three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
23-July-Aug-2006
By: 
Mark Bowden
user_rating: 
0

The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam

A-GuestsOfTheAyatollahIn 1979, Iranian students who were followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini took over the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 66 American diplomats, CIA officers, and military attachés hostage. It didn’t matter to the students that the embassy was of marginal value, peopled with diplomats who didn’t speak Farsi and Cold War CIA agents more interested in information on Russia than Iran. The students vented their frustration with inflamed rhetoric against the Great Satan—the United States—and tortured the hostages for information. Mark Bowden looks beyond the politics to tell the human story of these captives, whose uncertain fate undermined Jimmy Carter’s presidency and set the stage for our ongoing embattled relations with Iran.
Atlantic Monthly Press. 680 pages. $26. ISBN: 0871139251

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"One of Bowden’s accomplishments is conveying the often boring dailiness of the hostages’ lives while building drama about whether they’ll be tortured, die or survive. … Because the book is so fully sourced, its credibility is high." Steve Weinberg

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The book is suspenseful, inspiring, mordant and, perhaps most of all, affectionate toward those who had to endure such trying circumstances. He shows unfailing respect for the hostages, many of whom gave him extensive, intimate and at times embarrassing access to their memories. Mr. Bowden lets you feel, above all else, the fear and anger of the Americans during their long imprisonment." Reuel Marc Gerecht

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Guests of the Ayatollah may be the most revealing book ever written about desperate hostages on the brink. Their naïve, immature guards were manipulated by stealthy mullahs trying to wrest control of the country while Iran’s president derided them as ‘children’ and ‘lawless dictators.’" Ike Seamans

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Fans of the author … will find plenty of classic Bowden here: meticulous reporting backed by a compelling narrative. But unlike [his previous] two books, in which he spent considerable time trying to understand Somali fighters and Columbian drug lords, Guests of the Ayatollah provides only glimpses of the thoughts of the foreign antagonists." Afshin Molavi

Los Angeles Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[O]ne senses that he isn’t all that interested in the Iranians, enamored as he is of the guys in the white hats. Although American readers will surely root for American heroes, this is a serious flaw in a book about a war of culture and religion." Evan Wright

New York Times 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Guests of the Ayatollah is set up as novelistic nonfiction, filled with accounts from many different points of view: too many. … Most problematic are the hostages’ ways of coping with monotony: in replaying all these stories, Mr. Bowden makes the boredom all too authentic." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

Mark Bowden proved he knows how to tell a gripping narrative in Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo. In this latest book he takes on a story with more immediate topical consequence, with similar results. It’s a "painstaking recreation of those 444 days" (Cleveland Plain Dealer), told mostly from the red, white, and blue perspective. Some reviewers knock Bowden for focusing almost exclusively on the American captives and providing little insight into the motives and emotions of the Iranian hosts. Others note a tendency to get caught up in the finer details of the hostage crisis. But the skill with which he tells his story trumps all such concerns.

Also by the Author

Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999): Bowden gives a detailed in-the-air and on-the-ground account of the disastrous American incursion into Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993.