-plus Islamist dictatorship that polices public behavior and dress, embraces pervasive censorship and surveillance, and is under severe sanctions from the U.S. and the U.N. Moreover, since Majd had been called in for questioning by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance on a previous trip with NBC News and scolded for the things he had written about President Ahmadinejad, he resolved not to use the year in Tehran for journalism, but to make a smooth life for his demanding yoga-instructor wife, Karri, and toddler, Khash. Majd sought out a quiet apartment away from Tehran's traffic and sooty air, in a neighborhood where the family could actually push a stroller and find shops that offered organic foods, without attracting attention of the morality squad. Majd's account is useful and elucidating, rather than newsworthy or surprising. Attending parties both traditional and alcohol fueled; observing the resigned, yet loyal mores of the Iranians whose reformist Green Movement was crushed two years before; and recording a tale of a survivor of Evin prison, Majd manages to offer insightful glimpses of the complex Iranian character.