City of Lies

Love, Sex, Death, and the Search for Truth in Tehran


By Ramita Navai

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Rich, absorbing, and exotic — City of Lies travels up and down Vali Asr Street, Tehran’s pulsing thoroughfare, from the lavish shopping malls of Tajrish through the smog that lingers over the alleyways and bazaars of the city’s southern districts.

Ramita Navai gives voice to ordinary Iranians forced to live extraordinary lives: the porn star, the aging socialite, the assassin and enemy of the state who ends up working for the Republic, the dutiful housewife who files for divorce, and the old-time thug running a gambling den.

In today’s Tehran, intrigues abound and survival depends on an intricate network of falsehoods: mullahs visit prostitutes, local mosques train barely pubescent boys in crowd control tactics, and cosmetic surgeons promise to restore girls’ virginity. Navai paints an intimate portrait of those discreet recesses in a city where the difference between modesty and profanity, loyalty and betrayal, honor and disgrace is often no more than the believability of a lie.


Better the lie that keeps the peace than the truth that disrupts

Sa’adi Shirazi, The Rose Garden of Saadi


Let’s get one thing straight: in order to live in Tehran you have to lie. Morals don’t come into it: lying in Tehran is about survival. This need to dissimulate is surprisingly egalitarian – there are no class boundaries and there is no religious discrimination when it comes to the world of deceit. Some of the most pious, righteous Tehranis are the most gifted and cunning in the art of deception. We Tehranis are masters at manipulating the truth. Tiny children are instructed to deny that daddy has any booze at home; teenagers passionately vow their virginity; shopkeepers allow customers to surreptitiously eat, drink and smoke in their back rooms during the fasting months and young men self-flagellate at the religious festival of Ashura, purporting that each lash is for Imam Hossein, when really it is a macho show to entice pretty girls, who in turn claim they are there only for God. All these lies breed new lies, mushrooming in every crack in society.

The truth has become a secret, a rare and dangerous commodity, highly prized and to be handled with great care. When the truth is shared in Tehran, it is an act of extreme trust or absolute desperation. Lying for survival in Iranian culture goes back a long way; in the early years of the Islamic conquest, Shias were encouraged to lie about their faith to avoid persecution, a practice known as taqiya. The Koran also states that, in some cases, lying for the greater good is permitted. While this pathology of subterfuge has leaked out of the city and flowed into the towns and villages across the country, Tehran remains at its source.

But here is the rub: Iranians are obsessed with being true to themselves; it is part of our culture. The Persian poet Hafez begs us to seek the truth to discover the meaning of life:

             This love you now have of the Truth

             Will never forsake you

             Your joys and sufferings on this arduous path

             Are lifting your worn veil like a rising stage curtain

             And will surely reveal your Magnificent Self

The characters in Iranian soap operas are nearly always on a quest to find their real selves and many a fatwa deals with the dichotomy between the burden of religious obligations and honest human desires. So most Tehranis are in constant conflict, for how do you stay true to yourself in a system in which you are forced to lie to ensure survival?

Let me be clear about one last thing. I am not saying that we Iranians are congenital liars. The lies are, above all, a consequence of surviving in an oppressive regime, of being ruled by a government that believes it should be able to interfere in even the most intimate affairs of its citizens.

While living (and lying) in Tehran I heard the stories of the Tehranis you are about to meet. Not all of them are ordinary Tehranis; some exist at the very margins of Iranian society. But I hope that even the most extreme stories in this book will help an outsider understand everyday life in this city of over twelve million people. In my experience, the defining trait of Tehranis is their kindness, for no matter how hard life gets, no matter how tight the regime turns the screw, there is an irrepressible warmth; I have felt it from diehard regime supporters to ardent dissidents and everyone in between.

I have changed all names and some details, time frames and locations to protect people, but everything here has happened or is still happening. These are all true stories from the city of lies.



Mehrabad Airport, Tehran, March 2001

‘You’ve been away a while.’ The young officer did not look up as he flicked through the passport. ‘And now you’ve decided to come back.’ Still flicking. ‘After all these years.’ He picked the plastic corner of the first page.

Dariush could not remember being this scared since he was a little boy. He slid his tongue along the hard plastic side of the cyanide pill lodged between his gum and cheek. They had told him the regime had a list of all their names, a blacklist of dissidents wanted by the state. They had said that prison would mean torture and a slow death.

The officer was staring at him. ‘Why did you leave?’

‘My parents left because of the war, I wish I’d stayed but they took me.’ He had answered too quickly.

‘Why are you back?’ The man scanned his passport. It had cost 20,000 US dollars from a Shia militant in Baghdad who had supplied passports for some big names. It was a work of art; you could not buy a better fake.

‘I’ve come to see some relatives. I – I miss my country,’ his voice was trembling. The officer leant over his desk and pressed his hand on Dariush’s chest.

‘Your heart’s beating like a little sparrow,’ he said. Then he burst out laughing and tossed Dariush’s passport across the counter.

‘You new ones, you’re always so scared. Don’t believe what you read mate, we won’t eat you. You’ll see life is better for people like you here. You’ll never leave.’

It was as easy as that, returning to the country that had haunted his every day since he had fled the revolution with his mother over twenty years ago. It seemed almost too easy. He should be cautious, as they might still be onto him. Dariush knew Iranians were masters of double-bluffing.

As the Group had forewarned him, his bags had to be X-rayed before he was allowed out. The tightened security wasn’t just regime paranoia or fear of separatist movements. It was also fear of people like him, it was fear of the MEK, the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, the Warriors of the People.

It had been just over a year since Dariush had officially joined the MEK. His mother, a primary school teacher, had reacted angrily when he had first started to talk about them. The MEK had played a crucial role in the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought down the Shah and Dariush’s mother blamed them as much as the Islamists for having ruined her life. She had hoped he was going through a phase; the MEK were Iran’s first modern Islamic Revolutionaries and she remembered how, as a student, some of her own friends had been impressed by their talk of socialist values and equality. But she began to start to notice more serious changes in Dariush; he began praying, and even though she practised her faith, her son’s new-found religiosity unsettled her. He had started lecturing everyone around him about the sazman, the organization – the Group – showing photographs of MEK prisoners of conscience. She argued back, reeling off anecdotes about family friends who had become involved and been brainwashed and separated from their loved ones. His mother had been proud of his American education and of their new life in a small town near Washington, DC. She could not abide watching him pouring all his savings and earnings into the Group’s bank account. Dariush did not accept a word of what she said. He started spending less and less time visiting home until he stopped calling her. She begged him to leave the MEK. Instead, he cut her out of his life.

Dariush stepped out into the early-morning spring sky, breathing in the dusty smell of Tehran. It was the smell of his childhood: mothballs, dried herbs, earth and petrol. He was home.

Walking to the taxi queue he savoured every small step, his head jolting around like a pigeon scanning for food. The familiarity was almost overbearing; everywhere he looked it was as if he were surrounded by relatives. He had never felt such a strong sense of belonging, not even with the Group.

‘Listen, we haven’t got all day, get in the car or out the queue.’ A man in a bib and a clipboard was staring at him.

‘Sorry, deep in thought. Vali Asr Street, Parkway, please.’

Dariush had been surprised when the instructions came to meet in north Tehran, but the Group had learnt from bitter experience that there are few places in the city where they could blend in. People are less interested in your business on the streets of north Tehran; too involved in their own conversations and recoiling at anything that may prick the bubble in which they live. In the early days, first meetings between an operative and his handler used to happen in secluded downtown parks, but now those were full of drug addicts, dealers and cops. Even when there appears to be no one around, in every alley and corner in downtown Tehran there are hidden eyes and ears. Once, a meeting of comrades near the bazaar had gone disastrously wrong. Whispers of a hushed conversation spread through the area. Two group members saw the police coming and ran for their lives. They lived in hiding for three months before they were smuggled out on donkeys over freezing mountains by outlaw Kurds, having persuaded them that they were student protesters, for the Kurds would never have taken them if they had known they were MEK members. They still remember how the MEK helped the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein battle Kurdish uprisings. Under the Shah, most political prisoners and those executed on political grounds were members of the MEK and that had helped swell their support. Just two years after the revolution, the MEK had half a million active followers. Feeling threatened by its burgeoning power, the real men behind the Islamic Revolution – the clerics and the fundamentalists – did what they would repeatedly do when faced with a threat from within: they turned against their own. Calling MEK members monafeqin, hypocrites colluding with imperialist Western powers to wage an unholy war, the revolutionaries hanged or shot thousands as part of a systematic cleansing. Survivors escaped to Iraq, where Saddam gave them protection and installed them in Camp Ashraf, a stretch of land north of Baghdad where he armed and trained them. The MEK had even joined the Iraqi army to fight against Iranian soldiers during the Iran–Iraq war, killing many of their own countrymen. That is when attitudes towards them shifted.

‘God, you haven’t been here for a while, where d’you get that accent from? Sorry sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but that accent’s thicker than George Bush’s – it’s got to be America?’

The driver stretched his neck as he laughed and gave him the once-over in his rear-view mirror. Dariush winced.

‘Yes, America, near Washington. But we never wanted to leave Iran, we had no choice.’ He was apologizing.

‘Twenty years! You’ve earned that accent, not like these rich kids who go on holiday for a week and come back pretending they’ve forgotten their Farsi. Ah, the Great Satan, what I’d give to go and live with that devil. My girlfriend spent three days queuing up at the US consulate in Istanbul and they practically laughed in her face. We’re all terrorists you know.’ He turned up the tinny Euro-techno that was softly thudding away. When Dariush had fled, Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ had been a taxi favourite.

Even though the windows were all shut, cold streams of wind blew through the cracks and gaps of the white Peykan, Iran’s improvised version of the 1960s Hillman Hunter, as it thundered along, full-throttle.

There is only one driving speed in Tehran: the fastest your machine will go. The battered old Peykans can still manage a lurching eighty miles an hour with a new engine, nearly as good as any Peugeot, the middle-class car of choice. The Group had joked it was more likely Dariush would die on Tehran’s roads than at the hands of the regime, and they were probably right. Mangled cars, bloodied passengers and even dead ones lying on the tarmac are familiar sights in Tehran. Of course the traffic was also a major concern for the Group; they had decided on using a motorbike as the getaway vehicle, as a car would get stuck. But at this time of day the freeway was eerily clear. Dariush watched Tehran unfold from his window, his eyes tracking the rise and fall of houses, apartment blocks, offices, hospitals and schools.

He had not remembered Tehran being so ugly. His memories were of old stately homes, winding alleys, elegant French-built apartments; villas and orchards and gardens; a clean city with no traffic. But now all he could see was an unsightly mash of grey concrete slabs, gaudy blocks of flecked marble, towering mock-Grecian pillars and primary-coloured plastic piping for good measure. They had pissed all over it. Dariush clenched his teeth shut as the hate convulsed him. The anger was always a relief. There were moments when he could feel the rage dissipating from his body, it was a physical sensation; his muscles would loosen and his chest would rise. He would panic in anticipation of losing his motivation, of giving up the struggle. But not now. They had taken over his city, and he was ready.

The taxi turned into Vali Asr Street, the road that reminds all Tehranis of home. At first glance Vali Asr looked more or less the same. There were still the greengrocers, the boutiques, the cafés and restaurants, the glitzy shop fronts and the hawkers. Only the bars were gone, the whisky joints his parents loved, the smoky billiard halls open all night, the discos with their queues outside. It pained him to admit that Tehran was better off without all these things – the pernicious, corrupting influence of the West that had taken root in his country and cracked the foundations of his land. It pained him because this was the time his parents had been happiest, dancing and drinking up and down Pahlavi Street. But it also hurt Dariush to think his parents had indulged in a culture that was so louche. He had tried to exonerate them in his mind; they had simply embraced the aspirations of any young middle-class Tehrani in the 1970s. But he had turned his back on all that. The Group had shown him the way and he knew God was watching.

The roads were not so empty now, the city slowly crawling out of its slumber. An old, bent man pushing a wheelbarrow stacked with oranges edged past the car. Despite a full head of hair, he looked 100 years old, and sounded even older, his frail croaks muffled by the engines and snatched by the spring breeze.

‘Poor old thing. OI, GRANDDAD, HOW MUCH?’ The driver beckoned him over.

‘Three hundred tomans for a kilo of oranges my son, they’re fresh today, picked from the sweet soil of Mosha,’ whispered the old man, lifting his small eyes, shimmering with cataracts, from under his hunched back. Even his clothes looked ancient: a threadbare, stained shirt with incongruously starched collar and cuffs hung from his little emaciated body, the worn folds of his peasant trousers billowing towards the ground.

‘Granddad, you’ve got more hair than me and him put together – keep the change.’

‘It’s the only thing I’ve got more of than anyone else,’ the old man’s smiling gums glistened, ‘may God give you a long life.’ The taxi rattled forward and the driver shook his head at the image of the old farmer in his rear-view mirror. ‘Even if he sells all the fruit from his village, that guy still won’t have enough to feed a family. This ain’t living, it ain’t even surviving. This city’s fucked.’

The Peykan emerged from the tunnel of trees into Parkway, a huge concrete intersection stuffed with people and cars zigzagging in every direction underneath a flyover. The driver stopped at an island in the middle, clipping the side of an office worker’s briefcase. The man didn’t even bother turning his head as he waded out into the roar. Dariush got out of the taxi and into the middle of the morning mayhem. He realized there would be no lull and he would have to cross the road Iranian style, throwing himself into the oncoming traffic. It took him over five minutes to cross the ten yards to the other side; each time he inched forward a car or a motorbike screamed towards him. Finally an old woman in a chador told him to follow her, and as her hefty body waddled through the onslaught of cars she told him he must have been away a long time. He sighed.

Dariush walked north to a café on the corner of Vali Asr and Fereshteh Street. It had been open for hours, serving kalepacheh breakfasts, an entire sheep’s head: tongue, eyes, cheeks and all. It looked more like a laboratory than a café, with shiny white tiles on every wall and surface. The waiters even wore spotless lab coats as they dished out the dissected cuts of soft, slippery meat, the unforgiving glare of the high-voltage strip lights piercing through every slither of fat and muscle on the cheap white china plates. Dariush breathed in the sweet, warm stink of disintegrating flesh, bones and cartilage. His mother had tried to make kalehpacheh in America a few times. They had eaten it glumly, in silence, for kalehpacheh is a man’s dish and it reminded them of his father, who could make it better than anyone. His father, a devout monarchist, had been a civil servant in the Shah’s government. When the militia had been roaming the streets and rounding up anyone they could find, he had been taken in for questioning and was never seen again.

Dariush spotted an empty table at the back, near the kitchen counter. He weaved his way through the room and, as he sat down, a small glass of tea was banged on the table by a passing waiter. Behind him, steel pots puffed out streams of steam, the gentle murmur of boiling broth a steady hum underneath clashing plates and voices. He had kept an eye out in the taxi to see if he was being followed. From where he was sitting he had a clear view across the restaurant to outside. Nobody. He was early. He relaxed a little, allowing himself to survey the room.

The diners were a curious mix. Bearded lone workmen and office clerks eating quickly, heads bowed. Old regulars in pressed shirts trading banter across the tables, their breakfast rituals unchanged for decades. Bright-eyed ramblers in windcheaters and woolly socks fuelling themselves after treks in the Alborz mountains, walking sticks and rucksacks propped up against the tables. They ate the slowest, enjoying every morsel after their dawn summit visits, having beaten the merciless sun and the trails clogged up with the amateurs.

In the middle was a sight that both excited and disgusted him. A group in their teens and early twenties were slumped in their chairs and across the tables, heads resting on each other, feet sprawled out, sunglasses on their heads. They giggled and flirted and in whispers gossiped about their night. The girls were breathtakingly beautiful, even with smudged mascara and backcombed hair falling out of tiny headscarves, stray strands stuck on their sweaty foreheads. Beautiful, despite their improbable upturned noses carved and chiselled by the surgeon’s knife. They pouted their juicy lips, pushing out slurred words, throwing heads back and breasts forward as they laughed, showing off slender brown arms. They filled the room with their laughter, their dilated, spaced-out ecstasy-pilled eyes and the sweet smell of vodka moonshine that clung to their party clothes peeking through their manteaus, the Islamic regulation overcoats that women are obliged to wear in order to conceal curves. They slurped down the revellers’ morning-after favourite, big bowls of brain soup, a perfect hangover cure to soak up the drugs and booze that were still coursing through their bodies.

Dariush was staring so intently at the girls that he did not notice his comrade enter the restaurant.

‘Salaam brother. Welcome home.’ Dariush had been easy to spot; apart from the agreed set of keys and a packet of red Marlboro cigarettes on the table, he was gawping.

Dariush looked embarrassed. He had taken his eye off the ball.

‘Don’t worry, it’s always a shock to see these young kids behaving like animals while their country goes to shit. And you’re the one who’s going to be saving us all, right?’ He smirked and then lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘I know your mission. Jahangir briefed me. Call me Kian. You know the drill.’

They ate their food in silence, and without waiting for the bill Kian left a stack of notes on the table and walked out. Dariush followed him north up Vali Asr where the road bends to the east towards Tajrish Square. They passed the gardens of the old palace of Bagh Ferdows, the fresh breeze licking their ankles. Vali Asr was bursting with the signs of spring: dazzling green buds sprouting out of the trees, the sticky smell of the sweet sap that coated the year’s new leaves; mounds of unripe almonds, jade-coloured plums, apricots and figs from the south, and bunches of tarragon and mint spilt out of boxes in front of shops.

They turned left and into the backstreets of the old neighbourhood of Shemiran, and entered a square grey block of flats; the air was filled with the smell of frying onions. Up to the sixth floor. From the balcony, hundreds of high-rise rooftops looked like toy houses in the shadow of the mountains, a coating of winter’s snow still stubbornly clinging to their peaks.

‘The flat’s clean, no bugs, I checked it last night.’ A shroud of dust covered the room. Kian took a plastic cover off an old leather sofa. From his jacket pocket he unfolded a map, discoloured by summer sun. He smoothed out the creases as he laid it out on the table.

‘They told me to give you this. It’s marked up so don’t leave it lying around. Learn where you have to go, then burn it.’

Dariush studied the map, tracing his hand along Tehran’s perimeter, marvelling at its unfamiliar new shape; fat fingers of concrete and brick poking up into the mountains, out towards the desert and into the plains and the countryside. In the centre, two black circles marked the home and workplace of his target: Tehran’s former police chief.

‘Here are a few SIM cards. Don’t use any of them for more than two weeks. Don’t order cabs, just hail them in the streets. That’s it from me. Good luck.’

Dariush’s head jerked, ‘You’re leaving? Is that it? What about a gun? The getaway driver?’

‘Don’t tell me they haven’t arranged that for you? They’ve got to sort their shit out.’

Dariush slammed his hand on the table, scattering a cloud of dust. ‘This is a joke! We’re working our guts out over there, I’m putting my life on the line for the cause, and it seems you don’t even give a fuck!’

Kian lit a cigarette and took a deep drag before resting his head in the palms of his hands. He did not bother looking up. ‘Brother, I appreciate what you’re doing. I really do. Things are just different here. It’s not what they’ve been feeding you. You know how much pressure we’re under? The old boys are monitored twenty-four-seven. You’re lucky they didn’t give you some young gun with no experience who would have landed you in prison.’ He scribbled down a number on a scrap of paper. ‘Say Pedram says the shop’s been opened again. That’s all you have to say. I’ll sort out the driver.’ He turned round when he got to the door. ‘Just so you know, don’t be surprised when you hear people don’t much like us here. And by the way, this isn’t the first time the sazman has fucked up.’ He walked out shaking his head.

If someone had told Dariush two years ago that he would become involved with the MEK, he would have laughed at them. Dariush had never been interested in politics; at least, no more than any other exiled Iranian who grew up with revolution talk. His childhood in Virginia had been uneventful. Arezou had changed everything.

He had met Arezou at university, where he was studying computer engineering. From their first conversation, they were both struck by the inevitability of what was going to happen. In many ways they were similar: serious and bruised by life. Arezou told Dariush that both her parents had been killed during the revolution for being political activists. She was guarded and evasive when it came to ordinary questions about her family. Other students found her cold; Dariush was intrigued. They approached their inchoate love cautiously. When she finally submitted, Dariush was utterly captivated. He had found his soulmate.

They had just made love when Arezou first told him that she was a member of the Group, the MEK. Dariush had sat up in shock. He had heard the MEK were a bunch of crazies, just as bad as the mullahs, and that they were loathed by all.

Dariush argued with Arezou against them, but she became indignant and defensive, ranting at him. Even though he disagreed with what she said – that the MEK were freedom fighters, that everyone in Iran was rooting for them and that they were the only credible dissident group – he could not help but be impressed by her knowledge, by her grasp of history and her ability to reel out facts. Arezou began to talk of the sazman more often. It would always end in an argument. She tried to persuade him to go to meetings; he always refused.

One evening, in the middle of cooking supper, she told him it was over. He had burst out crying. She told him that unless he respected the cause, and accepted it was a part of her life, she could not be with him. She spoke with absolute dispassion. ‘This is who I am. If you love me, you have to accept all of me.’ Dariush had no choice but to say yes; he promised to try.


  • “A masterpiece of true tales turned into rich, gripping, vivid narrative… The amazing aspect of the book is that Navai manages to transform every tale into exquisitely detailed, terrible — but somehow wonderful — novellas. …There's something cinematic in Navai's style. Any one of these stories could be adapted for the big screen as a feature film…. This book is a caution, a tragedy, a seduction.”— Liz Smith, The Chicago Tribune /The Boston Herald

    "This is an important book. A seamless literary tapestry that just happens to be true. Ramita Navai's collection of stories are uniquely Iranian yet they will move, chill and delight even a reader indifferent to Persia." — Sam Kiley, author of Desperate Glory and Sky News Foreign Affairs Editor

    "One of the world's most exciting cities, as revealed by one of journalism's most exciting women. Navai slips effortlessly into the boots of earthy, urban writer to tour Tehran's ripped backsides in this intimate, grand guignol debut. She transports us through the Iranian capital's multiple personas with deft and knowing navigation: never short of love for even the lowliest of her fellow Tehranis. An intimate and devoted portrait, lifting a beautiful truth from a city masked in lies.” — Anthony Loyd, author of Another Bloody Love Letter and My War Gone by, I Miss it So
  • “It's a well-paced, entertaining read. But its fascinating mix of characters and its refusal to be distracted by Iran's many external problems are what make City of Lies truly valuable."— The National Interest

    “An intriguing collection of cameo portraits to illustrate the difficulties and challenges Tehranis face in their everyday lives… Navai provides a fascinating insight into the routine hypocrisy and dishonesty that have become the survival mechanism for millions of ordinary city-dwellers.”—Mail on Sunday (UK)
  • “Taken together, the book's eight compulsively readable chapters, each focused on a different Iranian, paint a harrowing portrait of the city today… Readers are granted a panoramic view of Tehrani society: from the faux-Greek mansions that house the nouveau riche in the city's north, to a midtown bustling with students, merchants and young women with ‘enough make-up to make a drag queen recoil,' to the shacks and poverty of south Tehran.” —Wall Street Journal

    "City of Lies explores the double lives led by Tehranis as they evade the watchful eye of the regime... a rich portrait of this vibrant, opaque and paranoid city... at the heart of City of Lies is some brilliant reporting. Persuading subjects to talk, even anonymously, is an achievement where betrayal is commonplace and there is always someone watching. Black humour runs through the book."— Hugh Tomlinson, The Times (UK)

    "The stories are beautiful, and they're so well-detailed and nuanced." —Jon Stewart, The Daily Show

    “[Navai's] beautifully written book captures the pace, pulse and passions of day-to-day existence.”— Minneapolis Star-Tribune
  • “The stories are real. But they are written in a lively style that reads like a novel. Navai is impressive as a reporter, finding these characters and convincing them to share their stories. She also is an eloquent writer who uses her subjects to tell the larger tale of the degradation of the Iranian culture.”— Bookpage

    “A daring exposé of what really goes on under the noses of the morality police in this God-fearing city of 12 million…. British-Iranian journalist Navai protects the real identities of her subjects, who are as engaging as characters of fiction and reveal, frankly, the charade that living under Sharia law has become since Iran's Islamic Revolution….Navai offers sharply rendered portraits.”— Kirkus
    "Ramita Navai's City of Lies is gripping, a dark, delicious unveiling of the secret decadent life of Islamic Tehran, deeply researched yet as exciting as a novel" —Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: The Biography, Young Stalin and One Night in Winter
    “... she has broken taboos and laid bare what everyone knows but nobody mentions...She writes well and with fluency, in tight prose mercifully free of Persian hyperbole” —Antony Wynn, The Times Literary Supplement (UK)
  • “[Navai's] Iranians share stories intimate and unforgettable enough to establish City of Lies as a remarkable and highly readable map of its human geography.…The stories are almost unbelievable. They reveal a Tehran so riddled with social, political, sexual and religious contradictions that it's difficult to imagine how someone could navigate the fraught maze of daily life. Navai stunned this reader with her attention to detail… Navai's prose is startling.”—Eliza Griswold, The Sunday Telegraph (UK)

    "City of Lies is thoroughly researched and deeply evocative of place. Navai has a formidable talent as a storyteller. Her stories are by turns comical, intriguing and heart-wrenching. And although there's a great deal of sadness in the stories she tells, she writes with obvious love for the wondrous variety of life in Tehran."—Bijan Omrani, Geographical Magazine

    "City of Lies is a fascinating account of ordinary life in a major city where religious fanaticism has been allowed to run riot. It's hard to close the book without valuing the freedom secularisation brings, and the relative absence of hypocrisy that arrives through not having to repress human nature." — Entertainment Focus
  • "Welcome to life in the Islamic Republic of Iran - or, more specifically, in its teeming, ugly, catastrophically polluted capital city. Ramita Navai is an award-winning British-Iranian journalist and broadcaster who has lived in Tehran and London, and feels allegiance to both countries. It was while working as a newspaper correspondent in Tehran that she began interviewing a wide range of ordinary people about their lives, collecting stories which are (unsurprisingly) extraordinary. This gripping book is a mosaic of such glimpses into a very different world... the chapters read like utterly compelling short tales, catapulting us imaginatively into the hearts and minds of people we feel we know, even though their lives are so very 'other'... It is the author's considerable achievement to make you feel deeply moved by these lives - even as you send up a fervent prayer of gratitude that we were lucky enough to be born here."— Bel Mooney, The Daily Mail (UK)

    ‘Navai's Tehran teems with crystal meth pushers, gun runners, prostitutes and transexuals... what makes City of Lies engaging is that it is rooted in real-life stories... It is, in many ways, the written version of a television docudrama, with parallel stories that never intersect."— Farah Nayeri, The Independent (UK)
  • *Winner of the Paddy Power Debut Political Book of the Year (UK)*

    City of Lies is an extraordinary insight into a country barely known—and often feared—by the West.” —Vogue

    “A great read. She takes readers to corners of Iranian society that are very difficult to penetrate. And she does that with great personal risk.” —PRI's The World, favorite books of 2014

    "Telling the story of Tehran through a cast of characters...Navai illustrates how Iranians are far more bound by what they have in common: a strong awareness of class, an irrepressible drive for upward mobility, daily clashes with the forces of modernity and tradition, and a profound disillusionment with the opportunities society has on offer. Fast-paced and saturated with detail each chapter describes a Tehrani whose life the treacherous, glittering city has disfigured in some way... what [Navai] has done is extraordinary. Despite the bleakness of life in their "city of lies", her Iranians continue to soldier on, hoping the future holds something better.”—Azadeh Moaveni, Financial Times (UK)

On Sale
Sep 2, 2014
Page Count
320 pages

Ramita Navai

About the Author

Ramita Navai is a British-Iranian foreign affairs journalist who has reported from over thirty countries including South Sudan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria, El Salvador, and Zimbabwe. She has made twenty documentaries for Channel 4’s series, Unreported World, and she was awarded an EMMY for her undercover report from Syria for PBS’s Frontline. She has also worked as a journalist for the United Nations in Pakistan, Iraqi Kurdistan, and Iran, and was the Tehran correspondent for the Times from 2003 to 2006.

Learn more about this author