As usual, a selection of the books I read (or still plan to read) about Iran, in the broadest sense of the word. After all, being prepared makes the journey so much more fun. The first three on the list are my favourites.
1. Perhaps the best book I have read about Iran is “In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran” (2004), by Christopher de Bellaigue, a British journalist and author, who, by his own admission, greatly benefits from his Iranian wife and in-laws. Mr de Bellaigue looks into the recent history of Iran, largely post-revolution, but with escapes further back into the 20th Century, to sketch the Pahlavi-dynasty background that provided the framework. And he does this superbly, through a mix of scholarly knowledge and deep-digging interviews with a broad range of people, many of whom keep on coming back in the book, with yet more details, more revelations.
One of the main subjects is the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, which is being analysed from the memories of veterans, from tracing down a famous commander who didn’t survive, and from Mr. de Bellaigue’s own extensive research. He puts into perspective the role of the various factions, inside as well as outside Iran, in such a way that you actually think you start to understand the issues that were at stake. His excursion into Orwell’s account of the Spanish civil war, and comparing and contrasting this with the Iran-Iraq war, is well chosen.
But the book also addresses other subjects, from daily Iranian life, to a brilliant chapter on the traditional sports club and the ‘thick-necks’, the gang-like heavyweights that used to dominate the bazaars, and the complex issue of their loyalty to one or another regime, starting with that of the Shah’s. All in all he paints a picture of what moves present day Iran, what is good (the revolution) and what is not so good (the aftermath of the revolution, the politics, the backroom-deals, the corruption, unaccounted-for murders), and what is important (somehow, religion is pervasive, in a way we Westerners don’t fully understand, appreciate it). And he does this with a pleasant writing style, helped by a healthy sense of humour, including some self-depreciation. Read this book, even if you don’t plan to travel to Iran; it helps you understand this country better, and it certainly helps you to read the news from Western news agencies in a different way.
2. “The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran” (2008), by American-Iranian Hooman Majd is another of those books that provide an interesting view on Iran, albeit different from Mr. de Bellaigue’s. Mr Majd is very well connected, son of a diplomat and related to one of the ruling ayatollahs, and has had access to the highest levels of government and religious authority in Iran – something that he re-emphasises a tat too often, but alas. He sketches an Iran where people enjoy plenty of freedom, as long as it is in private (and describes a tat too often all the opium dens and the booze parties he has attended, but alas), and where most people are not at all interested in political issues, but only in better economic prospects and somewhat freer social contact. In his view (and, admittedly, in the view of many others) the Islamic Revolution was a good thing, it freed Iran from an ineffective monarchy, but more importantly, from being a puppet to Western interests. Now Iran holds its own place in the world, is a country to be reckoned with, and that is really what counts to the proud Iranians. And the west should really understand that, is his message. Which is probably right, although I cannot verify all of Mr Majd’s claims, cannot judge all of his monologues.
There are many items that are grossed over in this book, many all to obvious questions that are not being addressed, but I guess every book on such a complex item as the Iranian psyche and their place in the world will have its omissions, inevitably. Having said that, this is a very interesting book, definitely worth reading to gain the views of Iranians, if not all of them then at least quite a few, and probably those who matter for the foreseeable future.
3. Another recent traveler to Iran is Jason Elliot, who, after several trips backwards and forth, wrote “Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran” (2006). Mr Elliot, who speaks Farsi well, easily makes contact with local people, which is one of the most fascinating parts of this book. He meets people of all walks of life, from remnants of the Shah’s imperium, aristocrats and business men, to villagers, nomads and the present day elite, and takes he the time to get to know them, and their stories and views. He thereby mostly avoids the political arena – no firebrand revolutionaries, no fanatics, but that doesn’t mean that religion is never a subject -, and focuses on Iran’s rich culture, instead, fitted into its historical framework. That he thereby occasionally goes overboard, at least for the casual travel book reader, analyzing and describing Isfahan’s architecture through mathematical models, is easily forgiven.
This is a great travel book, recommended for those who do, and those who don’t go to Iran, as it puts this fascinating country and culture in a different light from the day-to-day media attention it gets.
4. In “Land of the Turquoise Mountains: Journeys Across Iran” (2014) Cyrus Massoudi, a British-born Iranian, tries to discover his roots through a series of trips in Iran. Being a Farsi-speaker, he has a huge advantage over most other travelers, yet, he does not seem to exploit this to the full. Mr Massoudi meets lots of people, but he doesn’t really get them to talk; he just travels along with them, and lets himself be taken by the hand, whether it is to visit a kebab restaurant where they secretly drink alcohol, or one of the many tourist sites he visits. I cannot escape the impression that Mr Massoudi is just another tourist, who describes the wonders of this country – a bit from a distance. His personal quest does not develop very well, perhaps because his sometimes too blatant naivity (he expresses surprise, when a woman keeps her headscarf on inside the house; would he really not realize that she does this because he, a not-family member man, is there). Overall, a nice travel story, with some background to the sites he visits, but there are better ones (eg Jason Elliot).
5. One of my favourite historians, Peter Hopkirk, wrote “On Secret Service east of Constantinople” (1994), about joint German and Turkish efforts to stir up revolution in India as part of a WWI strategy to weaken the British Empire. Iran, because of its location in between the war mongering parties, features in a secondary role in the book. The country comes across, at the time, as a rather weak entity that cannot make up its mind who to support, the British or the Germans, but for understanding Iran, or Persia, this book doesn’t contribute much. Which is also not Mr. Hopkirk’s objective, rather, he is, like with so many other of his books, focused on the threat to India, from the Germans, the Turks, the Afghans and the Russians, as well as from internal dissent from Indian revolutionaries. To be fair, I found this one of the lesser books of Hopkirk, perhaps partly because it was written very much from a British perspective, which in this case doesn’t work well, and doesn’t provide an objective enough view of the challenges faced by all parties. The largest part of the book deals with the various spy plots, covert operations and associated bribery at all levels of the political spectrum, all within the larger framework of WWI as well as the Russian revolution. Read it for the broader historical context, but not for better understanding Iran.
6. Ancient Persian history is the subject of Tom Holland’s “Persian Fire” (2005), which tells the story of the rise of the first Persian Empire, under the Achaemedean dynasty, roughly from the rise of Cyrus the Great around 560 BC, to the decline, say, a hundred years later, after Xerxes’ defeat – well before the sacking of Persepolis by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, which effectively ended the Achaemenids. Fascinating writing, but a lot of detail, not only about Persia but also about the Greeks and their city-states, with which the Persian Empire was almost permanently at war. (I still need to finish the book)
7. Another very readable history book is “Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran” (2008), by Michael Axworthy, a British scholar with profound knowledge about the country. He covers the time from before the Archaemenids, via several other dynasties to the Arab invasion and the establishment of Islam in Iran, and up to recent history, including the Revolution and the rise of Khomeini and some of the present day issues, up to the rule of Ahmadinejad in 2005. A comprehensive overview, worth reading to understand where the Iran of today comes from.
8. With “Shah of Shahs” (1985), Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski paint a poignant portrait of Iranian society in the final years of the Shah, Mohammed Reza, and its dictatorial rule. How army, police and especially the secret service Savak act with impunity, how ordinary Iranians increasingly fear potential informers in their own surroundings, or just random arrest. How oil billions are squandered, on ill-thought through attempts to create the Great Civilization whilst it is mostly foreign companies and the corrupt Iranian elite that benefit. How society is ultimately ready to accept, no, to desperately welcome any kind of revolution, including the one of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979.
9. Belgian journalist Ann de Craemer traveled through Iran during the June 2009 presidential elections, and wrote a book, “Duizend-en-één-Dromen” (2010) about her experiences. Only in Dutch, I am afraid, not translated. What makes this book so interesting is that Ms De Craemer speaks Farsi, and she is able to speak to many local people, officials and others, to supporters of Ahmadinejad and of opposition candidate Mousavi, to young, ultra-modern towns folk and to conservative villagers, and thanks to her foreign origin even to men and women. They are able to express their views about the Iran of the day, apparently uninhibited, as well as their curiosity for ‘the West’. At the same time, Ms De Craemer’s experiences show the limitations of women in Iran, and of foreign journalists, at several uncomfortable moments in the more religiously oriented places, where she is being detained or simply chased away. Nice, and not-so-nice, at the same time, and worthwhile a read, not in the least because of the photos from her travel companion, Pieter-Jan de Pue.
10. Another woman traveler, but some time ago, was Freya Stark, who wrote “The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels” (1934), about exactly that: her travels in Persia as a single woman. Her’s is a detailed account of the places she visits, in the meantime updating existing maps and adding new features. Entertaining reading, mostly for the descriptions of life in Iran in those days, in the villages she passes through, with her small, but dedicated team, who become like characters in her book, or in the company of a larger caravan. Everywhere, she is a unique appearance, a woman alone, and a Western woman at that, who generates lots of interesting reactions, from officials as well as the nomads she encounters.
Iran also features in several travel books that cover a longer, multi-country journey:
11. In another reading list (Central Asia) I mentioned Colin Thubron’s “Shadow of the Silk Road” (2006), the description of his travels from China via Central Asia and Afghanistan to Iran and Eastern Turkey, earlier. The last part of the book deals with Iran, which he traverses along the northern route, like Dervla Murphy did. Unlike Ms Murphy, Thubron is strong on historical context, which is interspersed with his own travel experiences, past tombs and towns, Teheran and Tabriz. Like Ms Murphy, he also observes the striking difference between Iran’s Persian population, and the large swath of Azerbaijani Iranians, who are culturally quite different. Although Mr Thubron stuck me earlier as quiet and relaxed, during his passage through Afghanistan for the first time some fear shimmers through his travelogue, when he realizes he is the only Westerner, except for the occasional foreign soldiers, in the wide surroundings, in an area where even the locals don’t want to tread – resulting in him taking a plane to Herat, instead of his usual overland travel. But back in Iran, he is his usual self again, back to what I called earlier “a special way of observing, not necessarily focusing on the tourist highlights, but often on more obscure, somewhat irrelevant yet interesting aspects of the region he travels through”. In fact, I enjoyed the latter part of the book more than the earlier, Chinese and Central Asian part.
12. “The Way of the World” (1985, originally published in French in 1963) describes the adventures of author Nicolas Bouvier and his painter-friend on a trip from Serbia to Afghanistan in 1953/1954. Serbia, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan were all quite different then; besides, the times were different, too, just after WWII. This is, however, not to say that their trip was an easy one. They meet several status- and power-hungry officials, even to the effect that they are ‘invited’ to come and stay in a Persian jail, they encounter more than their fair share of trouble with the roads and the passes, challenges for which their battered old Fiat cabriolet is often unprepared, and they have perpetual financial problems, as their writing, painting, lecturing and teaching activities through which they try to pay their trip are more often than not insufficiently profitable. Yet, at every stage during their journey the hardships are compensated for by the people they meet, invariably friendly, helpful and hospitable (even that police commander who ‘invites’ them to sleep in the jail). If anything, the books lacks a bit of structure, there is also no overall theme, no – or very little – political observation, but the descriptions of people and places, and the musings of Mr. Bouvier on a variety of experiences on the way, make up for this. Don’t expect your average travel book by a back-packing tourist visiting the sites; do expect a wonderful, erudite and above all very personal travelogue.
13. At the same time in 1963, Dervla Murphy traveled from Ireland to India by bicycle – in fact, the writer and the painter from The Way of the World are briefly mentioned in her book “Full Tilt” (1965), in which she describes her journey, quickly through Europe, Turkey and Iran, and it much more detail afterwards. The book is fascinating for the insight it provides in the countries she traveled through in those days, quite different from what I suppose it is now. Funny enough, she is not that impressed by the Iranians – Persians, in her vocabulary, which is what they were, of course, back then. Persia is full of ‘physical dirt and moral corruption’, as she puts it, although she does recognize the elegance and dignity of some of the people. Perhaps she didn’t take enough time; she cycled from Tabriz via Teheran and Mashid to Herat in Afghanistan in some 30 days. Or perhaps she just had some bad experiences, with over-attentive policemen and male guests of an inn she stayed in, which coloured her judgement. Which does in no way diminish the achievement, both the physical journey and the entertaining write-up.
14. One of my favourite travel writes, William Dalrymple, wrote “In Xanadu” (1990), about his 1986 journey in the footsteps of Marco Polo, from Cyprus to China. Most of Mr Dalrymple’s books are well researched history books, written in the context of his travels, and balancing education and entertainment. This book was his first, written whilst still studying, and is mostly entertaining (although there is also a fair amount of history). He writes with a certain sarcasm, that I don’t remember from his later books, but most of the time he is just funny when he puts down his observations. There is a one-and-a-half chapter on Iran, which starts with his fear that at the Turkey-Iran border he will be put on a bus and driven straight to the other end of the country. But like us, Mr Dalrymple found that Iranians are actually extremely nice, friendly and wellcoming people. And then he gets on a bus and travels, almost without stopping, voluntarily to the other side, to the border with Pakistan. A missed opportunity, to explore this country and its history. But a good read, nevertheless.
The travel guides:
15. We used the “Lonely Planet, Iran”, 2012 edition. A little dated, but that’s almost inevitable with travel guides. Yet, where I have not always been very impressed with the newer versions of LP, this one is actually very good, good descriptions, good maps, and lots of relevant and helpful information.