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A cultural bridge between Iran, US

While reporting for Time magazine in Tehran, American journalist Azadeh Moaveni was plagued by a recurrent nightmare of fleeing through a doorway, where her hijab -- or head scarf -- catches on a doorknob and strangles her.

As the dream suggests, cultural pressures have ensnared her, first as an Iranian girl raised in America, and later as an American woman living in Tehran.

Moaveni's moving memoir, ''Lipstick Jihad," chronicles her upbringing as the child of two Iranian émigrés in San Jose, Calif.

Her extended family leaves Tehran several years before the fundamentalist uprising of 1979, but they continue to pine for their homeland. Their children are raised as Americans but are still forced to contend with the ugly anti-Iranian sentiments of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Moaveni studies politics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and after graduation is driven to explore her heritage. She accepts a Fulbright fellowship to study Arabic in Egypt, and in 2000 moves to Tehran to report on the Middle East for Time magazine.

She wants to discover Iran's ''lost generation," young people her own age raised in the shadow of the Ayatollah's revolution. In some ways, she finds her sun-kissed California life not so different from the hedonistic lives of young Iranians.

It's not all stern, repressive mullahs -- Tehran's westernized young people drink, smoke, fool around, ski, wear Armani, do yoga, and get nose jobs. But the political atmosphere is growing ever more ominous in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Moaveni must dodge dangerous political unrest and pressures from government ''minders," who shadow her, bug her telephones, and want to censor her reporting.

Even back home, she is never fully at home. During a reporting trip to the UN, she wears a Donna Karan pantsuit and a hijab to interview the visiting Iranian presidential delegation.

She hates the scarf, but her credibility as a journalist with the men in the delegation demands adherence to Islamic modesty rules. When an American reporter criticizes her for capitulating, Moaveni must defend her choices again. ''I live and work in Iran," she writes. ''My situation is different."

Moaveni manages to sidestep a common mistake of bicultural young memoirists. She does not overly romanticize her homeland, nor does she lash out too fiercely at the misunderstanding she encounters in her adopted world. She is clearheaded and forthright about both lands, warts and all.

There has been a glut of Iranian émigré women's memoirs in recent months, including Marjane Satrapi's ''Persepolis 2" graphic novel, Roya Hakakian's ''Journey From the Land of No," and Afschineh Latifi's ''Even After All This Time."

Azar Nafisi's2003 blockbuster, ''Reading Lolita in Tehran," has somewhat awoken public appetite for such books. But parts of it were ponderous and alienating.

Moaveni has avoided this with humor and a light touch. The book's irreverent title and snarky chapter headings such as ''I'm Too Sexy For My Veil" and ''Not Without My Mimosa" give it vitality and appeal. The book's clever cover photo -- of a head-scarved woman sporting designer sunglasses and a cellphone against the backdrop of an Arabic tile mosaic -- seals the deal.

Moaveni has closed the cultural gulf between young America and young Iran by building a bridge of her own and personally escorting readers across. It's an invitation readers should accept.

Erica Noonan can be reached at

Lipstick Jihad, By Azadeh Moaveni, Public Affairs, 272pp, $25

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