A Memoir of Iran

By Christopher de Bellaigue

HarperCollins -- 283pp -- $26.95

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Editor's Review

Star Rating
Star Rating

The Good A highly original and literate portrait of Iran today.

The Bad The view is bleak--that of a society trapped in the past.

The Bottom Line Given Iran's emphasis on death and martyrdom, be prepared for a downer.

The seminal event shaping the mind-set of today's Iran may have come more than 1,300 years ago. That's when the Imam Hossein -- the grandson of the Prophet and, in the view of Shia Islam, his rightful heir -- was murdered by the forerunners of today's Sunnis, who now constitute a majority of the world's Muslims. In Iran, though, most people are Shiite..

An obsession with this history, theorizes Christopher de Bellaigue, has helped produce an Iranian culture that places an unhealthy emphasis on death and martyrdom and defiance of outsiders. "Iran mourns [Hossein] on a fragrant spring day, while watching a ladybird scale a blade of grass, while making love," he writes in his highly original and disturbing portrait of the Islamic Republic, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs. "This was the case fifty years ago, long before the setting up of the Islamic Republic, and will be the case fifty years hence, after it has gone."

Of course, no one knows how long the Islamic Republic will last. But in the meantime, the clerical regime has exploited the society's cultural and religious ethos to carry off one of the more thorough revolutions of modern times. That has left Iran in a pretty depressing state, with an unaccountable and often irresponsible leadership and an economy that's still recovering from the disruption. All of this is deftly captured by De Bellaigue, a writer for The Economist and other publications who lives in Tehran, is wed to an Iranian, and speaks Persian. The author has immersed himself in the society and effectively describes his acquaintances' experiences of the revolution and its aftermath.

De Bellaigue is not squeamish about whom he befriends, a characteristic that allows him to see how the revolution played out not only from on high but also from street level. One of his chief informants is a fortyish man whom the author calls Mr. Zarif. As a teen in the late 1970s, Zarif joined a group of toughs belonging to Hezbollah, or Party of God, in an orgiastic session of breast-beating and chanting: "Hosseinhossseinhosseinhosseinhosseinhossein." After that, Zarif paid little attention to his studies. Instead, during these early days of the revolution, the young zealot terrorized those students and teachers at the school whom he suspected of communist or other undesirable leanings. Eventually the principal became frightened of the boy -- and ashamed of his own fear. "A kid of fifteen had become more powerful than he was."

Zarif talked his way into a Revolutionary Guard unit just in time for the horrifically bloody war with Iraq, which consumed the 1980s. The hostilities represented the fullest expression of Iran's death wish. De Bellaigue blames the Iranian leadership and, in particular, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who takes some of de Bellaigue's hardest hits, for prolonging the war far longer than necessary as a way of justifying political excesses at home.

An opportunity for martyrdom -- that was how the leadership portrayed the war. Such propaganda was certainly useful in persuading tens of thousands of men to charge ahead to almost certain death. The families of martyrs were paid off: The relatives enjoy such privileges as V.I.P. treatment at national celebrations and discounted trips to Mecca.

Sixteen years after the war ended, its traces are everywhere. Many Tehran streets are named after martyrs, and their photos are displayed in parks. The war was the revolution's apogee. The government is trapped in the past with little interest in the future. "The Revolution is everything, and it has already happened," de Bellaigue writes.

The regime may be exhausted, but it is capable of dealing ruthlessly with those it perceives to be a threat. In 1998, Darioush Forouhar, leader of a small opposition party, and his wife, Parvaneh, a poet, were found butchered in their home, one of several such extra-judicial killings, probably by government agents. These sparked a wave of revulsion and inquiries as part of a wider reform movement that failed, but only medium-size fish were punished. The most prominent investigative journalist, Akbar Ganji, who pointed the finger at Rafsanjani, was tossed in jail. Rafsanjani remains hugely influential. Near the end of the book, de Bellaigue visits Ali-reza Alavi Tabar, a reformist editor who has started a dozen or so newspapers only to have them shuttered. "I'd never seen his confidence waver in ultimate victory" by the reformers, de Bellaigue writes. Winning, Tabar thought, "was a matter of time." But it could be a long time.

By Stanley Reed

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