Books on Iran are many – Mostly written by foreigners or Iranians who left the country before the Islamic revolution. You hear lots about Iran history, stories of exile and the Iranian-American conflict. There’s less about those who stayed, those who went to war or the generation that’s struggling with the cultural transition in Iran’s modern society.
I had been meaning to write a post about worthy books on Iran that could enrich your experience for a while. As you can tell, the subject required me to dedicate enough time on reading, research and picking my favourite books. I wanted to avoid books that used exaggeration to cause empathy with the writer and eventually prove a political view. There were quite a few of those! And I definitely wanted Iran history books that presented a fair and well-documented view of Iran’s political situation or its society. I won’t dare say that my list is absolutely clear of those, but I did try my best.
Reading about my upcoming travel destination is something I do plenty. But it’s not long since I’ve decided to not limit myself to guidebooks, blogs, and Wikipedia and actually read literature from a country I’m going to visit. I started with Hemingways’ “Moveable Feast” before going to Paris. I continued on to Orhan Pamuk’s “Istanbul” before I headed to Turkey and I just finished Ivan Klima’s “Spirit of Prague” as I’d love to visit Prague this summer. They’ve all made me have a better understanding of the city I’m visiting in a different time and in the eyes of a local.
Reading books on Iran however, is essential for any trip to the country. Mostly because the western portrayal of Iran in the media is generally ugly, with too much focus on its politics and usually a one-sided story. A little extra digging is absolutely necessary if you’d like to visit Iran with a better understanding.
12 Best Books on Iran to Read Before Your Iran Trip
If you’re looking for history books on Iran, this one’s the most accurate and trustworthy you may find. Ervand Abrahamian is a historian focused on Iran history. He was born to Iranian-Armenian parents in Tehran but spent most of his life away from home. This guy is the expert of experts when it comes to the History of Iran. I mean if he taught the subject at Oxford and Princeton, there’s little space for doubt.
Iran between two revolutions focuses on the period between the constitutional revolution (1905-1909) and the Islamic revolution in Iran (1977-1979). I’ll be honest and say that’s not an easy read. Especially if you’re new to Iran history. The book is full of names and full of facts with Abrahamian’s focus on ethnic roots of the major radical movements. You’d want to give this book some time, but be sure that it’s your best pick to study modern Iranian history. And you if you want to read further from the same author, his book ‘A history of Modern Iran’ is equally satisfying.
Abbas Milani’s The Shah would be my top recommendation to anyone starting off on books on Iran history. I’ve seen Abbas Milani talk in a lot of shows. I know his stance on the Islamic revolution and the current regime and I thought the book was pretty unbiased representing both sides. I first got to know Abbas Milani through his book ‘The Persian Sphinx’ which I could hardly put down. The book is a biography of Amir Abbas Hoveyda, an influential character who was once prime minister to the Shah of Iran. The book was so good that I was eager to read more from Milani and he did not disappoint.
The Shah is a biography of Iran’s last king – Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, from the day he was born to the marks he left behind. It goes through all the necessary historical facts but Milani’s narration is so expertly done that it can feel like reading a novel rather than a book on Iranian history.
Iraj Pezeshkzad’s My Uncle Napoleon is a warm and funny novel representing Iran’s society of the 1940s. The story mostly takes place in a big house where the narrator lives and unfolds around his young love for his cousin Leyli, the paranoid Uncle Napoleon’s daughter. My Uncle Napoleon represents a comic and exaggerated representation of Iranians living in extended families who take England responsible for everything. The loony but lovable Uncle Napoleon goes as far as accusing the British of every shortcoming in his life and thus, is the world’s biggest fan of Napoleon Bonaparte – The biggest enemy of the British! :))
If you want to read a hear-warming and humourous novel going through the lives of normal Iranians and their everyday relationships, My Uncle Napoleon will have you flipping through its pages before you know it.
This book was later turned into a very successful television series directed by Naser Taghvaii, called Dai Jan Napoleon. The episodes are available on youtube but don’t expect subtitles.
All The Shah’s Men is a book mainly focused around the events of the 1953 CIA coup which deposed Iran’s only chance at a democratic secular regime. The US later handed power to the Shah and his secret police. They oppressively ruled Iran until the revolution of 1979. From there the course of Iran’s history changed forever. There’s a lot of back and forths of histories in the book but the narration is interesting and respectful along with the author’s personal experience of his trip to Iran.
This book will be heartbreaking to read for every Iranian. And a must-read for every American who hears less of their countries crimes in Iran and mostly about the kidnapping of American diplomats.
This book is a touching story of Terence Ward’s family’s return to Iran to find Hassan, the family’s cook, and housekeeper. Their journey takes them through landscapes of Iran, its history and culture, but most of all through its people.
The facts pointed out by Terence are mainly from his personal experience amongst Iranians. It is, after all, an American family’s holiday to Iran which tend to sometimes feel superior to Iranians, but deep down they have a true affection for the Iranian people.
It’s a great book on Iran to read before your trip. It also works as a travel guide and inspires you for your upcoming trip.
The Shahnameh is without a doubt Iran’s most significant piece of literature. Our beloved poet, Ferdowsi, depicts the tales of Iran’s pre-Islamic history. He begins with the mythic time of creation and continuing to the Arab invasion of Persia. The book is a combination of myths and history. It has a heroic spirit portrayed through kings, superhumans, unusual creatures in worldly events. There’s a great podcast in Farsi that goes through all the story called Ferdowsi Khani. But if you can only read in English, then Dick Davis’s translation is the best.
There’s also a magnificently illustrated adaptation of the book named Shahnameh: The Epic of the Persian Kings by Ahmad Sadri. It’s not one to replace the book at all but equally a pleasure to read. It would also make a perfect gift. 😉
I was a bit hesitant about mentioning this book or not. It’s not any masterpiece but I personally loved the story and had a good laugh with it. The book is about the author’s life after her family’s immigration to the US. This happens while she’s pretty young and depicts her struggles at school, in finding friends and adopting with the culture shock.
Experiencing life abroad at a young age, I could totally relate to the main character and her conflict with the double standards of her family and the new society in which she lives.
The book is perfect for any age and is written with such witty humor. You’re bound to have a few good laughing moments while reading it.
Firoozeh Dumas has written two other books named ‘Funny in Farsi’ and ‘Laughing without an accent’ which somehow have the same narrations. I could still enjoy the second one but then it just felt like I was reading another adaptation of the first book.
Iran, ِِِEmpire of the mind is a great overview of Iran’s history. It covers ancient times right to days of Ahmadinejad. It’s not too long and doesn’t get into a lot of detail. This makes it perfect for someone who has very little information on Iran history or has just started reading books on Iran. The author was a former British diplomat to Iran. So it’s not a book written by a historian but still covers important historical events in Iran.
Setareh Farman Farmaian was an inspirational woman born into a wealthy family with royal routes. She dedicated her life to social work in Iran.
Setareh was born in the harem of her father- the 15th of 36 children. She saw a revolution and the displacement of her aristocratic family from power. She later took an amazing solo journey to the United States to study Social Work. Life took her through another revolution in which religious authorities seized power from the Shah. She served her nation for 2 decades. But was later branded as a counterrevolutionary and an imperialist by the new regime which enforced her to leave Iran.
Again another great book on Iran, this time written by an Iranian that offers a general view of Iran’s history. It’s suitable for first-time readers on the subject. The book is mostly focused on Iran’s political history. You’ll also find information about Iran’s culture and society after the Qajar era.
The author Homayoun Katouzian is an economist and a historian with a special interest in Iran. He’s written quite a few books on Iran history. He’s well known for his studies on Iran’s modern literature and specifically the works of Sadegh Hedayat. Now Sadegh Hedayat’s ‘The Blind Owl’ was also a book I was thinking to include in the list but avoided it as it has nothing to do with Iran. However, ‘The Blind Owl’ is a significant work of Iran’s modern literature. It’s very well known outside of the country. If you’re ok with reading dark and surrealist books like the works of Franz Kafka, this is one you’ll enjoy as well.
There was no way I was going to finish a list of books on Iran without naming a few good ones on Persian food. I thought I’d start with ‘Taste of Persia’. This book focuses on Persian cuisine beyond the Iranian border, all the way through Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kurdistan, and Iran. It’s is a delightful blend of recipes and a travelogue with striking photos. It’s filled with interesting tidbits of Persian history, current Iranian daily life sprinkled with some delicious recipes.
Food for life is another great Persian cookbook. In fact, one of the best out there. The book comes with 330 classical and regional Iranian recipes as well as an introduction to Persian art, history, and culture. The photography in this book is just superb. All the recipes come with descriptions of Persian ceremonies, travel stories, poetry, and folktales. I have to say the book also has great design and makes for a beautiful coffee table book as well.
I know there will be a lot of suggestions to add to the list. I’m also aware that I have omitted some of the best selling books on Iran. But I was personally very conscious about books that had one-sided stories or came with too much exaggeration. This list started with 20 books out of 40 but I narrowed it down to 13. I only wanted to introduce the ones I truly loved, even if they were not included in other lists.
If you know any other books on Iran that is a must-read, let me know in the comments.