Sunday, February 13, 2005

Pico Iyer on de Bellaigue's book

From The New York Times

In the prosperous northern Tehran suburb of Elahiyeh, ladies who lunch visit a French-trained psychologist downtown (to talk of their adulteries, no doubt), while their teenage daughters (''matchsticks marinated in Chanel,'' in Christopher de Bellaigue's pungent words) get nose jobs, hang around the pizza parlor and perform oral sex on their boyfriends so they'll still technically be virgins when married off to their first cousins. Occasionally the ''morals police'' stop by in Land Cruisers to check handbags for condoms, but Elahiyeh honors the age-old Iranian principle of veiled surfaces and highly embroidered interiors. Indeed, when de Bellaigue and his Iranian wife invite one of the Ayatollah Khomeini's former hoodlums to lunch -- an Indian meal -- the man and his wife marvel over the apartment's interior design.

This is the Iran of only a very, very few, of course, and de Bellaigue devotes only two dashing pages to it in his impenitently stylish and arresting debut book, ''In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs.'' Yet it speaks for his method of pitching us into the very heart and streets of the Iranian revolution today, its troubled consciences, and giving us so jolting a sense of ordinary lives and human losses that we can no longer see the country in simplistic, public-policy terms of ''conservatives versus reformists.'' A young British journalist who writes for The Economist, de Bellaigue aims to complicate from within a world that too many of us associate only with turbaned ayatollahs and slogans of ''Death to America.'' That former hoodlum, for example, introduced to us as Mr. Zarif, laid mines in the war against Iraq at 15, joined a seminary at 17 and now, playing around with screenwriting, can barely recognize the places where he sent people to their deaths. Civil wars, de Bellaigue is agile enough to see, often take place invisibly.

The guiding method of ''In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs'' is to zoom in on a handful of individuals whose cases, unraveled in detail, can give us, you could say, the people's version of (and a sequel to) Ryszard Kapuscinski's classic portrait of pre-Revolutionary Iran, ''Shah of Shahs'' (1982)...


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