Someone implying to come from the upper-crust of the European society and having married into an upper-class Iranian family is trying to write about everyday culture and custom of the regular Iranian populace. It is a worthy attempt and it can be done - and has been done - but Mr. de Bellaigue was not very successful at it!
One of the first hints of their upper-crust-ness comes early in the book, a few pages after he talks about Cardinal Maximilian de Furstenberg representing the Vatican during a celebration in Iran and how his grandmother "always referred to him as Uncle Max"; he accuses the Iranians around him to be "terrific name droppers". It takes one to know one. Later he relates a story of how his wife Bita, responds to a beggar woman's blessing with "choice insults" and for him not to see anything wrong with her actions and then sharing it with the rest of us simply reeks of self-perceived nobility and arrogance of the landed gentry. Unfortunately this "aristocratic" mentality colors everything he sees around him negatively and in black.
There are two facets to this book. One the discourse on general Iranian society and culture, and the second the eight year war with Iraq. On the former the book is grossly lacking and what it conveys are only through jaundiced eyes. On the aspect of the war the book is more valuable because it relays some historical facts. There are things to be learned from it as long as the reader takes care to discard any personal and subjective interjections that the author makes. Of course he fills some of the historical voids with a vivid imagination - mostly qualifying them with maybes and perhapses but sometimes letting it pass as facts.
The problem that I have with the first facet of the book is that it is littered with gratuitous insults to Iranians and things Iranian. Granted, all subtly hidden but insults nevertheless. For example:
* One of the characters he has chosen to represent the average post-revolutionary Iranian is someone that he himself labels a "delinquent, a thug, a menace to society" and uses him as an example of an average Iranian! Would anyone get away with picking, following, and writing about an inner-city gang-banger - even one who has changed his ways - as representing the majority of Americans? I doubt it.
* Driving through streets while documenting "former names" of each road he passes he mentions a square with:
"...a scum of shared taxis." Is it the taxi itself that is scum or the fact that it is shared? Or maybe just the people sharing it. Also, what is the significance of giving the previous names of roads and highways? The names were changed 25 years ago for ideological reasons and/or to honor a fallen soldier, but so what? By meticulously documenting the "old" names of the roads he is just placating his immediate peers and monarchists that to this day refuse to use the new names for the main reason of: "The Shahanshah (king of kings) himself had named this road and no one is authorized to change it but HIM"! A royal fatwa if you will.
* On mullahs and their seminary cells (not unlike a monk's cell) where they live and study, he writes:
"If they marry, their cells may be passed on to a son, with familiar smells and unwashed tea things." Why the "unwashed"? Are they all dirty? Not to mention the obvious - like what happens to the cell while the mullah is married, moved out, and awaiting his son to be born and come of age? Is it kept empty for years with the unwashed tea things inside, or will they wash it and then dirty it up before the son is about to move in?
* While meeting a subject over lunch he describes the food:
"The kebabs were filthy, recently defrosted and served with insipid rice cooked with yesterday's oil." And of course after such a fitting meal for a gourmand that can even date the cooking oil one has to have "dead bag in tepid water" for tea!
* Passing a group of 20 sleeping travelers in a park he observes that they ALL wear polyester trousers, and ALL smell of sweat AND "decomposing meat in the gaps between their teeth"!
* A vet who has lost his legs in the war "bounded like a chimp"
* The red carpet in someone's house is "lurid"! For a country that is renowned for its carpets, he manages to see and describe only two of them, the lurid one and then when he is meeting 10 war veterans in a park they are sitting on a rug that has "the image of a nine-year-old girl with a perm and blue eyeliner."
* Politicians "inclined to stubble and greasy suits"! (How do you grease up a suit by the way? I wouldn't mind one myself. It would make it easy to put on and take off.)
* Even fictional characters in novels are not free of his stabs. A fictional character's title that roughly corresponds to a baroness or lady is referred to as "absurd and self-regarding sobriquet"! Good thing uncle Max is not around the read this.
* Tea houses are "coarse and dirty"
* Iranian bread is like a "mattress"
* From how vigorously a person exercises in a gym he guesses "that he let out a lot of aggression in 1979."
* From a shrug of a mother of dead soldier to the question of if she hangs out with other mothers that have sons killed in the war, he surmises that she is saying she is better than them and would not hang out with the riffraff. Not that it may simply mean "Not Really.", "Why?", "To what purpose?", or "It will not bring my son back."
These and other examples of underhanded pokes that make fun of and insult local customs no matter how irrelevant or banal is what gets on my nerves most about this book. Like when he talks about "sowan - the parched caramel, embedded with pistachio shards, that masquerades as a local speciality"! It is as though some one writing about history of the US post Vietnam and touching on Kennedy's election campaign in Chicago would suddenly take time to mention Chicago-style pizza as a "rubbery, doughy concoction, embedded with pepperoni, that masquerades as food!" It is rude and irrelevant not to mention distracting to the subject at hand.
And talking about distracting this book has taken a page straight out of the Tarantino's "linear story-telling is not the only game in town" and then added a few gimmicks of its own by filling it with inappropriate hackneyed interjections. There is so much jumping back and forth in time, from person to person, and place to place that it not only confuses the reader but it almost makes the book unreadable.
And I assume just to be able to withstand any complaints like the ones I make he has thrown in "Iran has beauty and ugliness in the same elusive hue." Sure. And you would be hard pressed to find any of the beauty in this particular book - it is elusive, after all. Just like the closet racist that after hours of ranting against a people ends by "but don't get me wrong I ain't got nothin' against them people, as a matter of fact some of my best friends are blacks."
Plus sometimes there are some shocking errors in the book that cast doubt on other areas. For example on page 67 he mentions a character that "trimmed his beard, rather than shaved it, for revolutionary grooming contends that shaving is a Western effeminacy." If he had done basic research - very basic, like asking the first passerby in the street - why people trim their beard rather than shave, he would have known that it has absolutely nothing to do with the revolution but because Islam requires it. After all if you can't fact check a basic thing like the reason for not shaving then how can I trust the fact checking on other issues? But I guess after the scandal of "A Million Little Pieces" and how the publishers came out on mass in their own defense saying that genre of "memoirs" are not fact checked and are considered somewhat fiction - something they claimed everyone in the publishing industry is aware of but the general public needs to be educated about - then I shouldn't be surprised. It does say on the cover "A memoir of Iran"!
It really is a sad truth that we live in a time that an intelligent educated man like Mr. de Bellaigue uses all his gifts to malign. It is rare to feel such venom in the works of an author that lives in Iran and is married to an Iranian but that is what comes across most in this book. All he is interested in doing, as he himself tells it after "regretting" for having told a truth (!) is to "jab a needle into Mr. Zarif's smug, certain shell." Except what he really wants to do is not just to jab one person but the whole of a nation.
In conclusion, if you are not Iranian and read this book, you will get an impression that has very little to do with Iran and Iranians. But if you are Iranian and can look past the venom there are some interesting aspect of Iranian culture and way of life that you will be introduced to. Aspects that an outsider can have a better view of and explain more objectively. And finally if you are one of Iranian monarchists living in Southern California or the suburbs of DC you will be in heaven. I am sure Mr. de Bellaigue will autograph your copy with pleasure.