Christopher de Bellaigue is the correspondent for the Economist in Tehran. He studied Persian and Indian Studies at Cambridge University and has spent the last decade living and working in the Middle East and South Asia. He writes for the New York Review of Books, Granta and the New Yorker.
In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran (New York: HarperCollins, 2005) is his first book.
Christopher de Bellaigue was in New York for a Meet the Author program at the Asia Society. This interview took place prior to the event.
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Your writing in the book, In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran is a mixture of many genres: travel writing, the essay form, journalism, reportage, personal memoir. Did you have a particular genre in mind when you were writing?
No, it really just came out like that. I had in mind to write a history, through the eyes of "normal Iranians" as it were. But I really had little idea, other than that, when I started to write. I also thought that it would be interesting, and perhaps enlightening from my own experiences as a foreigner living in Iran, to be included in the book, to include myself in the book, that is. So it sort of came out that way. I don't know quite how it did: some people like the fact that it's a mix, others are a bit confused, and don't like it. But I didn't have a plan for the book, in terms of genre, it just came out that way.
Given the place of Iran in the present global configuration, how, if at all, did you want your book to participate in the larger public dialogue on European or American foreign policy towards that country?
I don't think my book is aimed particularly at policymakers. It's aimed at people who are interested in finding out more about a country that is the subject of "megaphone" diplomacy. When you have people addressing Iran from other capitals - particularly from the US - you have this sense of enormous clarity of vision that I don't think is warranted, because things are just simply so much more complicated than they are portrayed. So I suppose if I could perform some modest service to these people, it is to say just that: things are much more complicated, the situation is not as black and white as people here often suggest. You cannot apply all-enveloping adjectives to the Iranian people and say, "They all think like this," or "They all want this and we are going to help them achieve it" or whatever. They are obviously very complex and sophisticated people; that is also what I discovered, what was confirmed to me, when I was writing this book.
The title of your book is taken from the name of the cemetery where those killed in the Iran-Iraq war are buried. To what do you attribute your interest in this war and is there anything in particular in your interpretation of the historical and political context of the conflict which you would like to emphasize at the moment?
Well, the reason that I chose the war is because it seemed to be a horrendously under-reported and misunderstood conflict, and one that has been effectively glossed over and forgotten in the West. This would be the same as forgetting the First World War when you are examining the political landscape of interwar Europe!
The Iran-Iraq war was a huge, huge enterprise that scarred people horrendously, on both sides. The fact that it was the embodiment and the culmination of all that revolutionary fervor means that it's absolutely vital to look at it and at its effects if you want to understand Iran now. Iran isn't a country that had a revolution, and now is watching the revolution unravel, or run out of steam. It's a country that had a revolution, and then engaged in an absolutely horrific war, an absolutely traumatic experience, for eight years. So it's very important that people try and understand a bit more about that.
And what is it, in particular, that you wanted to bring out in your descriptions of the context in which the war began and how it continued?
Well, the first thing that I wanted to bring out was the zealousness, the zeal and fervor with which many Iranians - perhaps millions of Iranians, or at least hundreds of thousands - went to the front. The second is the fact that this war was prolonged far longer than it should have been, and that was a result of both erroneous politics and erroneous tactics. But the third thing is that the war created this sense of trauma, both in the survivors of the people who fought, but also in their families. That endures, to this day and it helps to explain this ambivalence that you find in Iran now, in relation to their own past, in relation to outsiders. It is very enlightening to use the war as a prism through which you can see the Iran of today.