Monday, March 21, 2011

Book: Let the Swords Encircle Me

Let the Swords Encircle Me is a long (over 600 pages) journalistic tour through the recent history of Iran. I found it both engaging and enlightening. It is written by Scott Peterson, a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor and frequent visitor to Iran.

The book is very much journalism and not social science (and, more specifically, not academic history nor academic sociology). The book brims with richly described characters and environments. But the social scientist in me was occasionally frustrated by what I think of as the denominator problem: I wanted to know what fraction of the population shared the views of one or another of the characters in the book. Scott does an excellent job of drawing in characters from all parts of Iranian society; indeed, the strongest part of the book may be the spiritual sympathy he brings to the many sincere fundamentalist Muslims he interviews. More broadly, Scott does an amazing job of keeping himself out of the book in the sense that he lets the characters speak for themselves, and generally confines himself to providing context, though this detachment fades a bit in the final chapters regarding the crackdown after Ahmadinejad's fraudulent reelection.

I found three reviews: one from Salon, one from the WaPo and one from the Dallas Morning News. I thought the one from Salon captured the book the best; here is a tidbit:
There's a Tolstoyan panorama to "Let the Swords Encircle Me" that's likely to have readers checking the newspaper each day in a fever to find out what happens next. The main character is Iran itself: beautiful yet terrible, neither the paragon its jingoistic leaders declare it to be nor the demon thundered about by our own hard-liners, but human, flawed and hanging on to the elusive, but tantalizing possibility of redemption.
This bit from the Dallas Morning News also captures the flavor well:
From sweaty political rallies in dusty provincial mosques, to vast cemeteries dedicated to Iran's war dead, from the tea and macaroons of government offices, to the private thoughts of a necessarily very private people, Peterson brings a living, breathing, all-too human Iran into the reader's hands, and one emerges with a sense of having gained intimate knowledge of, and compassion for, a place too often treated as inscrutable.
The parts I enjoyed the most were those on the Iran-Iraq war, which I have never known very much about (other than Kissinger's famous quip about wanting both sides to lose). Also new to me was Ahmadinejad's focus on, and apparent sincere belief in, the immanent return of the Mahdi. A whole Mahdi industry has arisen in Iran in recent years thanks to generous government support. I came away from the book with an improved (from a very low base) opinion of Khomeni, the cleric behind the 1979 Islamic revolution, and a much reduced opinion of Khameni, his successor as Iran's clerical leader. A recurring, and for me surprising, theme throughout concerns how both the fundamentalists and the liberals make frequent use of texts and symbols from the 1979 revolution. Finally, the book reinforced my belief that modernity is really challenging for many, whether in the west or in the Islamic world. Modernity is not the only axis along which to think about the stark social and cultural divisions within Iran but it is surely an important one.

Highly recommended.

Full disclosure: (way) back in the day Scott and I attended the same Sunday school (!) and his parents were good friends with my parents.

No comments: