Books Reveal The Mystery Of Modern Iran

The Mosque at Madraseh-ye Chahar Bagh in Isfahan

Sun flows into the Mosque at Madraseh-ye Chahar Bagh in Isfahan, Iran. Matthieu Paley/Corbis Images hide caption

itoggle caption Matthieu Paley/Corbis Images
Steve Inskeep

Steve Inskeep is the host of NPR's Morning Edition. He spent two weeks in Iran earlier this month as part of the program's "Unwrapping Iran" series.

"Three Books. . ." is a series in which we invite writers to recommend three great reads on a single theme.

My Iran Air flight touched down after midnight, and we stepped up a ramp into Imam Khomeini International Airport.

As a foreigner, I didn't know if my bags would be searched or if my three books about the county were allowed. So I'd left them behind — one at home, the other two on the table of a coffee shop in Dubai, my last stop before Tehran.

Now, I could only try to remember them as I waited to have my passport stamped. Maybe that's why I so vividly recalled what all three books reported about free speech or expression.

'The Soul Of Iran'

The Soul Of Iran
The Soul of Iran, by Afshin Molavi, paperback, 352 pages

Author Afshin Molavi tries to peel away some of the country's mysteries in The Soul of Iran, but finds that he needs some help when he gets to Mashad.

The city and its golden-domed shrine are famous to millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims. But in his tourist hotel, Molavi meets a man who offers to show him another Mashad. Together, they take a tour that includes a stop that the authorities might not appreciate: It's a street corner — which looked like any other corner, except the local man knows it as the scene of protests the government crushed in 1999.

That's the Iran that waited for me on the other side of the passport check — a country where contradictory stories lay on top of each other like layers of rock.

'The Ayatollah Begs To Differ'

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ
The Ayatollah Begs To Differ, by Hooman Majd, hardcover, 256 pages

Iranian-American writer Hooman Majd suggests ways to spot the country's hidden stories in The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, his ironic romp through Persian homes, Tehran taxicabs and the offices of high officials.

Majd interviews the chief media adviser of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, yet hardly bothers to quote a single word the adviser says. Instead, the real story is the atmosphere and haphazard security around the presidential office complex — and, above all, the clothes. It's from this book that I learned that Iran's revolutionary leaders discourage wearing ties, which are considered symbols of Western decadence. Fortunately, I didn't have a tie as I waited my turn for admission to the country.

'Honeymoon In Tehran'

Honeymoon In Tehran
Honeymoon In Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran, by Azadeh Moaveni, hardcover, 352 pages

I was slightly tense as my turn came, because I'd been reading a third book. Honeymoon in Tehran, by journalist Azadeh Moaveni, is mostly a memoir of a love affair, but what I remembered were her meetings with a man she called only "Mr. X."

Mr. X is an Iranian intelligence operative who summons the journalist to regular meetings in creepy hotels, where the operative demands to know who she's met and what they said. In her first book, Lipstick Jihad, Moaveni wrote about Mr. X himself. Now, in Honeymoon in Tehran, she describes returning to the country and encountering the operative again. This time, Moaveni is so afraid of retribution that she asks a friend to start raising the alarm in case she doesn't return from their meeting.

But when she meets Mr. X, he tells her, in essence, "See you can get away with writing that." He seems to expect credit for allowing it.

That story was in one of the books I left behind, not knowing if they would cause me trouble upon my midnight arrival in Tehran. As it turned out, my decision to leave them told me as much as the books themselves. I regretted abandoning them as soon as my turn came in line, because my bags weren't searched after all. That's the genius of certain governments: They get you to censor yourself.

Three Books ... is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

Books Featured In This Story

Honeymoon in Tehran

Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran

by Azadeh Moaveni

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The Soul Of Iran

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The Ayatollah Begs To Differ: The Paradox Of Modern Iran

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