An Anglo-French journalist married to an Iranian woman attempts to reconcile the joys of his adopted land with its grim cruelty.
Journalist de Bellaigue, who has written about the Middle East and South Asia for The Economist, The New York Review of Books and other highbrow publications, here turns his eye on the nation he’s called home for the past five years: the Islamic Republic of Iran. The author states that he wants to show readers the heart of a country whose people are friendly and lead a rich cultural life, yet also believe—sometimes fanatically—in a religion that glorifies death. And for the most part he accomplishes this goal, giving us a rare glimpse into a world most Westerners would consider bizarre. An Islamic seminarian, for example, steers clear of using his free time at night to memorize incantations, fearing that he will begin to repeat them ceaselessly and go insane. But the same man trusts himself enough to flirt with evil and wonder about the taste of wine, a forbidden indulgence under Koranic law. Such examples can feel like trees in a forest as we plow through episode after episode of exotic Iranian life: athletic clubs with homoerotic overtones, testimonials from soldiers who endured Saddam Hussein’s gas attacks, a female activist seeking to avenge the murders of her politically dissident parents. De Bellaigue employs literary devices in his narrative to sometimes powerful effect, as when he describes the way Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution has died but still reverberates through the capital: “Living in Tehran is like listening to the sea in a shell.” At other times—for example, when he adopts the first-person voice of a soldier fighting in the Iran-Iraq war—the conceits seem too gimmicky. Never tiresome, however, are his stellar passages on the Iranian side of still-fresh history, including the Iran-Contra scandal. Many of the Iranians involved were executed for dealing with infidels.
A welcome, illuminating peak behind the 21st century’s equivalent of the Iron Curtain.