Attempting to understand a culture of today cannot be limited to just this generation or even the generation before that. To fully understand any culture, the researcher has to go back to the beginning and examine the history from that moment until today. In regard to the rich culture of Iran, William R. Polk attempts to do just that in his book, Understanding Iran: Everything You Need to Know, From Persia to the Islamic Republic, From Cyrus to Ahmadinejad.
Polk starts as far back as in history as possible for Iran. From there he discusses the cultural, ethnic, and national identity of being Iranian. It is not just a matter of descending from those that lived there for generations. It is not just claiming a home there. It is much more intricate. The book explores the history of rulers and the impact each new wave of leadership brought upon the people who lived in the region known now as Iran. The see-saw of strong ruler with that of weak ones kept the nation in turmoil and laid the foundation of much of the problems of today. The book dives further into the European influence, revolutionary veins, and the explosion of that revolutionary wave leading to a unique Iran of today with strained ties to the world around it.
The author sets out to understand the Iran of today by looking into the past starting with the original Persians. What most of the world knows about Iran is based on the struggles over the nation and the resources it possesses. Polk strove to get beyond the United States/Iran issue or the Britain/Iran issue and discover “what it means when we speak of Iran and Iranians.” He wanted to get to the heart of the people and culture.
Understanding Iran is a very comprehensive book that does not start during the Persian and Greek wars. It does not start with the end of World War I. It starts at the beginning to get a more complete picture of the subject at hand: Iran and its people. The fact that the book is so encompassing and looks beyond stereotypes makes it a valuable resource. Polk does an excellent job of taking all aspects of the Iranian world (culture, history, and political) and bringing into a logical and understandable kaleidoscope. He lays out clearly how Iran’s past is not something to be swept under the rug as it is “directly remembered by modern Iranians because it is being constantly reinforced” through its own cultural activities, its politics, and its interaction between the rest of the world.
As Polk desired to reveal more of the true Iran and everything that influenced what it has become today, the result was success. He states in an easy to read manner how Iran did not live in a bubble. The world within the boundaries and the world without had huge impacts on what one sees if they walked the streets of the Iranian cities and villages today. He clearly shows how the past is the present redefined and matured whether it is seen in a good or a bad light. There is no doubt what Iran is. Misconceptions are easily tossed aside as Polk examines the evidence in an objective and concise manner. The book could easily have been three times the size it was published at, but Polk wrote in a manner that was not lengthy yet to the point. He takes a country that “has had one of the world’s richest and most fascinating historical experiences” and gives the reader a glimpse into that past without having to spend weeks reading volumes of material.
The book is set up in a manner that can be read just to learn more and not as an academic manner. This is beneficial in encouraging the learning of the history and culture of Iran while not limiting it to those in the upper educational classrooms. It is also laid out for easy search if one is using it for academic purposes with a well laid out index and an extensive notes sections as well as bibliography. The book alone would make a valuable resource tool, but it also helps the eager learner to explore further than the book in their hands.
Missing from the book was any additional material in the form of maps, charts, or images. The book is not designed too much for the visual learner. The layout of the chapter is not broken out in sections with headings for easy reading retention or for research. Much is absent that would help enhance the book or bring about a more in depth learning. The visual reinforcement is not present in this book.