by Christopher de Bellaigue, TLS
Freudian psychoanalysis may have lost ground in the West, but not, according to Gohar Homayounpour, in Tehran, where “today’s sexuality is still Freud’s sexuality”. Over the past five years of ushering patients on to her couch in the Iranian capital, Homayounpour has analysed more than enough Oedipus complexes and incestuous dreams to inspire this short, perky, Persian-hued homage. Indeed, as she notes, Freud’s sexual theories have a distinctive strain in Tehran, where the collective fantasy is “anchored in an anxiety of disobedience that wishes for an absolute obedience. The sons, while desiring to rebel, know unconsciously that if they do so they might get killed, and so in a way they settle for the fear of castration”.
Is Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran the novel that Homayounpour, as she tells us, promised her own father? The diary he recommended she write instead? We are never quite sure, but whatever the precise blend of fact and fiction, as the book advances and an agreeably varied selection of Tehranis troop through – a combative francophone painter; a butch lorry driver who is scared of the dark; someone’s moll who informs her, “I have a very analyzable character” – it becomes clear that Homayounpour’s literary goal is less to map the Freudian unconscious of her patients, their repressed wishes and memories, than to shine a light on a subject that interests her even more. The book, as she writes in her introduction, is “a note to myself”.
Much of what Homayounpour has to say about her own story, as an Iranian exile who returns home from America to find that she feels like a stranger, is interesting and revealing. There are a few awkward notes, such as her repeated low bows to eminent Freudians (“as Julia Kristeva tells us so elegantly”) and an ill-advised detour into literary criticism. Mostly, though, Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran uses the interaction between analyst and patient to administer a laudable corrective to received wisdom. The image of Iran nurtured by most of our media consists of an unspeakable government bent on destroying Israel and repressing ordinary Iranians. This is not to say that the image is without truth – only that it is incomplete to the point of travesty. Doing Psychoanalysis in Tehran features no nukes and Homayounpour’s account of her patients’ neuroses concedes little to cultural specificities. Hers is an original approach to the ruling theocracy: to ignore it. One foreign friend to whom she showed an early draft wondered where the ayatollahs were. “How about you change your title to Going Crazy in Tehran?”
In the event, Homayounpour’s title echoes that of a decade-old book by another returnee from the US – Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. An Iranian-American academic, Nafisi wrote Lolita about a private English literature class she had taught for women in the early days of the revolution. The book flattered American readers because it suggested that Iranian women have a great affinity to the American novel and long, like Nafisi’s characters, to live in the West. It was hugely successful.
Homayounpour’s view is more complicated. She is good at describing the distance between the exile and the country to which she returns. In America she had drifted around in a penumbra of exoticism. Now, with her francophone painter, she discusses “the loneliness, the individualism, the lack of human relationships” in Western society and the horrendous fantasy of dying and rotting unnoticed behind the doors of a Paris apartment.
So why, she asks herself, has coming home turned out to be such a disappointment? To her perturbation, she finds that she “preferred the distance I could keep from people in the West, especially if I wanted to be left alone, or get some work done. Everyone seems so warm and caring here, but is that not just an excuse to drink tea with each other and justify our laziness?”. Then, in one of the sardonic asides at which she excels, Homayounpour confesses that “there are so many neurotic gains to be had from the process”.
It is all a reminder that, away from the sanctions and threats of war, Iranians are living lives that are susceptible to the same instruments of analysis as those of Westerners. If there is nostalgia in this account, it is perhaps for the oral culture that has been displaced by the internet in Western cities, but which survives in Tehran. “People here are very much into talking, talking, talking; and so the talking cure has found itself taken to the heart of the Iranian national character.”
Christopher de Bellaigue’s most recent book is Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a very British coup, which appeared earlier this year.