Sunday, September 17, 2006

Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah a powerful, engaging narrative

80. Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden. History, 9-6, p. 637

Mark Bowden is the author most likely to wear the crown abdicated, due to age and time, by David Halberstam. Bowden, like Halberstam, is one of the few writers today who is capable of taking multiple interviews, secondary accounts and voluminous personal research and constructing a coherent and engaging narrative.

This is the feat Bowden has accomplished in his extraordinarily readable Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that toppled the Carter Administration, launched Ted Koppel’s Nightline and permanently transformed America’s relationship with the Middle East. Bowden demonstrated in his fine Black Hawk Down that he was exceedingly capable of weaving various accounts into a riveting and readable whole. Guests of the Ayatollah is a better, thoughtful, more complex book.

Bowden’s goal, in part, is to show how the hostage’s lived and survived during their 444 days of captivity. He does so vividly in an empathetic and powerful narrative. Bowden also demonstrates the impact of the crisis on both the Carter Administration and the Irianian leaders and students as well as leading us, step-by-step, through the misadventures of the failed rescue mission.

The hostages emerge as real people. Not so much heroesalthough there is a heroic element to their suffering, strength and courageas ordinary people making the best of extraordinary circumstances. President Carter warrants our sympathy perhaps as much as the hostages. He is a hopeful man whose Christian conviction leads him to believe that a resolution is possible – where none exists. Carter strives to do his best for the hostages and their families, and for America, but events conspire to undermine his Administration and, ultimately, his political career.

The hapless Iranians – the students, the secular leaders and iron-hearted mullahs – come off for the worst, as one might expect. No one in Iran ever anticipated so much of the fall-out that resulted from the seizure of the embassy – branded an outlaw nation for flouting the laws of diplomacy, a war with Iraq and a backlash against the Islamic faith in view of the students' failure to convince the American people of the righteousness of their cause.

Guests of the Ayatollah's 600-plus pages slip by with impressive speed; the book reads like an espionage thriller by LeCarre or Furst. It is skillfully told and impeccably researched. Let us hope Bowden wears his crown for many years to come.

(Bowden appeared at Washington, D.C.’s Politics & Prose this summer as part of the book tour to promote Guests of the Ayatollah. Also in attendance were former hostages Bruce Laingen, acting U.S. ambassador to Iran, and John Limbert, second secretary in the political section. Each testified to the accuracy of Bowden’s account. That, it seems to me, is the best and most powerful endorsement an author can receive.)

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