11 fantastic books on Iran you should read before traveling

10 of the best books on Iran

A fascinating country that inevitably tickles our curiosity, to many Iran is still one of those mysterious and inaccessible places we long to visit but are afraid to.

With an ancient history dotted with legendary figures, beautiful architecture and powerful kings, and modern times inescapably shaped by the controversial Islamic Revolution, there are countless books on Iran that will make you fall in love with the country even before going.

After traveling to Iran several times, I never tire of reading, researching and learning more about this beautiful and proud nation.

Whether you are a history buff, an art lover, an architect, an adventure-seeker, or a slow traveler, Iran has something for everyone. And Persian books and literature from and about the Islamic Republic will have the result to arouse your curiosity even more.

Shahnameh and Hafez’s Divan as great examples of Persian literature, the controversial Reading Lolita in Tehran and the highly descriptive The Blood of Flowers as books about Iranian culture and society are only some of the titles I suggest you read before traveling to Iran, when you will shape your own idea about this fascinating country and its welcoming people.

Are you ready? Grab a cup of coffee, better yet of Persian black tea, and flip through the pages of my favorite books on Iran.

Rooftops of Tehran, by Mahbod Seraji

I never said it was going to be a jolly journey, did I? In his Rooftops of Tehran, Mahbod Seraji tells us the story of Pasha, a young boy from Tehran who enjoys the warm summer nights from the rooftops of his city. He’s crazy in love with the beautiful daughter of their neighbors, Zari, who, however, is engaged to “the Doctor”, a young communist, revolutionary, and dreamer.

The book is set during the time of the last Pahlavi Shah and described are times of little freedom, the arbitrary investigations of Savak secret police, and the repression of any protest. The different characters of the novel will form a strong bond with each other, their tragic stories mercilessly intertwined.

This is Mahbod Seraji’s first novel, I really liked it and after reading it I longed for more, as the last chapter somehow left some hope for a happier ending. I read somewhere that he was going to write a second book as a continuation of this first title but I don’t think he has yet.

Shahnameh, by Abolqasem Ferdowsi

The most exhaustive and complete epic poem covering centuries of Persian literature, history and culture from the dawn of Great Persia to approximately the year 1000 AD, when the book was written, Shahnameh, Persian for the Book of Kings, is the masterpiece of Abolqasem Ferdowsi.

The world’s largest epic poem written by a single author, Shahnameh is also considered one of the greatest works of the world’s literature, alongside being one of the most important Farsi books. This impressive collection of stories will walk you through Iran’s pre-Islamic history right from the time of the Creation to the Arab conquest in the 7th century.

You will read about family, love, national triumph, courage and all types of human sentiments in the adventures and stories of characters like Rostam and Sohrab, the most widely known heroes, Mehrab Kaboli, grandfather of Rostam, the revolutionary Kaveh the blacksmith and the heroic figure of Arash The Archer.

Set in the regions of the Great Persian Empire such as modern-day Afghanistan, Tajikistan and obviously Iran, Shahnameh takes into account the beginning of Zoroastrianism, the main religion in pre-Islamic Persia, and its end, with the death of the last Sassanid king.

You will hardly read it all at once, but you will definitely fall in love with some of its stories and characters. If you want the most comprehensive of the Persian books and a complete reference to Iranian culture, literature, and mythology, here you are.

The Cypress Tree, by Kamin Mohammadi

Written by BBC journalist Kamin Mohammadi, The Cypress Tree is the personal story of the writer and her family. The daughter of an employee of the British Oil Company operating in Iran during the last Shah, Kamin Mohammadi and her family had to leave Iran when she was only nine due to the 1979 Revolution and live in exile in the UK.

While clearly not a fan of the Islamic Revolution, it’s easy to sense the writer’s love and nostalgia for her home country. The book is a fascinating account of her life between her effort to fit into the British lifestyle and manners and her longing to go back to her grandmother’s inner courtyard, typical of Iranian traditional houses, and their loud and ceremonial life.

You will love the vivid descriptions that show an Iran full of energy, colors, and the intoxicating scent of tea and herbs in its different regions, from Kurdistan to Khuzestan, from Shiraz to Tehran. Descriptions accompany the reader through the ups and downs of her family and the turbulence of Iran’s contemporary history.

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The Divan of Hafez

Possibly one of the most followed, read and cherished strongholds of Persian poetry, the poems (divan) of Shamseddin Hafez are definitely one of the most important Persian books you can read.

You might think they are “just” poems, but after you travel to Iran you will realize they are much more than that.

Hafez, far from being just a poet, is regarded in Iran as a life mentor, his poems read in difficult moments to look for some solace and advice. His divan never miss the tables of Yalda night, the year’s longest, when Iranian families gather around the precious verses to seek reassurance and inspiration.

Poetry in Iran plays a more pivotal role than in other societies, embedded in love affairs, personal relations and even being influenced by the country’s bumpy ancient and modern politics. Even though some six centuries old, Hafez’s divan are considered an evergreen and contemporary masterpiece of Persian poetry, now always more known and widespread also abroad.

In Iran, you will hear the most different people, from different walks of life, recite Hafez’s verses and take them as an inspiration to unravel their life dilemmas. After reading The Divan of Hafez you will join the crowd of Iranians gathered around his tomb in Shiraz with a better understanding of their love and respect for their national poet.

Land of the Turquoise Mountains: Journey Across Iran, by Cyrus Massoudi

Written by British-born Iranian writer Cyrus Massoudi, Land of the Turquoise Mountains: Journeys Across Iran is a personal essay from the country of the author’s parents, who had to flee Iran due to the 1979 Revolution.

On a quest to discover his own roots, Massoudi traveled to Iran thirty years later embarking on a three-year journey and covering hundreds of miles and the span of thousands of years.

Charmed by the verses of Shahnameh introduced by his grandmother when he was a boy, Cyrus Massoudi grew curious about Iran over the years until he finally decided it was time to discover this “magic land where anything seemed possible and where valiant heroes would sacrifice so much to protect it” with his own eyes.

The book is a very personal account of his own impressions of the country enriched with vivid descriptions of streets, daily life, and the engrossing harmony between modernity and tradition. In an effort to go beyond the usual, deceptive, depiction of the Western media, Massoudi gives an intense introduction to a country and a culture we desperately need to know more of.

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Censoring an Iranian Love Story, by Shahriar Mandanipour

Touching on the issue of falling in love and starting a relationship in Iran, Censoring an Iranian Love Story is the first novel translated into English by famous and controversial Iranian writer Shahriar Mandanipour. With a playful and humorous tone, the author approaches the contentious topic of censorship in a fiction novel that deals with the reality of being an artist and being in love in modern-day Iran.

In the book, a love story is told in parallel with the historical development of censorship in Iran throughout the centuries.

Mandanipour tackles the subject in an original way, comparing the risks of his profession as an independent writer with the ones of falling in love out of the boundaries the Iranian society and tradition impose. His unusual and contemporary writing style comprises strikethrough sentences as if to share with his readers the thoughts that risk being censored.

Ironic, irreverent and unbearably emotional, Mandanipour is a great classic of contemporary Persian literature that shows the evolution of one of the world’s richest and least-understood cultures.

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The Blood of Flowers, by Anita Amirrezvani

An engaging historical novel set in 17th-century Isfahan, the magnificent capital of Shah Abbas, The Blood of Flowers is also one of the books on Iran I suggest reading.

The novel is the heart-wrenching story of a young woman whose father died without leaving a dowry for her marriage. As she moved to her uncle’s house and learned the craft of carpet design, she gradually sees her chances to marry fade away.

I’m reading this book right now and loving it. Not only is the story fascinating and intriguing, but the vivid descriptions whirl you directly back to 17th-century Persia, making you touch the softness of the carpets, smell the tangy scent of tea and orange blossom, hear the sounds of craftsmen at work and see the turquoise domes and luxurious palaces wanted by Shah Abbas.

The story unfolds filled with the details that show the Iranian society of centuries ago, each moment enriched with bits of traditional customs and lifestyle, from the ritual of the tea to the greeting ceremonies to the old-style mud houses. A Persia seldom seen in today’s Iran but that still exists in Afghanistan, especially in the historical Herat City.

Get lost in the small alleys of ancient mud villages and in the glorious Safavid-era Isfahan where tales of love, hardship, and injustice get entangled and lure all readers in.

Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

Admittedly, despite the several accolades, this is not my favorite book about Iran. A literature teacher who stopped working after the Islamic Revolution because she refused to wear the veil started gathering seven of her most committed female students at her house every Thursday morning to talk about Western authors apparently forbidden in Iran.

In all honesty, and probably a bit too frankly, I’m including Reading Lolita in Tehran on this list of books on Iran simply because it’s famous. I found the self-important tone of the author made the flowing of the book slow and at times hard to carry on. One of the things I didn’t like was that, even though she does describe her students’ backgrounds and families, she doesn’t quite talk about Tehran (and Iran) much.

Instead, she spends too many pages reviewing the classics of literature, which is not what I was expecting. I absolutely love reading, to me, it’s pure bliss, so I had read most of the books she mentioned and would have looked elsewhere if I wanted to read a review.

The book was welcomed very warmly by the Western media, predictably so if we think that its main goal is to criticize the current Iranian government. However, even by doing so, the reaction of readers has been less enthusiastic, probably disappointed like me by an unkept promise.

Jewels of Allah: the Untold Story of Women in Iran, by Nina Ansary

Nina Ansary’s Jewels of Allah is also one of the books on Iran you should read to delve deeper into the complicated and very much controversial topic of women in Iran.

Of Iranian origins, Ansary is a historian and university professor, and her Jewels of Allah is not a novel but an academic work that goes deep into the very popular narrative about women in Iran.

Stretching beyond the cherished cliches that want pre-Revolution Iranian women all in mini-skirt, modern, with high job positions and very active in society, Nina Ansary draws a more accurate picture based on facts and history, definitely more complicated than the overly simplified version of Western media like to feed their audience with.

The book is still biased, but Ansary does mention that the ban on the veil by the Reza Shah, the first Pahlavi king, was more of a damage in such a conservative society and that as a paradox, after the Islamic Revolution conservative families were more prone to let their women study as they could wear a headscarf and classes were not mixed.

The Fall of Heaven: The Pahlavis and the Final Days of Imperial Iran, by Andrew Scott Cooper

I haven’t read this book so I can’t really judge but after reading some reviews both from the media and other readers I included it on my personal list of books on Iran and thought I would still suggest it here, too.

Focused on the rise and fall of the last of Iran’s Shahs, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the book was written in collaboration with his third and last wife, Farah Diba, Iranian revolutionaries and some US officials from the Carter administration.

In The Fall of Heaven, Andrew Scott Cooper describes the personality, the life, and the dramatic last days of Pahlavi’s reign. The contribution of Empress Farah Diba tells us about life in the royal palace during the turbulent days of the Islamic Revolution, something I would love to read as it covers the human aspect we have always been kept far from.

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The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, by Jasmin Darznik

I just finished this book about Iran I recently bought and loved it. It’s the story of three generations of women spanning decades of Iran’s modern history from the latest shahs to the Islamic Revolution.

After the death of her father, the writer Jasmin Darznik finds what she thinks is the most unusual picture of her mother. Very young, she is standing beside a man that’s not her father wearing a wedding dress. She has many questions about this image, but her curiosity is met by a reserved and rather reticent reaction from her mother.

Not long passed when Darznik receives a tape her mother recorded to tell her the whole story. Starting from her great-grandmother Pargol, carrying on with her grandma Kobra, and finally, telling the story of her own mother, Lily, the book is a compelling narration of the condition of women in old Iran.

A series of arranged marriages where brides are often trade goods and hardly taken into consideration in their own life decisions. Lily was married off at 13 years old to an abusive older man from whom she had her daughter Sara, the good daughter this book refers to. Seizing the opportunity to free herself from that marriage, Lily ends up losing her daughter who is left with the husband’s family.

Even after years of studying abroad and successfully working as a midwife back in Iran, Lily will never manage to get her daughter back, not even once she’s a teenager and her mother enrolls her in one of the best schools in Tehran.

With the Islamic Revolution approaching and starting to shake Iran, Lily decides it’s time to leave Iran for good and moves to the US with her German husband and her daughter, the writer. It’s in the US that Darznik becomes an American girl and woman, often clashing with her mother who’s still clinging to Iranian customs and social mores.

Lily remains in touch with her good daughter in Iran, who is now a happy wife and mother, while Jasmin decides it’s not the case for her to go to her home country to trace her origins or meet her sister of whom she has some fading memories from when she was a toddler. At least not for now, but who knows, maybe she will change her mind and that would be yet another interesting book about Iran.

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10 of my favorite books on Iran to read before traveling to this beautiful country

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