In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran

by Christopher de Bellaigue

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The history of Iran in the late twentieth century is a chronicle of religious fervor and violent change — from the Islamic Revolution that ousted the Shah in favor of a rigid fundamentalist government to the bloody eight-year war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But what happened to the hostage-takers, the suicidal holy warriors, the martyrs, and the mullahs


The history of Iran in the late twentieth century is a chronicle of religious fervor and violent change — from the Islamic Revolution that ousted the Shah in favor of a rigid fundamentalist government to the bloody eight-year war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. But what happened to the hostage-takers, the suicidal holy warriors, the martyrs, and the mullahs responsible for the now moribund revolution? Is modern Iran a society at peace with itself and the world, or truly a dangerous spoke in the "Axis of Evil"?

Christopher de Bellaigue, a Western journalist married to an Iranian woman and a longtime resident of a prosperous suburb of Tehran, offers a stunning insider's view of a culture hitherto hidden from American eyes, and reveals the true hearts and minds of an extraordinary people.

Editorial Reviews

Michiko Kakutani
Where Rose Garden is most powerful is in giving us impressionistic glimpses of everyday life in Iran. As a British journalist who writes for The Economist, The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, Mr. de Bellaigue experiences the suspicion of Westerners evinced by so many Iranians. He gripes about being suspected of being a British spy, and he complains about the culture's elaborate, seemingly hypocritical mores - like sanctioning "temporary marriages" and "prudential dissimulation" ("the right to lie about one's beliefs as long as the lie is in the wider interests of the faith.")
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
This portrait of the Islamist revolution's heartland is far from the "axis of evil" caricature so often associated with the regime that held Americans hostage in 1979-1980 and is actively pursuing nuclear arms today. Rather, Ballaigue, who covers Iran for the Economist, presents a textured view of a complex society, struggling with an ancient culture, a radical ideology and a Westernized elite. Drawing inspiration from George Orwell, who chronicled the Catalonian revolution of the 1930s and its betrayal by Stalinists, Ballaigue charts the Islamist revolution from its origins in the repressive regime of the Shah and the fiery sermons of the Ayatollah Khomeini, through its triumph and the taking of the hostages of the "Great Satan," the war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the Iran-Contra scandal and the waning of the Islamist revolutionary fervor as educated Iranians became disillusioned with the mullahs and thirsted for greater cultural and intellectual freedom. The book is peppered with interviews with and vignettes of the many Iranians the author has met during his years in Iran; the title refers to a cemetery in Tehran where the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war are interred-"rose garden" being an ironic rendition of rows of headstones. (On sale Jan. 4) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An Anglo-French journalist married to an Iranian woman attempts to reconcile the joys of his adopted land with its grim cruelty. Journalist de Bellaigue, who has written about the Middle East and South Asia for The Economist, The New York Review of Books and other highbrow publications, here turns his eye on the nation he's called home for the past five years: the Islamic Republic of Iran. The author states that he wants to show readers the heart of a country whose people are friendly and lead a rich cultural life, yet also believe-sometimes fanatically-in a religion that glorifies death. And for the most part he accomplishes this goal, giving us a rare glimpse into a world most Westerners would consider bizarre. An Islamic seminarian, for example, steers clear of using his free time at night to memorize incantations, fearing that he will begin to repeat them ceaselessly and go insane. But the same man trusts himself enough to flirt with evil and wonder about the taste of wine, a forbidden indulgence under Koranic law. Such examples can feel like trees in a forest as we plow through episode after episode of exotic Iranian life: athletic clubs with homoerotic overtones, testimonials from soldiers who endured Saddam Hussein's gas attacks, a female activist seeking to avenge the murders of her politically dissident parents. De Bellaigue employs literary devices in his narrative to sometimes powerful effect, as when he describes the way Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution has died but still reverberates through the capital: "Living in Tehran is like listening to the sea in a shell." At other times-for example, when he adopts the first-person voice of a soldier fighting in the Iran-Iraq war-theconceits seem too gimmicky. Never tiresome, however, are his stellar passages on the Iranian side of still-fresh history, including the Iran-Contra scandal. Many of the Iranians involved were executed for dealing with infidels. A welcome, illuminating peak behind the 21st century's equivalent of the Iron Curtain. Agent: David Godwin/David Godwin Associates
Pico Iyer
“De Bellaigue is a defiantly literary writer, and he gives us a sense of Tehran [that is] immediate and insistent.”
Time Magazines Literary Supplement
"An important book that deserves to be read by both defenders and detractors of the Islamic republic."
“Readers will find here a detailed picture of Iranian life that has too long been out of reach.”
“A highly original and disturbing portrait of the Islamic republic.”
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“An intimate exploration of the revolution’s denouement...The intellectual honesty de Bellaigue brings to bear is worthy of praise.”
Times Literary Supplement
“An important book that deserves to be read by both defenders and detractors of the Islamic republic.”
Newsweek (International Edition)
“Incisive analysis. . . . Through eloquent human stories, Bellaigue frames the murky politics of Iran in a telling, intimate scale.”
Chronicle of Higher Education
“De Bellaigue gives us a sense of daily life in Iran . . . cynical, conflicted, and bitter, yet surprisingly vibrant.”
Washington Post Book World
“De Bellaigue’s . . . anecdotes and interviews provide tremendously valuable context for many of today’s headlines.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.48(w) x 9.34(h) x 1.03(d)

Read an Excerpt

In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs

A Memoir of Iran
By Christopher de Bellaigue

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Christopher de Bellaigue
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060935367

Chapter One


Why, I wondered long ago, don't the Iranians smile? Even before I first thought of visiting Iran, I remember seeing photographs of thousands of crying Iranians, men and women wearing black. In Iran, I read, laughing in a public place is considered coarse and improper. Later, when I took an oriental studies course at university, I learned that the Islamic Republic of Iran built much of its ideology on the public's longing for a man who died more than thirteen hundred years ago. This is the Imam Hossein, the supreme martyr of Shi'a Islam and a man whose virtue and bravery provide a moral shelter for all. Now that I'm living in Tehran, witness to the interminable sorrow of Iranians for their Imam, I sense that I'm among a people that enjoys grief, relishes it. Iran mourns on a fragrant spring day, while watching a ladybird scale a blade of grass, while making love. This was the case fifty years ago, long before the setting up of the Islamic Republic, and will be the case fifty years hence, after it has gone.

The first time I observed the mourning ceremonies for the Imam Hossein, I was reminded of the Christian penitents of the Middle Ages, dragging crosses through the dust and bringing down whips across their backs. In modern Iran, too, there is self-flagellation and the lifting of heavy things -- sometimes a massive timber tabernacle to represent Hossein's bier -- as an expression of religious fervour. The Christian penitents were self-serving; calamities such as the Black Death provoked a desire to atone, to save oneself and one's loved ones from divine retribution. Iran's grieving does not have this logic. This is no act of atonement, but a sentimental memorial. Iranians weep for Hossein with gratuitous intimacy. They luxuriate in regret -- as if, by living a few extra years, the Imam might have enabled them to negotiate the morass of their own lives. They lick their lips, savour their misfortune.

I see Hossein alongside Tehran's freeways, his name picked out in flowers that have been planted on sheer green verges. I see his picture on the walls of shops and petrol stations, printed on the black cloths that are pinned to the walls of streets. The conventional renderings show a superman with a broad, honest forehead and eyes that are springs of fortitude and compassion. A luxuriant beard attests to Hossein's virility, but his skin is radiant like that of a Hindu goddess. He wears a fine helmet, with a green plume for Islam, and holds a lance. I once asked an elderly Iranian woman to describe Hossein's calamitous death. She spoke as if she had been an eyewitness to it, effortlessly recalling every expression, every word, every doom-laden action. She listed the women and children in Hossein's entourage as if they were members of her own family. She wept her way through half a dozen Kleenexes.

Every Iranian dreams of going to the town of Karbala, the arid shrine in central Iraq that was built at the place where Hossein was martyred. I went there myself, the camp follower of American invaders, and visited the Imam's tomb. Inside a gold plated dome, Iraqis calmly circumambulated a sarcophagus whose silver panels had been worn down from the caress of lips and fingers. They muttered prayers, supplications, remonstrations. Suddenly, the peace was shattered by moans and the pounding of chests, splintered sounds of distress and emotion. Five or six distraught men had approached the sarcophagus. One of them was half collapsed, his hand stretched towards the Imam; the others shoved and slipped like landlubbers on a pitching deck. My Iraqi companion curled his lip in distaste at the melodrama. 'Iranian pilgrims,' he said.

It all goes back to AD 632, when the Prophet Muhammad died and Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, was beaten to the caliphate, first by Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in-law, and then by Abu Bakr's successors, Omar and Osman. Ali gave up political and military office, and waited his turn, and the modesty and piety of the Prophet's time was supplanted, according to some historians, by venality and hedonism. After twenty-five years, following Osman's brutal murder, Ali was finally elected to the caliphate. But his rule, although virtuous, lasted only until his murder five years later and gave rise to a rift between his followers and Osman's clan, the Omayyids. The origin of the rift was a dynastic dispute, between supporters of the Prophet's family, represented by Ali, and the Prophet's companions, represented by the first three caliphs. It prefigured a rift that continues, between the Shi'as -- literally, the 'partisans of Ali' -- and the Sunnis, the followers of the Sunnah, the tradition of Muhammad.

After Ali's murder, Hassan, his indolent elder son, struck a deal with the Omayyids. In ad 680 Hassan died and Ali's younger son, Hossein, took over as head of the Prophet's descendants. Hossein was pious and brave and he revived his family's hereditary claim to leadership over Muslims. This brought him into conflict with Yazid, the Omayyid caliph in Damascus. When the residents of Kufa, near Karbala, asked Hossein to liberate them from Yazid, the Imam went out to claim his birthright, setting in train events that led to his martyrdom.

One night, on the eve of the anniversary of Hossein's death, I put on a borrowed black shirt and took a taxi to a working-class area of south Tehran. The main road where the taxi dropped me was already filling with families and men leading sheep by their forelegs. Cauldrons lay by the side of the road. Everyone wore black; even the little girls wore chadors, an unbuttoned length of black cloth that unflatteringly shrouds the female body. I entered a lane with two-storey brick houses along both sides. There was a crowd at the far end of the street, their backs to us, and their silhouettes were flung across the asphalt. Black bunting . . .


Excerpted from In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs by Christopher de Bellaigue Copyright © 2005 by Christopher de Bellaigue. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

Pico Iyer
“De Bellaigue is a defiantly literary writer, and he gives us a sense of Tehran [that is] immediate and insistent.”

Meet the Author

Christopher de Bellaigue has worked as a journalist in South Asia and the Middle East, writing for the Economist and the Financial Times, the Independent, and the New York Review of Books. His first book, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs, was short-listed for the Royal Society of Literature's Ondaatje Prize, and his second, Rebel Land, was short-listed for the 2010 Orwell Prize. He and his wife divide their time between London and Tehran.

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