Christopher de Bellaigue is an English journalist who fell in love with an Iranian woman, married her, and chose to live in her home country. Trying to understand his adopted land, he began interviewing participants of the Iranian Revolution and the war with Iraq. After more than ten years, he now knows why Iranians do not smile.
Readers of In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs learn that the past and the present are both very close to Iranians, who morn the death of the 7th century Shiite martyr Iman Hossein and recent war hero Hossein Kharrazi with equal tears and wailing. The garden itself is a cemetery for victims of the deadly war with Iraq. The author interviews their families who all express their satisfaction with their sons’ deaths in service to Allah and the Revolution. They long for such honorable deaths themselves they say. Still they do not smile.
Throughout the book de Bellaigue returns to his frequent conversations with a war veteran he calls Mr. Zarif. Mr. Zarif formed a youth gang during the Revolution to oust the Shah and cheered the holding of hostages from the American Embassy. When the war with Iraq began he joined the Revolutionary Guard, which took its orders from the Ayatollah Khomeini and not from the government. After the war he joined an Islamic seminary. From Mr. Zarif readers learn how disappointed he and many revolutionaries are in the country Iran has become.
The author is best when he profiles the Iranian people and their experiences. He reveals them as individuals with many viewpoints, longing for a good society and worthy lives. His explanations of Iranian politics and international diplomacy, however, can sometimes be confusing to the reader; the alliances including the Ayatollah Khomeini, Bani-Sadr, Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Montazeri, and many others were constantly changing and many heroes became enemies of the imams and were executed or assassinated. Historians will be sorting out the story for generations.
As a reference librarian I wish the book had an index. It is billed as a memoir, but it is as much a history of Iran and could be used by students. Even without the indexing it is a book worth reading and I recommend it to most public libraries.
De Bellaigue, Christopher. In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran. New York: HarperCollins, 2005, c2004. ISBN 0066209803