THIS IS A riveting, and yet also disturbing, book. On one level it’s a study of the Islamic Republic of Iran since the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy by frenzied mobs in 1979. On another level, it’s a collection of miniature biographies, mostly of people who were involved in that revolution. Its author, an English journalist in his mid thirties working for The Economist in Tehran, converts to Islam and marries into an Iranian family. He befriends reformists who are elected to parliament in the wake of the presidency of Mohammad Khatami in 1997, and begins to dream about proving wrong those people who say that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
To tell the story My, he seeks out men who fought often barbarously – to consolidate the revolution in its early stages and finds that they feel betrayed by the new generation of Iranians who think only of emigrating. While meeting and travelling with these men, he becomes attached to them, despite the cultural and social gulf that divides him from them, and begins to hope that they will not be humiliated by the process of reform, now virtually halted by hardline mullahs. They range from a former student who beat up female teachers for talking about women’s rights, to a black American convert to Islam who, in 1980, killed an Iranian dissident in America at the behest of the Iranian embassy and who is now trapped in his Islamic promised land, where he wards off the boredom by contracting serial temporary marriages’ that last as short a time as a single night.
One of the people the author is most affected by is a survivor of Iraqi gas attacks in the mid 1980s. The man, a doctor, was transformed by his trauma. He became a mvstic and devoted himself to quiet service in a dust;, isolated village:
He was handsome – not tall, but slim, with delicate features and a cleanliness beyond hygiene. (I’d been sensitised to such things; my enquiries into the War had brought me into contact with many people who were dirtied, and I longed for a spotless soul.) He had slender fingers and was soft-spoken. This combination presumably accounted for the abundance of female patients in the corridor outside. Feeling for lumps; peering somewhere private; breaking bad news or good; if a man is to perform such intimacies on a woman – and Islam permits it, so long as there’s no qualified woman to hand – he should be solicitous and pure of intent. These qualities shone from the doctor’s little almond eyes and, in a strange way, from his brilliant white teeth. No man would have qualms about entrusting his ailing wife to such a physician. No woman could [help] but fall a little in love.
In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs is also partially the intimate story of Christopher de Bellaigue himself, an Englishman who has devoted his life to his new country but is distrusted by almost everyone he meets, and viewed as a possible agent of the imperialists. He has converted to Islam and seems to have done so not just because Iranian women are forbidden to marry non-muslim. He joins in with even the most primitive of religious passions, such as ritual chest-beating to commemorate long-dead imams. Yet his new friends, both religious and secular, frustrate him constantly, so that he sometimes wonders if they might be right about his motives:
Sometimes I find it far-fetched that I should have married my wife because of love, not strategic interest, that I studied Persian at university for reasons other than national calculation. that I seek mv own advancement and happiness, not a reprise of Britain’s global domination.
For much of the book I was intrigued and impressed by de Bellaigue, to the extent that I wanted to meet him on his next visit to London. But then he sprang a passage on me that went too far in empathising with one of the more militant men he met. While describing a visit to the Valley of the Assassins to the north-west of Tehran in the company of Hassan Abdolrahman, the former American terrorist David Belfield, he writes:
Travelling to Alamut with Hassan reminded me that there is something that prepares men not only to kill for their beliefs, but also to die for them. Men like David Belfield … had this thing, this whatever, this suicidal and genocidal vileness. They had its brilliant integrity, too.
I must confess that seeing Iran through this Westerner’s romantic eyes proved a little painful for me. It brought back memories of my own naive hopes for the country. As a student in London, I agitated against the last Shah for imprisoning critics and setting up a one-party state, but I stopped a couple of years before the revolution of 1979. I had realised the religious direction in which the revolutionary movement that was gathering momentum against him was progressing and I had panicked. Far better, I thought, the Shah’s corruption and Westward-looking despotism than the ideological cruelty and backwardness of the mullahs. I remember even abusing the childhood friendship of my father with the liberal opposition leader, the Kurdish tribal chief Dr Karim Sanjabi, to plead with him not to go into coalition with Khomeini. Even a year after the revolution, when Sanjabi was still Foreign Minister but things were deteriorating rapidly, I still hoped that the Iranians, who had fought for a parliament in 1905, would not allow the mufiahs to monopolise power. I was in my late thirties, had two children, and had been a broadcaster in the World Service of the BBC for a decade. I really ought to have known better. It was too late, Sanjabi told me, and he was right. Only an empty shell remained of the political parties, and the mob, swollen in numbers by the arrival of antibiotics a couple of decades earlier, looked to seventh-century Arabia for inspiration.
Nevertheless, de Bellaigue has done his research well and reports meticulously. His book not only serves as a reminder of the events that have shaped Islamic Iran over the past twenty-five years, but also provides detailed portraits of many of its more prominent players, from the corrupt and cruel Hashemi Rafsaniani, President for eight years and a grand terrorist who “passed himself off as a moderate in many a Western newspaper, to the more obscure activists of the reform movement who now languish in jails, trying to make up for the pain they inflicted on millions of people in their former lives.