Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
Majd, an Iranian-born, American-raised journalist who returned the country of his birth several times during the last decade, is intent on providing a tour of modern Iran that cautions against any simplistic understanding of a multi-layered country and its people. Though the demonstrations of 2009 showed obvious discontent with the Islamic regime, that, according to Majd, shouldn???t be read as a sign of impending rebellion. Many Iranians, particularly the working class, are proud of their nation???s Islamic roots, and the system still enjoys a popular base of support.
Majd also attempts to explain quirks of Iranian culture and attitude that often elude Westerners. He argues that there are strong traditions of rights (if not exactly ???freedoms???, in the liberal, secular Western sense) and self-effacing politeness (which means that Iranians are often far more reasonable and less extreme in person than they might be in a faceless crowd). Both these factors create a society, as he sees it, in which people act one way in public, but feel free to express themselves as they like in private, a realm that the regime is careful not to intrude too far into.
Most of this understanding is revealed in pieces as Majd travels the country and meets Iranians from different walks of life, from cab drivers to politicians to mullahs to conservative religious families to liberal intellectuals to the chic Tehranian elite. We learn, for example, that some Iranians look with contempt on the low-class style and dubious diplomatic skills of their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while others admire him as a man from the streets who stands up to the West. Some question the need for religious strictures in public life (while being careful not to criticize Islam itself), while others find intense emotional outpouring in passion plays about the Shi'a saint, Hussein ibn Ali. They admire many things about the West, but distrust it for its past political interference. Like Americans, Iranians don???t always agree with each other, but they certainly do agree on being a people who can run their own affairs and have earned the right, through years of hardship and war, not to be told when to jump and how far by outsiders (a similarity in popular attitude to the US which, ironically, seems to fuel the ???nuclear energy??? head-butting with Washington). Generally, I found Majd to be skilled at turning his experiences into engaging, revealing anecdotes, though the larger narrative is a bit wandering.
That said, I thought that the author had some obvious biases. While he???s not uncritical of the ruling regime, he???s certainly not highly critical of it, either, and seems optimistic that the government is moving in the right direction on its own. As one of his friends puts it late in the book, ???your breath is coming from a warm place???. Meaning, of course, that someone who enjoys the freedoms and privileges of America is hardly someone to put aside the criticisms of Iranian dissidents and dissenters. Then again, that line kind of proves Majd???s thesis: Iran is too complex of a country to be easily summed up by anyone -- including himself. Will an "Islamic democracy" movement, guided from within the system itself, really bear fruit? I can't say, but Majd makes it seem plausible.
All in all, a good ???beginners guide??? to Iran, but perhaps not the guide to end one???s education with.
From the opening chapter, which features a nightmarish, almost cinematic scene of combat between US Marines and Iraqi insurgents, Filkins grabs the reader on a hook and doesn't let go. Aside from being an incredibly ballsy reporter who put his own life at risk to embed with soldiers on patrol, travel on his own through dangerous parts of Baghdad, and interview insurgents, Filkins is skillful at turning his experiences into gripping, personal narratives. He refrains from much editorializing, conveying the confusion, absurdity, pain, and stranger-than-fiction realities of life in a war zone in direct, unadorned language. Frankly, his observations themselves are so astonishing and telling, that any commentary would be redundant.
The book is written as a series of vignettes, each offering its own perspective into the dark maze of contradictions, mistakes, cultural misunderstandings, and clashing ideologies that is the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. This narrative-centered format keeps the book at the street level and does a lot to illuminate the individual humanity that's been all but lost on CNN and Fox News. Among many difficult-to-forget moments are a scene where a 19 year old soldier talks of his dreams back home and is killed minutes later by a sniper's bullet; another where a US colonel expresses confidence in a newly created "highway patrol", whose members the author later finds lurking under a bridge in their US-issued uniforms, waiting for "Americans to kill"; and another where Muslim fanatics take a break from building bombs to try to hook up the porn channel. Filkins lets these astounding moments speak for themselves, reminding us that in war, what goes on officially, what goes on in the streets, and what goes in people's minds are rarely in alignment.
Filkins doesn't arrive at any solutions or offer much comfort, but I think this work will stand for many years as a fascinating, poignant, and immediate testament to how human beings really are in war