Interview with Christopher de Bellaigue

HarperCollins, New York (2005)
HarperCollins, New York (2005)

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.

Go to AsiaStore and purchase In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs: A Memoir of Iran.

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.

To continue with this theme: I have to say that you appear rather contemptuous of the way survivors and family members speak to you of martyrdom in the context of this war. What accounts for this? In other words, what makes the willingness to die for faith in God worse than the willingness to die for faith in the nation?

Well, first, I would take issue with your ascribing of "contemptuous" tones to my writing! I wasn't trying to be contemptuous; I may have been a little abstracted from the idea but I certainly didn't mean to be contemptuous.

In some ways, I find it remarkable - and even admirable - that people are willing to die for an abstract idea, and not merely just for material gain. But what I think sets that aside, what distinguishes this idea of dying for your faith from dying for your country is that if you die for your country, there's no necessary reward in that, in terms of what happens to your soul after you have died. Whereas, in this case - in the case of people who go to war believing fervently that if they die in the right way, they will go straight to heaven - then there is that sense of reward. If you die for your country, that's reward in itself, but for people who die for their faith, there is an extra reward.

You say towards the end of the book that Israeli and American claims that "Iran's interest in nuclear weapons was offensive in design" are false and that in fact, Iran's interest in nuclear weapons was really "an insurance against regime change". What do you think the prospects are now, in the second Bush administration, that the Americans will actively pursue "regime change" in Iran? And even if not, do you think it is likely that either Israel or America will launch targeted military strikes against Iran's nuclear installations in the near future?

I think it's much more likely that they'll do the latter than the former, but you can never put anything past this administration. I do think though that the latter is far more likely and all the more so since it seems that the Bush administration will probably fail to garner sufficient support in key international institutions, such as the UN, for concerted diplomatic action against the Iranians. So, no, I don't think they will pursue regime change now. But at the same time even targeted strikes would seem to me to be very, very dangerous, fraught with uncertain consequences for American interests in that region but obviously, most important of all, for the people of that region.

And how do you see the Iranians reacting in the event that this occurs?

Well, they have hinted broadly that they would create chaos in Iraq, that they would create chaos in Afghanistan, create more chaos in Palestine. I don't know if they would be willing to carry out that promise, but it's certainly something worth taking into account.

Do you think that the Americans are likely to join the Europeans in their negotiations with Iran?

It seems very unlikely if you've got a Secretary of State that tells French intellectuals that Iran is totalitarian, when it clearly is not totalitarian, it's a semi democracy. It seems very unlikely that someone with that kind of moral clarity or vision is going to sit down and do business with the Iranians. Although the Iranians, I think, would be receptive if the Americans were ever to make such a gesture because they do feel vulnerable.

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.

You alluded to this when you spoke earlier but you sense also in this a certain kind of "integrity." What do you mean by that?

Well, what does "integrity" mean? It means being true to your ideals. Now your ideals may be twisted or unattractive but being true to ideals is something that is considered to be a quality. So within that context one can say that there is an integrity to this. But in the same sentence, I also spoke about, I think it was a "homicidal vileness" to the same thing there. The two things are mixed in the same sort of hue.

A recent review in the New York Times suggests that you write with an "imperial confidence" of Iran. How would you respond to that claim?

I don't think he meant that I was being - well, I don't know, you would have to ask the reviewer what he meant by that. But I took it as a compliment!

You can't be serious!

He was applying the word "imperial" to something that's got nothing to do with imperialism. And "confidence" isn't something that…

…Is the exclusive purview of imperial powers?


But you can say, you might say that it's over-determined - since you are, of course, English…

Yes, yes, you can say that. You can say that someone speaks with all the persuasiveness of an advertising executive without them actually being an advertising executive. With all the other unattractive facets that you might attribute to advertising executives…

So you're saying that you have some of the unattractive attributes…

…of an imperialist? [Laughs]


I don't know. You'll have to ask my wife that!

To end, then, what projects do you have planned now? Any other books forthcoming?

I would like to write another book. I have got three projects that I am going over. But I don't know quite how to order them, or quite how to take them forward. One is fiction, and one has nothing to do with either the Middle East, or South Asia, is completely out of that realm, in fact.

Nothing more on Iran then?

Oh, yes, I'll always keep coming back to Iran, but I think it's probably time for a breather. And then, we'll see what happens.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.