Early in Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran, Laura Secor likens the modern Iranian experience to “an epic novel,” and her fine work of political reporting has a similar sweep. Secor has been traveling to and writing about Iran for more than ten years, for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. In this, her first book, she unravels largely hidden strands of dissident thought to create a remarkable portrait of protest and repression in the country’s postrevolutionary era.
Secor calls Iran “a country with a civic spirit that refused to die” — an incredible accomplishment given the lengths to which its rulers have gone to kill it. Children of Paradise begins with the Islamic Revolution of 1979, which, in overthrowing Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and naming Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini supreme leader, created the first Islamic theocracy of the modern era. The revolution was quickly followed by the summary executions of almost 800 “counterrevolutionaries” charged with “sowing corruption on earth.” Thousands more political prisoners would be sent to the gallows in the coming years. “Khomeini and the radical clerics behaved as though the revolution belonged to them alone,” Secor observes, but “among the Iranians who had brought the shah’s regime to its knees with demonstrations and general strikes were secular leftists, nationalists, liberals, and Islamic leftists who did not believe the clerics should rule.”
The question of the proper relationship between mosque and state animates most of the dissenting intellectual discourse Secor describes. Broadly speaking, Iran’s secular reformists believed that religion should be separate from the administration of the state, while Islamic reformists argued that a modern Islamic society should have the confidence to accept criticism and to engage with liberal Western values. She gives ample space to the arguments of the country’s most popular philosophers, from Ali Shariati to Saeed Hajjarian to Abdolkarim Soroush — and it’s clear that one of the things she loves most about Iran is that it has popular philosophers to begin with. (Of Soroush’s 1991 essay collection, The Contraction and Expansion of Religious Knowledge, whose argument in support of religious pluralism galvanized a wide audience of readers, Secor marvels, “Anyplace else in the world, such a treatise on epistemology and metaphysics might be left to molder in academic libraries.”)
But Children of Paradise comes most alive when Secor chronicles the harrowing experiences of the Iranian reformists she interviewed extensively for the book. Most of them are now in exile; one, after his release from an Iranian prison, lived with the author and her husband upon fleeing to the United States. Secor tells of journalist Shahram Rafizadeh, who coined the term “miracle room” in a 2003 essay to describe the torture sites used by interrogators to force the confessions of political prisoners. He soon ended up in the miracle room himself, eventually signing false confessions after enduring weeks of beatings, solitary confinement, and threats against his family. She also profiles Asieh Amini, whose work on behalf of juvenile girls sentenced to execution, by methods including stoning, drew her into Iran’s nascent women’s rights movement. She was under constant government surveillance and was arrested and, later, beaten at a demonstration; Amini finally fled the country in 2009 after being warned by friends who’d been detained that they’d been interrogated extensively about her.
Secor’s material, riveting to begin with, is elevated by her insightful and elegant writing. Children of Paradise is full of vivid descriptions of people and places: for instance, describing the country’s capital, she writes, “Tehran was not a beautiful city. But its color and vital force, its ferocious daily momentum, marked it as one of those cities that did more than host millions of lives but somehow channeled their promise and menace through arteries of its own.”
The book’s climax is the 2009 reelection of hard-line president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose defeat of the reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi was widely believed to be the result of fraud. For months afterward, Iranians took to the streets in mass protests, but the so-called Green Movement was violently crushed. A brief epilogue covers the surprising 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani, whose rival was the preferred candidate of Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the subsequent nuclear accord. I wished for more than this cursory wrap-up at the end, just as I’d wished for more context at the beginning, particularly regarding the 1953 CIA coup that brought down Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, and installed the shah (that portentous event receives only glancing mention). Still, given her exhaustive research, Secor’s hopeful conclusion is well earned: she expresses the belief that Iran’s citizenry will continue to demonstrate, against all odds, “a restless determination to challenge injustice and to seize control of its destiny.”