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Insert Comma • A Portfolio of Leigh E. Rich
Revisiting dark days in Iran

Books on the 1979 hostage crisis pertinent to today

By Leigh E. Rich

The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah—1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam
By David Harris
Little, Brown and Company
October 2004
432 pages
$26.95/$39.95 (Can.)

Dateline: Nov. 4, 1979—After a group calling themselves Students Following the Line of the Imam seize the U.S. embassy in Tehran, 68 Americans are taken hostage in Iran. For most of them, it would merely be the first day of a 444-day crisis. It also would be the thread that unraveled Jimmy Carter’s political career back home.

A quarter-century later, Iran, now a theocratic Islamic republic, remains in America’s crosshairs. In his State of the Union address two years ago, President Bush deemed the country, along with Iraq and North Korea, as constituting “an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction,” Bush said, “these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.”

Iran in particular, the president proclaimed midway through his first term, “aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom.”

But Iran’s 20th-century history, as David Harris portrays in his thoroughly researched and well-told tome, The Crisis, is nothing if not entangled with America’s.

Using internal American documents released under the Freedom of Information Act as well as those seized by the Muslim students two decades ago, Harris illustrates how the seeds of the 1979 revolution and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini were fertilized during Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s increasingly dictatorial reign. Though the shah modernized Iranian industry and infrastructure with the help of the United States and the United Kingdom, he also founded Iran’s torturous domestic security and surveillance program, SAVAK, in 1959 with the aid of the CIA.

Iranian revolutionaries, led by an exiled Khomeini, held the United States culpable for supporting Pahlavi’s regime—a connection that would grow as the shah sought asylum in the States after fleeing Iran.

Though a book so hefty it’s likely to cause cramping in the forearms if read in bed at night, Harris skillfully unveils the inner-workings of American politics and foreign affairs, reading at times more like a Tom Clancy novel than document-based nonfiction. He paints a detailed but mesmerizing picture of the confluence of factors that created the crisis and even dares to delve into the psyches of the president, the ayatollah and the shah.

Describing an Oct. 19, 1979, foreign policy breakfast, for example, during which Carter and his staff continued a longstanding debate about whether to allow the increasingly ill shah to seek medical treatment in the United States, Harris hints at Carter’s ironic foreshadowing of the embassy siege.

“‘What are you guys going to advise me to do if they overrun our embassy and take our people hostage,’ Carter asked. No one in the room made a response. After noting the silence, Jimmy Carter spoke up again. ‘On that day,’ he predicted, ‘we will all sit here with long drawn white faces and realize we’ve been had.’”

At times, Carter seems almost as much of a victim as the hostages, and The Crisis, whether deliberately, partially vindicates the president’s actions—or inactions, as some have deemed it—during his final year in office. More than just a history of the hostage events, Harris’ book is a reflection on American presidential politics, with the system sometimes seeming as mangled as the helicopters that crashed on April 26, 1980, in the Iranian desert during Carter’s rescue attempt.

And, yet, Harris remains nonpartisan and politically and culturally neutral while he transports the reader through the 20th-century events still influencing America and Iran’s relationship today.

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran
By Christopher de Bellaigue
HarperCollins Publishers
January 2005
320 pages
$26.95/$37.95 (Can.)

Journalist Christopher de Bellaigue, on the other hand, muddies any Western understanding of Iranian history in his In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, a post-revolution memoir that promises, according to the blurb on the back of the book, answers to “what happened to the hostage takers, suicidal holy warriors and ideologues who brought it about.”

A Tehran resident married to an Iranian, de Bellaigue unsuccessfully weaves together snapshots of Iranian history and culture with his own experiences and interviews, jumping around in time and from one person’s story to the next—never quite finishing the patchwork of tales that is supposed to produce insight for the Westerner.

The opening chapter describing a mourning ceremony for the Imam Hossein, for instance, is intriguing, but the way de Bellaigue explains Islamic history is erratic and bewildering.

In a matter of paragraphs, de Bellaigue can comment on a variety of temporally unconnected events—in one case, the Sultan Hossein, Safavid-era mullahs, the shah’s regime in the 1970s, and de Bellaigue’s own visit to the Four Gardens. He uses this ADD-type of storytelling throughout the book, confusing even the most earnest reader.

It seems one need already possess some insight into Iran’s religion and culture to fully appreciate de Bellaigue’s memoir.

But there are colorful tidbits—even if they come too rarely to carry the rest of the book—such as when de Bellaigue shares a cab with several strangers on his way to Isfahan. Caught in a traffic jam at an intersection, the cab driver pulled out a cup and a thermos in the stuffy heat.

“He was offering us tea,” de Bellaigue explains. “In such instances, you don’t accept. It would be bad form. It’s his tea, but he has to offer it. It would be bad form not to. But he’d be put out if someone said, ‘Yes, I’d like some of your tea.’ No one does. The driver gets to drink his tea and appear courteous at the same time. Both ways he wins.”

This is known as ta’aruf, de Bellaigue remarks in an oddly placed footnote: “In Arabic ta’aruf means compliments; in Iran, it has been corrupted and denotes ceremonial insincerity. Not in a pejorative sense; Iran is the only country I know where hypocrisy is prized as a social and commercial skill.”

The cab scene is one of a few where de Bellaigue’s skill as a writer and his unique perspective on Iran surfaces.

“Lies. We’d all enjoy a glass of tea,” he writes. “The driver took out a pack of cigarettes and we went through the same rigmarole.”

On the road, however, there’s no law, no ta’aruf. And the only way out of the traffic knot the cab has found itself in, de Bellaigue says, is for someone “to reverse. Iranian drivers don’t like reversing. It’s a form of defeat.”

Unfortunately, de Bellaigue buries these lovely fragments just as quickly as he offers them.

And though the press materials for the book claim that understanding Iran is crucial to “bringing democracy and Western ideas to the Middle East,” it spends only a handful of paragraphs on the shah, the ayatollah and the crisis and only little more on explaining the revolution in the hostage takers’, suicidal holy warriors’ and ideologues’ own words.

One revolutionary, Mr. Zarif, spoke with de Bellaigue about joining the movement when he was 12. A Tehran resident and now nunchaku enthusiast, Zarif smoked a hookah in his basement and accepted his 10-year-old son’s challenge to “climb through the small hatch between the sitting room and the kitchen, through which Mrs. Zarif (would) pass us lunch,” while chatting about the war with de Bellaigue.

“Mr. Zarif was delighted,” de Bellaigue writes, “he remembered that the Revolution was made up of steps.”

But, in the end, they are steps not taken by de Bellaigue.

Rich, L. E. (2005, February 25). Revisiting dark days in Iran. [Review of the books The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, and the Shah–1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam by David Harris and In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran by Christopher de Bellaigue.] Rocky Mountain News.

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