Khomeini's Rose Garden

‘Two centuries of semi-colonisation sometimes seem worse than unambiguous colonisation; at least the unambiguously colonised got railways and sewers and unambiguous independence’ opines de Bellaigue in this perceptive account of present-day Iran and its strangely aborted revolution. Fifteen years after the death of Khomeini, the country seethes with a corruption as deadly as any to be found in the Satanic West he denounced with his moral jihad. Even in the days of the Shah ‘the country had never known such moral corruption. Pre-marital sex, divorce, drug addiction and prostitution had reached levels that you’d associate with a degenerate Western country’.

A fluent Farsi-speaker married to an Iranian, de Bellaigue (The Economist correspondent in Tehran) is well placed to interpret his adopted country to outsiders. His narrative weaves the country’s recent historical background with encounters and interviews with an eclectic variety of individuals. His principle guide, the Virgil in the Ayatollah’s Inferno, is the egregious Mr Zarif, a true believer and former revolutionary zealot who had ‘built his sturdy little family on an absence of existential doubt’. Zarif has abandoned his revolutionary fervour (which allowed him to inform on and denounce his peers, like any Stasi-apparatchik) but clings to his religious faith, a spiritual ‘essence’ he believes can be made to harmonise with modernity.

If In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs sometimes hovers uneasily between journalistic essay and travelogue, the clarity of the writing - with the occasional lapse - and a personal sense of engagement more than make up for any confusion over genre. De Bellaigue is a patient listener who lends all his subjects a sympathetic ear. His approach is impressively different from the fastidious disdain with which V. S. Naipaul treated similar encounters in Among the Believers and Beyond Belief. As Reza Inglisi, or ‘English Reza’ (Reza being the Muslim name he took on his marriage, which non-anglophone Iranians find easier than ‘Christopher’), he is able to converse with ordinary people and to penetrate areas that are usually inaccessible to foreigners. These include a ‘house of strength’ in South Tehran where weightlifting is organised according to the graduated hierarchies that prevail in the political and religious realms. When straining to lift the thick wooden weights ‘it is customary to run through the names of the twelve (Shi‘ite) Imams, one Imam for each lift’. The other athletes descend into a pit to accentuate their humility before God, reverentially touching the floor before dragging their fingers over their lips and foreheads.

The religiosity of South Tehran, the populist quarters where the Islamic revolution took root, where the roads and bazaars are full of strangers so that women must protect themselves by wearing the chador or risk ‘swimming free in the fathomless waters of moral decay’, is neatly contrasted with the wealthy suburb of Elahiyeh in North Tehran, whose teenage daughters - ‘matchsticks marinated in Chanel’ - adopt a less strenuous approach to self-improvement: retrousse nose jobs, illegally imported Italian shoes, dresses that rise dangerously above the knee, headscarves coyly rearranged to exhibit expensive coiffures. These women

are courted, if the word is applicable, by boys who wear a minimalist variant on the goatee, driving Pop’s sedan. A chance meeting in a coffee shop; a telephone number flung into a passing car - such are the first moves. Oral sex is, of necessity, popular.

There will be a great to do if the girl doesn’t bloody her wedding bed. In case of penetration, however, all is not lost. A discreet doctor can usually be found to sew up the offending hymen.

De Bellaigue deftly captures the pungent mix of sexual puritanism and social protest that animated Iran’s revolutionary kulturkamf. His wife, a privileged North Tehranian, ‘had lived for colour. It was as important to her as the sun. The Revolution had killed colour, declared it to be evil’.

The genial style of this book does not conceal the author’s anger at the carnage a corrupt, incompetent and ruthless clerical government inflicted on its own people during the eight-year struggle with Iraq. Seminarians steeped in medieval theology give orders marked by extreme stupidity (such as using spades, instead of bayonets, to clear mines) in this ‘gigantic army’ of the faithful ‘that prided itself on its ignorance of military affairs’. On the Khuzistan front, the ill-trained Basijis (revolutionary guards), like Orwell’s Catalan militias, faced machine guns without artillery cover. Unlike the Spanish republicans, however, their casual attitude towards death is driven by expectations of personal immortality. Before going into battle the young Basijis anoint themselves with fragrances: ‘If you’re going to meet God, there’s a protocol to be followed.’ The bodies of the martyrs who die in battle do not decompose like other bodies. A father who digs up his son after five years claims that his face has been perfectly preserved. De Bellaigue is no sentimentalist or admirer of the old orientalist Persia. The Economist’s man in Tehran administers periodic reality-checks to the ‘turbanned invitations to martyrdom’ offered by men who inhabit a mythological world of Muhammad’s epic battles and the immortal sacrifice his grandson, the Imam Hossein, made on the battlefield of Karbala:

By encouraging the Basijis to advance across open ground and get massacred, Iran’s military leaders violated an accepted article of war, the tactical concern for the lives of one’s own men, on a scale unheard of since the Western Front.

The Khuzistan Front was all the more shocking because this calculated disregard for human life became the norm. In the official panegyrics, martyrdom was glorified for its own sake, not for the attainment of military objectives: ‘The more horrific the circumstances of a man’s death, the more futile his expiry, the more acres of apartment block wall would be dedicated to his memorial.’

Though episodic and conversational, the book is structured loosely around the author’s quest for one of these martyr/heroes, Hossein Karrazi, a Basiji leader canonised by the revolution who taught his troops that ‘One hour of holy war is better than sixty years of worship.’ Seasoned in the struggle against Kurdish separatists (whose dreams of autonomy were reneged on by Khomeini after the revolution), Karrazi rose to a midranking command on the Iraqi front, ferrying his troops by helicopter to save them from the devastating effects of Saddam Hussein’s artillery. Against his advice, based on his own intelligence sources, Karrazi’s superiors ordered him to attack well-fortified Iraqi positions on islands in the Shatt al-Arab: ‘Within forty-eight hours the Iranians had been hurled back across the Arab River, losing at least nine thousand dead. In Tehran, victory was duly proclaimed.’

De Bellaigue gently exposes the fetid religiosity, public mawkishness and ruthless clerical Machiavellianism that characterise the modern Iranian state. By skilfully juxtaposing brutal facts with the clerical fantasies and poignant human realities that flow from them, he allows his readers to form their own judgement of this enigmatic and possibly dangerous regime. This is an important book that deserves to be read by both defenders and detractors of the Islamic republic. Among its many insights one senses how the mood of apocalyptic fervour that disastrously failed the test of conventional arms may seek to vindicate itself by going nuclear, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Published in The Times Literary Supplement, 28 February 2005.

The book reviewed was:_

Christopher de Bellaigue (2005) In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran. London: HarperCollins.

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