Rose garden of the martyrs

The Guardian


The relationship between Britons and Iranians has always been full of contradictions and surprises. During the reign of King James I, two Persian ambassadors arrived in London within days of each other and fell to public brawling over who was the rightful representative. One of them was an Englishman, Robert Shirley, who had adopted Persian dress and customs, something which did little to assist his mission. James prevaricated, sending the men back east to sort it out, with unfortunate consequences for both. The real Persian died en route and Shirley found himself as distrusted in Shah Abbas’s Isfahan as he was in Hampton Court, unable to elicit any unequivocal support.

Christopher de Bellaigue doesn’t tell this tale, but he does a better job than Shirley in resolving the Our Man/Gone Native tensions. He is the Economist’s man in Tehran, he wears a jacket and shirt in his author photograph (but no tie) and looks the part of sensitive and intelligent Brit abroad. On the other hand he is married to an Iranian, settled in Tehran and clearly speaks Farsi with the fluency required to penetrate such arcane networks as the South Tehran weightlifting scene. You might say his feet, one in a sturdy brogue and one in a pointy slipper, are in both camps. And his book, subtitled “a memoir of Iran”, is likewise divided, sliding with ease between outsider’s travel narrative and insider’s personal relationships.

The traveller in him gives us Iran as tragicomedy — there’s a brilliant scene in a taxi where the gnomic utterances of driver and passengers are dissected to reveal all the shifting complexities of family, duty and honour. Then almost immediately, having got us under his wing, he dives down into the murky depths accessible only to those with the right connections and a linguistic pass key: a certain Mr Zarif visits the De Bellaigue household for dinner, a man described as “a friend” who was responsible for numerous violent excesses during the 1979 Islamic revolution, but is now reborn as an affable raconteur and informant.

Woven into such scenes we get an effortless lesson in Iranian history post-1700, but with the emphasis on post-1970. The subject here is the revolution and all its consequences, especially the catastrophic war with Saddam Hussein which looms as large in Iranian consciousness as the first world war has done in ours. Through various contacts and meetings, an obsessive quest for the memory of one man begins to emerge: Hossein Kharrazi, a charismatic would-be martyr who led his band of untrained Isfahani patriots into combat, first against the Kurdish uprising which followed the Islamic revolution, then against Saddam’s invading armies in September 1980. If we never quite feel we get under that man’s skin, that is because he has been beatified by the revolution. Yet the search is illuminating on how that war was fought and where it has left Iran.