Christopher de Bellaigue’s 2005 book In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran was another one of those books that sat in my towering “to read” pile for months before I finally picked it up and starting reading it. I’m thinking the main reason it took me so long to get to de Bellaigue’s book was I wasn’t too excited to read it in the first place since a few years ago I read his 2007 book The Struggle for Iran and found it fairly mediocre. After finishing In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs earlier this morning, for the most part I’m happy to report that I enjoyed this book much more than The Struggle for Iran. While it’s a somewhat uneven effort, ultimately the book delivers a detailed and considerably impartial glimpse into the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Perhaps mislabeled as a memoir, de Bellaigue’s book if anything is a collection of oral histories from various Iranians who lived through the bloody and tumultuous years leading up to and just after the creation of the world’s first modern theocratic state. History-changing events such as the toppling of the Shah, the ascent of Khomeini and the senseless slaughter of the Iran-Iraq war are all seen through the eyes of individual Iranians, most if not all of them active participants in these pivotal dramas. The maelstrom of history has taken its toll physically, emotionally and spiritually leaving them disabled by war, oppressed by the authoritarian regime or betrayed by the promises of Islamic revolution. Tired and middle-aged, the Iranians interviewed de Bellaigue now exemplify the very nation of Iran; a country exhausted by war, disillusioned by revolution, bereft of wide-spread religious zeal and teeming with anger towards the ruling elite. While this revolution hasn’t devoured all of its children, like a cat with a captive mouse the ruling Mullahs and their allies prefer instead to slowly torment and bat their prey into grinding submission.
Regarding the book’s style and substance, a few things caught my attention. Living as British expat in Iran and married to an Iranian woman, de Bellaigue does bring a sort of “insider’s/outsider’s” perspective to his book, somewhat reminiscent of Hooman Majd, Suketu Mehta and Stephen Kinzer but unfortunately lacking those writers’ passion and talent. Even though he writes with a journalist’s detachment, de Bellaigue sometimes feels a bit uninspired. To make matters worse, he also tends to wander a bit, and as a result his book seems to lack a strong and unifying structure.
But in the end, it’s probably unfair for me to speak too negatively of this book, since I burned through it in just a few days. After reading a number of books on Iran over the past couple years, I thought this book did the best job portraying horrors of the Iran-Iraq war. While In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs might not have been my most memorable book on the nation of Iran, I still managed to walk away from it with a deeper understanding of that complex and enigmatic Middle Eastern nation. I only wished I would have read it much sooner, instead of letting it sit unread in a big pile of books for the last six months.