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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

MORNING EDITION host Steve Inskeep recently went on a reporting trip to Iran. He prepared by reading books about the country - books the Iranian government might not like. What happened next is the latest subject of "Three Books," our series in which writers recommend books on a single theme.

STEVE INSKEEP: My Iran Air flight touched down after midnight, and we stepped up a ramp into Imam Khomeini International Airport. I was a foreigner, so I didn't know if my bags would be searched. And I didn't know if my three books were allowed. So, I'd left one book at home and abandoned two more at the last stop before Tehran. I left them on a table in a coffee shop in Dubai.

Now, I could only try to remember them as I waited to have my passport stamped in Tehran. Maybe that's why I so vividly recalled what all three books reported about free speech or free expression. In a book called "The Soul of Iran," the author Afshin Molavi tries to peel away some of the country's mysteries. And he needed help when he visited the city of Mashhad.

It's famous to millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims who visit this golden-domed shrine. But at his tourist hotel, the author met a man who offered to show him another Mashhad. Together, they took a tour that included a stop the authorities might not appreciate. They visited a street corner, which looked like any other street corner - except the local man knew that it was the scene of protests that 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. A second book on Iran suggested a way to get at those stories. It's called "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ." The author is Hooman Majd, who's an Iranian-American. And he takes an ironic romp through Persian homes and Tehran taxicabs, and the offices of high officials.

In fact, he visits the media adviser to Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And he hardly bothers to quote a single word the man says. To me, as an outsider, the real story was the description of the atmosphere around the presidential complex, like the haphazard security. It was from this book that I learned Iran discourages wearing ties.

Fortunately, I didn't have a tie as I waited my turn to enter Iran, but I was still a little nervous. And maybe that's partly because of a third book that I read. It's called "Honeymoon in Tehran." The author is Azadeh Moaveni, who's a journalist. And it's mostly the memoir of a love affair. But what I remembered were her meetings with a man she called only Mr. X. He was an Iranian intelligence operative who summoned the journalist to regular meetings in creepy hotels.

She was told to go a quiet street. She walked up stairs past a silent desk clerk. And she waited alone in a quiet room until Mr. X appeared, demanding to know who she'd been meeting and what they said. Finally, the journalist wrote about Mr. X himself. And as she heads to her next meeting, she is so afraid of retribution that she calls a friend to tell her to raise the alarm in case she doesn't come back.

Then she meets the intelligence operative, who 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'd 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.

BLOCK: They get you to censor yourself.

BLOCK: Steve Inskeep is the host of NPR's MORNING EDITION. The three books he recommends on Iran are "The Soul of Iran," by Afshin Molavi; also, "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ," by Hooman Majd; and "Honeymoon in Tehran," by Azadeh Moaveni. You can get more "Three Books" recommendations, plus book reviews and author readings, at our Web site, NPR.org.

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