The World Today
30 March 2012 , Volume 68, Number 2


Richard Dalton


Photo: Celluloid Dreams


Iran: Empire of the Mind: A History from Zoroaster to the Present Day, by Michael Axworthy (Penguin, £9.99) is the most recent and accessible one-volume history of Iran. Axworthy’s narrative provides a lively perspective on how the country came to be where it is, and a helpful guide to the prejudices of its people about the outside world. 

Shah of Shahs, by Ryszard Kapuscinski (Penguin classics, £8.99) is brilliant reportage of the fall of the Shah in 1979 and the rise of the ruthless men who ushered in today’s theocratic regime. In a series of despatches, the Polish reporter captures the tragedy of the Shah losing touch with the people. The memory of this murderous and destructive period still haunts many Iranians.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) is a wise and funny black-and-white comic strip, now made into a film, that tells the story of a young girl caught between tradition and modernity as she grows up during the revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. This deceptively simple book shows how the fate of individuals in Iran is so often determined by public events. 

Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – a Journey Behind the Headlines, by Scott Peterson (Simon & Schuster, £11.51) is a book by a journalist I admire for his deep knowledge of Iran and penetrating observations. Peterson has been travelling to Iran for many years, and the result is a book which is right up to date. He lets the facts speak for themselves. 

Le Turban et la Rose, by Francois Nicoullaud (Editions Ramsay, €18). This series of essays, by my former colleague, the French ambassador, seeks to strip away the veils of misunderstanding which envelop so many aspects of Iran. There are two themes: the theocratic Iran we see in the headlines, with its nuclear ambitions, and the immemorial Iran, which lives on in the courtly manners of the people and the breathtaking landscapes. Should be translated into English. 

The English Amongst the Persians, by Denis Wright (Heinemann, out of print). Iranians like to blame Britain for what they see as the bad hand that history has dealt them. This book takes us through the unequal commercial treaties of the late 19th century, occupation during two world wars, and the removal of the elected nationalist leader Mossadegh in a 1953 coup engineered by Britain and the US. Many Iranians feel that foreign interference has left a worse legacy than outright colonisation. 

My Uncle Napoleon, by Iraj Pezeshkzad (Modern Library, £10.50). Set in the 1940s during the Allied occupation of Iran, this novel lampoons the Iranian obsession that Britain is behind everything that happens in their country. An amusing tale of love and family life in Tehran, with characters who are still recognisable. Part of the mental landscape of middle-class Iranians.