Sunday, February 19, 2012


 This is what lives in my nightstand. This is just my to-read list from the last few months. Among others, in there are some fiction (the top book is The Natural, by Malamud), biographies of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, fictionalized accounts of the fall of the Berlin Wall, accounts of the breakup of the Soviet Union, and heaven knows what else.  I have another, much larger stack stashed in a box somewhere--the exact location is a mystery that I'm sure will only be solved when I move--so it remains to be seen how much of a hole I've dug myself in terms of books I've purchased that I'll never read about more stories of tragedy and human folly. I'm really bad about that. There are currently two (or is it three?) books in my car. I will probably read one of them. I have done this most of my life. I LOVE books. I love buying them and having a great collection. My book collection is broad and varied. Some vain part of me would love to have a library in whatever home I end up in with dark leather sofas and dark green walls in between the stained shelves. How very English manor house right?

Having said that, I figured I'd post a thing or two about some of the books I've been reading. Why? Why not? I'll start with The Iranians by Sandra Mackey. I picked it up in a bookstore sometime in December right about the time Iran really started to appear in the news, and unfortunately the news stories weren't positive, regardless of which side one can take. I realized that I knew very little about this very visible, very old, very tempestuous country, it's history, or it's culture. I knew the basics, as taught from the History Channel and Wikpedia. Shah rules Iran. US loves the Shah. Ayatollah Khomeini comes in and overthrows the Shah. Iran = world pariah. That's the what, but having read the book (and other accounts) there is a plethora of details missing. There's a heaping pile of WHY and nuanced history that I was unaware of until I read up on the subject. I learned that Iran has a long tradition of nationalism and paranoia based on their history, which given their geography makes sense. Geographically Iran lies at the crossroads of two spheres of influence, and armies from both were constantly rolling over it from one side or the other. For one relatively short period they were a great civilization, but invading Arabs relegated them to another position.

According to this book (and a few others I've read about the subject) the Revolution was more about ousting Muhammed Reza Shah than it was about establishing an Islamic Republic. Rather, there was a significant power struggle between many factions. The book describes a country with a fantastic heritage. It describes a country that takes that heritage and has ridden it quite far. It also describes a country with a particular proclivity for dramatics and grandiosity that sees itself as still being grand, in spite of it's unstable and unspectacular history for the last several centuries. Historically, Iran has been a patriarchal society, and has a very long history of turning authority over to a series of "charismatic" chuckleheads who can't distinguish toes from tits, but they fit the formula written in the stars to be Shah. Mixed in two thousand years of history was a handful of good leaders that can be counted on one hand. These leaders for centuries acted against the interests of the Iranian people, and seemed to have some divine right from the people to do so. There was, and IMHO still is, a massive disconnect between the people running the show in Iran and the people on the street. Pre 1979 it was a group of secular, Western-educated elites. Post 1979 it was a group of mullahs and Ayatollahs, equally lost in the clouds. Both ruled Iran with the fist and the gun, and the mullahs took it one step further by preying on the lack of education, faith, and ignorance of the poorest of the poor in Iran. Khomeini once expressed frustration at protests about the price of food, because the revolution was about another world. They were given a choice: Monarchy? Or Islamic Republic? Only they can tell you if they're happy with the results. To me they just traded one form of tyranny for another. 

A lot of banging on has been and is done about Iran, and it never fails that somebody says "when Iran gets it together..." I hear this and after reading this book, I think to myself, I shan't hold my breath.

Which brings me to my next selection, Honeymoon in Tehran, by Azedah Moaveni. I chose this book because it was written by an American-born Iranian who chose to live, work, and love in Iran, despite everything she'd heard from her parents and the media. She and her husband eventually decided that modern-day Iran was not the place they felt their child should be raised in, but I still wanted to read the book from a perspective of somebody who made the choice to go there, and not leave and never come back. Actually, she twice moved there, so that made me appreciate her story even more. I really enjoy first person narratives and this one was no exception. She describes Iran as brimming with contradictions between its government and its people.  Living there, she says, requires one to constantly jump through hoops just to get simple things done, like watch television or browse the internet.  She gives equal attention to Iran's good and bad points, and describes many people on the street as openly hostile to the regime. I read it in about three days, and highly recommend it not just for people interested in Iran and Persian culture.

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