I’ve always been a sucker for a book about Iran. No matter how many books I’m currently reading, or how many are stacked by my bed waiting to be read, if during the course of one of my frequent library visits I spot a promising book on Iran I’ll usually grab it. Recently, as a result of one of those library visits I discovered Reza Kahlili’s 2010 memoir A Time to Betray: The Astonishing Double Life of a CIA Agent Inside the Revolutionary Guards of Iran. True to form, I grabbed it and I’m glad I did. A Time to Betray is an exciting, fast-paced and enjoyable memoir that reads like a spy novel. And to top it all off, it’s true.
Kahlili’s memoir begins with his childhood in pre-revolutionary Iran. After graduating from high school he leaves his upper middle class family to attend college in the United States. While attending USC his first few years in America are spent drinking, partying, chasing girls and occasionally going to class. Eventually events overtake him and he is swept up in the revolutionary maelstrom which is quickly unleashing itself upon his native Iran. Desiring an end of the Shah’s autocratic rule, he falls in with a group of revolutionary-minded Iranian students. As a result of his new-found political consciousness Kahlili is soon exposed to the writings of the “red Shia” Ali Shariati and eventually the teachings of exiled cleric Ayatollah Khomeini. After returning to Iran Kahlili is recruited as a computer programmer by the Revolutionary Guards. With the youthful and idealistic zeal of a new convert, he wishes nothing more than help build a democratic and just society, raise a family and start a rewarding career.
But like many revolutions throughout history, Iran’s begins to eat its own children. After Khomeini and his fellow mullahs impose their harsh and unforgiving theocracy upon the people of Iran, and witnessing firsthand the terrors unleashed upon the innocent prisoners of the notorious Evin Prison, Kahlili finds himself disillusioned with the murderous regime. Desperate to tell the world of the horrors unfolding around, he secretly contacts agents of the American CIA while visiting his elderly aunt in Los Angeles. After gaining their trust he is soon recruited by the Agency to be its ears and eyes deep inside the regime’s Revolutionary Guards.
Kahlili’s memoir is pleasing to read, straightforward and riveting. Above all, the author tells his amazing tale with passion and sensitivity without being overly sentimental. Plus it’s also superbly edited. In the book’s acknowledgements Kahlili thanks among many people editor Mary Strobel, line editor John Strobel and to my pleasant surprise historian, writer and former Portlander Tamim Ansary – crediting his “insightful comments and critiques”. Since Kahlili is a software engineer (and spy) by trade and not a writer one must entertain the notion that judging by the excellent quality of his memoir, the final product is the result of more that one skilled hand. But if that is the case then so be it. I loved A Time to Betray and once again, I’m thankful to have public library which provides me with opportunities to read great books like this.