California Literary Review

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran – by Christopher de Bellaigue


April 24th, 2007 at 4:56 am

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In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran
by Christopher de Bellaigue
HarperCollins, 304 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Dust, Diesel and Despair

In the morally constricted worldview of the Bush Administration’s neo-con foreign policy apparatus, Iran reigns supreme as the moment’s Luciferian challenge to world peace. The Iranian government, in turn, has played its role with élan, recklessly pursuing nuclear power status and refusing to seek out accommodation and understanding with its Western foe. Only with luck and forbearance will the two nations avoid a military clash that could rip Central Asia wide open, a collision far greater in scale than anything that the Iraq War will ever unleash in the Arab world.

Americans would be well advised to learn about Iran’s culture and tragic recent history before our nations resort to a regional war. If you read one book about Iran to fill in your lack of knowledge, make sure it is this one. Christopher de Bellaigue, a correspondent for The Economist, among other publications, has compassion for and an appreciation of Persian culture and a clear-eyed view of what makes Iranians so paranoid with respect to the West in general and the United States in particular. The combination makes for great reading and even greater insight into this mighty and ancient nation.

One event above all haunts Iran – its war with Iraq in the 1980s which left hundreds of thousands of Iranian soldiers dead and hundreds of thousands more severely injured and crippled for life. For Iranians, the struggle in the salt marshes of southern Iraq was worldwide in scope. Saddam Hussein used poison gas provided by German chemical manufacturers to kill and sicken, often permanently, thousands of Iranian soldiers. His armed forces used arms and equipment provided by the United States. While its governments succored the Iraqi dictator, the Western media looked away from those terrible eight years. Iran fought in a vacuum created by geopolitics and a lack of journalistic endeavor. This has, understandably, all combined to make Iranians pathologically suspicious of the West.

Yet, at the same time, de Bellaigue shows a society that pines, in large part, for the West’s cultural offerings. Iranian society is crumbling under the brutal force of this paradox. Many Iranians, particularly the young, have turned against the clerical dictatorship that clings to power in Tehran. At the same time, however, they have nothing to turn toward except Western-style consumerism. This is an eternal state of Iranian politics, which for centuries has swung between the extremes of clerical theocracy and secular authoritarianism. De Bellaigue’s Iran is poised for another sweep of the pendulum and there seems to be little chance that Iranians will choose participatory democracy. For to be Persian, to be Shi’a, is to embrace suffering in all its manifest forms.

The sense of doom that pervades the Iranian society portrayed in de Bellaigue’s book is almost hallucinatory. Here, religious volunteers in the trenches, Basijis, fight the despair of static warfare with the promise of a better world to come:

It was the time that some Basijis started to claim they’d had visions of the twelfth Imam. It was a tantalizing idea; he’s the last of the Prophet’s direct male descendants and the last infallible human being on earth. Although he was born in the ninth century, the Owner of Time never died. He’s among us, in disguise. When he eventually reveals himself, this will presage an era of justice and truth.

Wise comrades warned Mr. Zarif to resist the fashion for ‘visions’ — many commanders realized that they were bad for morale. You got lads sticking to a comrade under fire. The comrade had seen the twelfth Imam, and thus had an ‘aura.’ If a seer were martyred , other men would rip pieces of clothing off his corpse and keep them as relics. Hossein Kharrazi had no patience with this indiscipline. He would beat the ‘seer’ until he recanted.

From talking to the men who fought under him, my impression is that Kharrazi cared more about the average Basiji than many commanders; a fruitless death, he maintained, didn’t count as martyrdom…

Iranians, even those passionately committed to the Revolution, as indeed Hossein Kharrazi was, temper their mysticism with realism. That may, ultimately, be their saving grace in any military confrontation with the United States. With luck, that sense of realism will lead them away from war and terrorism.

Only a few peoples – Cambodians and Rwandans come to mind – understand that suffering eventually reaches a point where it no longer ennobles.

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs shows an Iran in touch with that bitter truth. And Christopher de Bellaigue does an outstanding job of limning what seems to us to be a perplexing, mysterious culture, but one that we must eventually come to understand if we really do care about the cause of peace and justice in this region wracked by its history.

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