Monday, February 23, 2009
Book Review: Guests of the Ayatollah (Mark Bowden)
I don't know how I manage to go about living my life, totally oblivious to the fact that there are books out there that I would love that I don't even know exist. In Plain Sight was one of them. Guests of the Ayatollah is another.
I saw it on my friend's reading list somewhere or other and while I have little to no interest in Iran proper, the Iran Hostage Crisis has always held the promise of fascination for me. As in, I always thought that if I knew more about it, I could really be fascinated by it. But I never did know more about it, until now.
Guests of the Ayatollah: The first battle in America's war with militant Islam, by Mark Bowden, is an exhaustively researched, meticulously recounted, gripping tale of the Iran Hostage Crisis, in which 66 American diplomats were held hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran for 444 days in 1979-1981. The ordeal took a major toll on President Jimmy Carter's bid for re-election in 1980, and the hostages were purposely released by their captors the day after he was no longer president. It informed a generation of Americans, for better or worse, on Iran, Iranians, and the Iranian Revolution. The crisis also kick-started the creation of the Islamic Republic.
This magnificent book is like some sort of super hybrid of three of my favorite books, Taken on Trust, Lone Survivor, and The Arabists.
First, there's the hostage component, of course, which reminded me of Taken on Trust. Bowden shows us, bit by bit, how certain individual hostages reacted to their captivity. Some responded with composure and level-headedness, and strove to create relationships with their guards. Others withdrew inward. Still others lashed out with violence, uncooperativeness, and profanity specially tailored for their sensitive Muslim audience. Some were held in solitary confinement for long periods of time, and maintained their sanity by teaching themselves foreign languages, memorizing song lyrics, tracing geometric patterns on the wall and then coloring them in, or using their imaginations to redecorate/remodel their homes in America.
And they read books. Lots of books. One of the hostages admits outright to the author that being held captive wasn't so bad, on the whole, as long as he was allowed to read books. Other hostages could agree with that statement only in part, as they were beaten and interrogated in addition to being held against their will in uncomfortable makeshift quarters within the embassy and, later on, in prisons across Tehran.
Just as Terry Waite (author of Taken on Trust) was prepared, in a way, for his captivity by having been involved in mediating hostage situations in the past, many of the Iran hostages drew on their training and experience. A few had even been held hostage briefly before, in Iran or another country. Many had read books detailing hostage survival tactics. Some were CIA- or military-trained. Still, I can imagine that there is little you can do to harden yourself to the reality of being completely cut off from the world; so much so, in fact, that you are reduced to gleaning what news you can from the batch of Valentine's cards your captors pass on from an elementary school class in Vermont. That is how one of the hostages found out that there had been an attempt by US special forces to rescue them.
Another element of the book is the thrilling account of the takeover itself, as well as (later on) an extraordinarily dangerous rescue mission undertaken by special forces, both of which reminded me of Lone Survivor. I don't want to say too much about the rescue mission lest I spoil the story for you. Obviously, it was ultimately unsuccessful, but the surprising way in which it unfolded makes for very suspenseful reading. It also shows that, as evidenced by Lone Survivor, US special forces and the technology they use have come a long, long way in the last 30 years.
Finally, there are the stories of the people themselves - the places they'd lived, their families back in America, and the circumstances that brought them to Iran in the first place. This was reminiscent of one of my favorite books, The Arabists. I never expected to be so interested in the personal details of a few dozen random people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in late 1979, but Bowden manages to find the life threads that make them relevant human beings.
I was especially moved by the several hostages who had devoted their careers in large part to the people of Iran, only to find themselves held captive by the more radical elements of Iran's society. These Americans, who often spoke Farsi fluently (and in one case, was married to an Iranian), found that their hard work to build bridges of understanding between the US and Iran was meaningless to the hostage-takers. Even more tragically, these Americans' well-meaning Iranian contacts and friends were often rounded up and arrested or even executed.
At the time, in the United States, there was a segment of public opinion that held that the hostages had all chosen to live and work in Iran, and thus had willingly undertaken any risks such an assignment involved. Bowden does a good job of showing how that was not necessarily so, and also illustrates that even if that were the case, they still deserved all the care and consideration due to a representative of the United States overseas. He also describes the wider picture of how Americans at the time viewed the crisis, and President Carter's response to it.
I found myself very interested in the role that the hostages' foreign language abilities played in the crisis. Those who spoke Farsi alternately used it to communicate with their captors, or tried to keep their fluency a secret as long as possible so as to be able to eavesdrop on them. Others spoke Turkish, or Thai, or other foreign languages, and used them to their advantage as well and as often as they could. Using a foreign language to survive a hostage situation was not a topic covered in any of my linguistics classes in college, but maybe it should be.
All of these elements - the hostages' experiences, the rescue attempt, and the story of the individuals - are woven together to create a literary whole that is at once informative, compelling, and illuminating. Often, when Jeremy asks me to tell him the interesting parts of a book I'm reading, I'm able to condense the book into a few clever tidbits, and that's the end of it. With Guests of the Ayatollah, I would need to give a summary of just about every page to be able to do it justice.
Bonus discussion: to revisit the question I asked in my post about Taken on Trust, what would you do to better yourself in solitary confinement? Read? Exercise? Draw overlapping circles on your wall and then color them in? Scrape a hole in the wall using a shard of glass so you can communicate with the hostage next door? Lose so much weight that you are unrecognizable upon release? Sleep? Antagonize your guards? Ingratiate yourself to them? Please elaborate on your answer.