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Her Iranian revolution

Camelia Save Yourself by Telling the Truth Camelia Entekhabifard, translated from the Persian by George Murer Seven Stories Press: 256 pp., $23.95

March 18, 2007|Ella Taylor | Ella Taylor is a writer and film critic for LA Weekly.

IF ever there was a literary casualty of our confessional age, it's the memoir. Once the preserve of established writers with sufficient humility to know that a life isn't worth telling until one has acquired enough of it, and the wisdom to tell it without chest puffing, the genre is overrun today by young things, many of them first-time writers who are well under 40. Egged on by publishers eager to cash in on the robust selling power of the tell-all, they rush out their gabby me-screeds, often as not, bloated blogs littered with exclamation marks setting out the laughter! the pain! the tears! of breaking free from the unspeakable ordeal of playing nanny or personal assistant to some obnoxious monster soon to be played by Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren. Abuse, abandonment and addiction are stuffed into a dreary narrative arc that curves complacently from innocence through downfall to redemption and movie deal.

"Camelia: Save Yourself by Telling the Truth," a new memoir by a 34-year-old Iranian-born journalist now living in New York City, has both more and less on its mind than personal liberation. Sheltered by her well-to-do parents, who prospered under the shah but lost traction under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the revolution, Camelia Entekhabifard wrote purplish poetry and prose in high school and college, then talked her way into reporting posts for several leading reformist Tehran newspapers, where she was trained, mostly by rigorous female editors (among them the reformist daughter of intermittently hard-line then President Hashemi Rafsanjani). Entekhabifard became a decent writer with an observant eye and a nose for a story. The best of "Camelia," which appears to have been worked up from a 2001 article written for the Village Voice, is a sharply observed portrait -- albeit weakened by a fussy structure that wanders back and forth between the fall of the shah in 1979, his replacement by Khomeini and then by the more reformist President Mohammad Khatami -- showing a society throwing off the yoke of one autocrat only to rush into the arms of another. We hear about food shortages during Iran's economic isolation under international embargoes and the bombing of Tehran during the country's devastating war with Iraq.

But Entekhabifard reserves her most vivid, scathing descriptions for depicting the lives of women in an Islamic fundamentalist state. At her all-girl high school, dreary uniforms may have covered every inch of the students' bodies, but they barely concealed homoerotic undercurrents. She is very funny on the patrols of black-clad modesty police, who endlessly stopped young women in the streets or burst into their homes and lifted their chadors to check for unseemly dress and makeup.

As a memoir, though, "Camelia" is focused only on the author. Entekhabifard positions herself as a reformist who was active in student protests and campaigns for reformist candidates. There's no reason to doubt her, but she is strangely silent on the subject of Iranian suffering under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who for all his modernizing zeal and ambivalent support of women's rights built one of the most vicious secret police forces in one of the world's most inegalitarian societies. Snarky though she is about her imperious mother's royalist tendencies and secret stash of magazine photos featuring the shah and his glamorous queen, Farah Diba, Entekhabifard is more her mother's daughter than she appears to know.

Much of the book is written in the star-struck prose of a prom queen. She treats us to a breathlessly detailed account of a decidedly cosmetic five-minute audience she was granted in New York with the deposed queen. There's a blow-by-blow account of her affair with an Iranian soccer star ("My destiny was in his hands") who pursued her so vigorously that she ended up moving to Germany to live with him ("I had expected to have the life of a celebrity, like the stars who appeared in Okay or Hello magazine"), only to discover that he expected her to be his maid, cook and personal secretary. She's pleased as punch by the pat on the head she got from Khomeini, a virulent dictator any way you slice it, and by her conversations with the marginally less tyrannical Khatami. "How satisfying it was for me to have Agha-ye Khatami address me personally by name and ask me how I was doing in front of hundreds of people!" she writes. "I was happier than I had ever been in my life." Even financier philanthropist George Soros, who invited her and several other giggly Iranian female journalists to his house, becomes a pal and employer.

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