spring in tehran: daily life in the islamic republic

Armin Arefi

(Plon, 304 pages, 2019)

A correspondent in Tehran during the presidency of the ultraconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Franco-Iranian journalist Armin Arefi was banned from Iran in 2007. Nine years later, much to his surprise, he is allowed to return to a country that has much changed in his absence. With moderate President Hassan Rouhani now holding the reins of power, the signing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has at last reintegrated Iran into the international scene. The nation’s youth are glued to their cell phones, the vice squads are more lenient, more women loosen their head scarves, and the tourists have reappeared. But how much has really changed as Iran enters into the fortieth year of its Islamic revolution? With an equal measure of expertise and discerning humor, Arefi offers us a gripping and nuanced portrayal of everyday life in a country torn between the power of the mullahs and the irrepressible social and economic aspirations of its youth.

Upon his arrival in Tehran, filled with apprehension, Arefi is invited to an impromptu party attended by heavily made-up, unbashful young women, and a steady flow of vodka. The host, an old friend of Arefi, wastes no time in updating the dazzled returnee on Iran’s brave new world of changing sexual mores, Instagram, and online dating. For the next two years, Arefi crisscrosses the country, capturing arresting scenes of daily life from Mashhad to Persepolis, from Tabriz to Qeshm Island. Arefi creates a profile of various characters he encounters through formal interviews, testimonies, and spontaneous interactions: his grandmother, a start-up entrepreneur, a duo of street performers, a female engineer, a young Afghan refugee sent to the Syrian war front, Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson, and many more.

In Spring in Tehran, Armin Arefi surprises and educates us, illuminating the complex and multifaceted legacy of the Iranian revolution. His ties to his parent’s home country enrich his well-documented and insightful commentaries. Arefi stays long enough to witness yet another turn in the country’s fortune: the return of sanctions declared by Donald Trump in 2018 and a debilitating economic crisis. We find him again at the airport, this time on his way back to France, assailed by more questions than answers and filled with a surge of ambivalent emotions: sadness and optimism, irritation and warmth, in the image of the country he is about to leave behind.

Armin Arefi is a French journalist of Iranian descent. A former correspondent in Iran for the French press from 2005 to 2007, he has been working at Le Point since 2011, where he deals with international issues, particularly relating to the Near and Middle East. Prior to Spring in Tehran, he has published two books: Dentelles et tchador (Éditions de l’Aube et Pocket, 2009) and Green Ribbons and Turbans: Young Iranians Against the Mullahs (Arcade, 2011).