Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran

"What follows is not the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran. That would be presumptuous if not impossible for a foreign reporter to write,” writes Laura Secor in her introduction to Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran. "This is a book about real people, some more famous or more admirable than others, but people whose complex and imperfect lives illuminate the passages through which they’ve traveled. There are no American protagonists and no American policy prescriptions. It is a book about Iranians, and it is a history—a hidden history, for the most part, of a powerful and protean current in the political and intellectual life of a nation."

What follows is nearly 500 pages that intermingle personal and pubic history, starting in the decade before the Iranian Revolution and going through the Green Movement of 2009-2010. She follows people from different walks of life, some women, but many men (at least in the early years), who in their own ways are patriots driven against a system that slowly chokes off not just dissent but almost any free expression. The book’s talent lies not in the big picture explanations, but in Secor's ability to make universal these nuanced biographical sketches. 

Were human rights workers in other countries better prepared, better trained? Asieh didn’t know. But she couldn’t imagine circumstances more chaotic than those that prevailed in Iran. She had become deeply enmeshed with the subjects of her research, she reflected in her letter. Delara, Atefah, and others peopled her dreams. She had sat alongside mothers and the scaffolds of their sons. She had no models, no mentors, no handbook to follow that might have cautioned her to keep her distance or flagged the signs of her coming collapse. 

“The truth is that we work on a remote island,” she wrote. “We are alone. I realized this while I was staring at the ceiling for two months with painful eyes.” 

But this does not mean Secor relies on the quotidian. The book—especially when viewing the days of the Revolution and the decade that followed—covers the unbelievably abstract, philosophical squabbles amongst factions. 

Like many Iranian thinkers, [Abdolkarim] Soroush ruminated on the classic dilemma of his country—so classic that it had ossified into cliche: Iran, the country forever torn between tradition and modernity. Soroush reflected that it was not meaningful to speak of modernity as a state to be engineered or rejected: modernity, too, was multifarious and, perhaps more important, it was not planned or chosen so much as it was the unintended consequence of human endeavor. 

“We are neither modern nor traditional,” Soroush remarked. “We are neither here nor there. We are just feeling our way as if in darkness. Sometimes we see better, sometimes not.” 

What the Islamic Republic feared was already inside it. Iran’s reform movement had indeed borrowed from Weber, Habermas, and Rorty, but its ideology was self-taught, as authentic an outgrowth of the revolution as Ansar-e Hezbollah. Far from being guided by foreign masterminds, the reformist grappled publicly and contentiously with the strategic conundrums Iran’s unique political system had placed in their path. The West had neither the philosophers nor spymasters so capable of navigating that labyrinth, or so invested in the count come, as man like Mostafa Tajzadeh and Said Hajjarian. 

I can't recommend this book enough.