23 September 2010

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs

The thirtieth anniversary of the 23 September 1980 invasion of Iran by Iraq seems as good a time as any to recommend a remarkable book about Iran and the impact of that terrible war: Christopher de Bellaigue’s In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, Harper Collins, 2004. The title is an ironic reference to the rows and rows of headstones in a cemetery in Tehran where the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war are interred.

Bellaigue, an Englishman who lives in Tehran with his Iranian wife and writes for The Economist and The New York Review of Books among others, gives us a background to Shi’a Islam, modernisation under the Shah, the Iranian revolution, the origins and conduct of the war, the Iran-Contra scandal and the ongoing hostilities with the United States. These are all there, but they serve as a backdrop to street-level views of Iranian life, and insights into the lives of ordinary Iranian citizens, liberally sprinkled with the views of the people who had been involved in these momentous events.

The cover blurb gives a good feel of what this remarkable and moving book is about:

Beside the highway that leads south from Tehran, the necropolis of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini rises from the sweating tarmac like a miraculous filling-station supplying fuel for the soul. However, the paint is peeling even before the complex has been completed, and the prayer  halls are all but deserted.

Iran’s Islamic Revolution is out of gas; but what happened to the hostage takers, suicidal holy warriors and ideologues who brought it about? These men and women kicked out the Shah, spent eight years fighting Saddam’s Iraq, and terrified the West with their militancy and courage. Now they are a worn out generation.

In this superbly crafted and thoughtful book, Christopher de Bellaigue gives us the voices and memories of these wistful revolutionaries. Mullahs and academics, artists, traders and mystics – the author knows them as an insider, a journalist who speaks fluent Persian and is married to an Iranian, and also as an outsider, a Westerner isolated in one of the world’s most enigmatic and impenetrable societies.

The result is a subtly intense revelation of the hearts and minds of the Iranian people, and what it is to live among them.

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