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Interview with Christopher de Bellaigue

HarperCollins, New York (2005)

HarperCollins, New York (2005)

One of your reviewers in The Guardian says that it is difficult to discern any liking, much less love, for Iran in the book. How do you respond to this?

Well, I don't know; I don't wear my love for Iran on my sleeve.

Or in your book!

Yeah! [Laughs]

One of the things that was striking to me in your descriptions of social and cultural life in Iran was your reading of ta'aruf, which, it seems to me, you reduced to nothing more than sanctioned hypocrisy. Is it not true that ta'aruf is also minimally informed by an ethical imperative (to openness, generosity, hospitality) - regardless of the extent to which the form may have changed under present conditions?

Well, you may be right. Ta'aruf may have changed character, and become simply an adornment to everyday life. I don't think it's a bad thing. In fact I find it a very attractive adornment to everyday life. But it is, as far as I can see, an adornment, and it allows people to wiggle out of obligations, and it also allows people to feel good about themselves when they are not, in actual fact, willing to carry out the good deed that they say they are.

You end your book with a description of your meeting with Hasan Abdolrahman, the African American who makes an appearance in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's film, Kandahar. It seems as if your conversations with him influenced your understanding of faith, of violence and in particular, of political violence. Is this correct, and if so, how?

I think it probably did. But perhaps no more so than my conversations with Iranians in the book. It's slightly tangential, this Hasan Abdolrahman story, because it's more of an American story told from Iran, rather than an Iranian story. But maybe it does say something universal about violence and fanatical belief in an ideal, or something abstract like that.

I am interested in him, and others like him, because people like that are forced to live with the consequences of something that may be horrific, or may be very dramatic that they did in the past. And it's the consequences of these things that I find extraordinary. It's impossible to judge or to understand what he did, meeting him now, the person has changed. It's almost like meeting a different person and hearing him talk about someone else that he knows. So it's difficult to make that relation, to make that link. But the consequences and the ramifications of that kind of decision are very interesting. And it's interesting to see how people rationalize the decisions that a former self took. So that side of it, well, I thought, was very interesting.