Guests of the Ayatollah

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Mark Bowden, best known for his 1999 best seller Black Hawk Down, a chronicle of an ill-fated encounter between American soldiers and Muslim militants in Somalia, turns his attention to the 1979 Iran hostage crisis in Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam. A journalist with many years’ experience, Bowden worked for over five years to gather an impressive number of interviews with those closely involved in the crisis. He also spent a significant amount of time in Iran doing research and interviews. The resulting book is thus comprehensive in its reporting of the events leading up to the embassy takeover and keenly insightful in its analysis of the long-ranging implications of the crisis.

Bowden opens his story on November 4, 1979, in Tehran. It was a turbulent time in the city; the shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, long associated with the United States, had fled Iran some six months earlier in the wake of a religious revolution against his repressive regime. The return from exile of Ayatollah Imam Ruhollah Khomeini further fanned the revolutionary zeal of his followers. There had been demonstrations and some violence in front of the U.S. embassy for weeks. However, none of the Americans stationed at the embassy nor their political counterparts at home in Washington viewed the situation as particularly volatile. The political situation was nevertheless far more complicated and fraught with peril than the Americans realized. Various factions within Iranian society were vying for control, including the provisional government put into place on the shah’s departure and the forces aligning themselves behind religious leaders like Khomeini.

When the U.S. government, under the leadership of President Jimmy Carter, gave permission for the shah to enter the United States for treatment of cancer, the situation in Tehran deteriorated rapidly. Still, on the morning of November 4, the embassy staff and its support personnel regarded the crowd gathering outside the walls as nothing more than protestors, a sight to which they had all grown accustomed. Bowden, by alternating scenes from the perspective of the embassy staff with those from the “student” militants, allows readers to see for themselves how quickly the demonstrations shifted from a desire for a sit-in to a full-scale hostage event.

With a light rain falling, the young militants, calling themselves “students following the imam’s line,” pushed through the barriers and took control of the embassy. What they expected to be a three-day demonstration, however, turned into a 444-day ordealfor the hostages, the hostage takers, Carter’s administration, and the American public.

At its best, Guests of the Ayatollah allows readers to enter the world of the hostages as they are kept isolated and separated through the early dark days of their imprisonment. Bowden captures both the fear and boredom that permeated their daily lives. One of the most poignant stories is that of twenty-eight-year-old Vice Consul Richard Queen, who began to lose the feeling in his left arm shortly after his capture. Throughout the story, his mysterious illness grew worse, until he was unable to hold a cup of tea in his hand or stand without vomiting. Queen was finally released and sent home when his illness became too difficult for the hostage takers to manage, and he was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

The life of chargé d’affaires Bruce Laingen also provides a surreal vignette. At the time of the embassy takeover, he and two of his coworkers were at the Iranian foreign ministry. Although they were not technically hostages, they found themselves stranded in the ministry. Bowden describes them asvagabond emissaries to a government that did not exist. . . . They had not been directly forbidden to leave for a friendly embassy, but even if they were not stopped on their way out, the practical problems were considerable. Any embassy that accepted them would itself become a target for these fanatics.

Thus, Laingen and his colleagues “slept on sofas in the ministry’s long and narrow formal dining room and...

(The entire section is 1708 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 4)

Booklist 102, no. 13 (March 1, 2006): 42.

The Economist 379 (May 13, 2006): 93-94.

Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 6 (March 15, 2006): 270-271.

Library Journal 131, no. 7 (April 15, 2006): 89.

National Review 58, no. 14 (August 7, 2006): 45-47.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (May 14, 2006): 30.

Newsday, June 11, 2006, p. C27.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 16 (April 17, 2006): 174.

Time 167, no. 22 (May 29, 2006): 68-69.

The Wall Street Journal 247, no. 100 (April 29, 2006): P10.

The Washington Times, May 28, 2006, p. B8.