Persian Perspective: Best Books to Understand Iran

Tehran, Iran, February 2016/Photo © Shutterstock

Iran-U.S. relations have a long and complex history. The CIA-backed coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 led to a period of relative peace and cooperation between America and Iran with Iran serving as a chief strategic ally in the Middle East. However, the Iranian Revolution led to the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the Embassy Hostage Crisis, and the deeply contentious Reagan years – notably defined by the Iran Contra Scandal – and that simmering hostility has continued to define relations today.

Iran was one of the seven Muslim-majority countries named in President Trump’s controversial and contested travel ban due in part to fears of the country’s ties and/or backing of terrorist organizations and its alleged nuclear program. However, it is important to remember that there is often a distinction between the views of a government and the views of the people it purports to govern. Iran is a multifaceted and intriguing society seemingly at war with itself at times. These books – whether Iranian literature, works by Iranian journalists, or simply works about Iran – will hopefully help to shed light on the complex culture of Iran.

  • The cover of the book The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

    The Ayatollah Begs to Differ

    The Paradox of Modern Iran

    As the grandson of an Ayatollah and the son of Iranian diplomat, journalist Hooman Majd is uniquely situated to comment on the state of modern Iran.  In The Ayatollah Begs to Differ, Majd presents a portrait of a complex and misunderstood culture seen through the eyes of a diverse cast of Iranians from all walks of life.

  • The cover of the book The Iranians

    The Iranians

    Persia, Islam and the Soul of a Nation

    For those interested in insight into the complex history of Iran, The Iranians is an excellent place to start.  The book examines the identity crisis that has defined much of modern Iran – a nation built from the values, art, and society of ancient Persia, but also from Islam.  These two seemingly disparate identities have created an ongoing tension between not only the Iranian Citizens and their government, but also with Iranian society itself.

  • The cover of the book Mirrors of the Unseen

    Mirrors of the Unseen

    In this fascinating portrait of modern Iran, travel writer Jason Elliot draws on several years’ worth of travel to the country to weave observations on life in contemporary Iranian society with history, cultural insights, and politics. Mirrors of the Unseen is necessary reading for those seeking a full portrait of the tumultuous, seemingly dichotomous nation.

  • The cover of the book The New Persian Kitchen

    The New Persian Kitchen

    Food and its preparation are an important key to virtually any culture and can often provide insights into everyday lives, the family structure, and history.  In her cookbook, New Persian Kitchen, Louisa Shafia draws on her Iranian heritage to paint a rich history of Persian cuisine and, particularly relevant to our purposes here, its place in Persian society.

  • The cover of the book My Uncle Napoleon

    My Uncle Napoleon

    A Novel

    Originally published in 1975 and the basis for an extremely popular Iranian TV series, My Uncle Napoleon is an irreverent and touching coming-of-age satire. Set during the allied occupation of Iran during the Second World War, the novel follows a family in a sprawling Iranian mansion.  The farcical novel – and its adaptation – were banned for a time after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, but is now considered an important piece of Iranian fiction.

  • The cover of the book The Rose & the Dagger

    The Rose & the Dagger

    Taking cues from Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, author Renee Ahdieh presents the sweeping story of Shahrzad, a sixteen-year-old girl who plots revenge on Khalid – the despotic Caliph of Khorasan. Each night Khalid takes a new bride from the women of Khorasan and each morning has the bride executed. The two-part series – The Rose and the Dagger and The Wrath and the Dawn – is set in the historical Khorasan region that comprises part of modern-day Iran.

  • The cover of the book The Book of Jonas

    The Book of Jonas

    A Novel

    In his debut novel, Stephen Dau centers his story on a young Muslim boy from a Muslim country who is orphaned during a U.S. military operation gone wrong, and sees his fate inexorably tied to the U.S. soldier who saved his life.  It is a shattering exploration of the emotional toll of war and while it begins in an unnamed country, the parallels to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East – and Iran’s role in those conflicts – is evident.

  • The cover of the book The Blind Owl

    The Blind Owl

    In this classic work of modern Persian literature, Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat presents the surreal story of an unnamed young man who paints miniatures recounting an experience that left his existence in tatters.  It is a perfect of example of the way Iranian authors often depend on allegory and symbolism to shield their works from punishment by the government.  The Blind Owl is currently banned in Iran.

  • The cover of the book All the Shah's Men

    All the Shah's Men

    Journalist Stephen Kinzer’s account of the CIA backed coup in 1953 which overthrew Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh is an important key to understanding not only US-Iran relations, but also the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the Middle East and the general anti-American sentiment in the region.  Kinzer traces the both the events leading to the coup itself and the ripple effects that still reverberate today.

  • The cover of the book Haldol and Hyacinths

    Haldol and Hyacinths

    A Bipolar Life

    Every culture deals with mental health in its own ways. For Melody Moezzi, born to Persian parents, dealing with these issues in her own life as a young Muslim proved particularly challenge, as she was encouraged to keep her illness quiet in spite of its consumption of her life. Moezzi’s memoir offers a unique opportunity to gain insight into Iranian perspective on mental illness.


  • The cover of the book Reading Lolita in Tehran

    Reading Lolita in Tehran

    A Memoir in Books

    If you’ve not yet read Azar Nafisi’s bestselling, award-winning Reading Lolita in Tehran, do yourself a favor: Pick it up. In its pages, the Iranian-born professor shares how, for two years, she brought together a small group of Iranian women from varying backgrounds – some conservative, some progressive – to read and discuss forbidden Western literary classics. Ultimately, Reading Lolita offers us a unique perspective that is still relevant nearly fifteen years later.