The personal experiences De Bellaigue recounts include visits to affluent and poor areas of Tehran, to Isfahan and Qom, and to what were front-line areas during the Iraq war. He takes part in the festivals of Karbala and Ashura and penetrates the sometimes shady world of weight-training clubs in south Tehran. He meets with and in some cases befriends a range of Iranians: a cleric who started his career with religious thuggery at school and service in the basij militia, a Revolutionary Guard, a woman attempting to obtain justice for parents killed by the security services, and many others. And in a few places he analyses characters from fictional works: Makhmalbof's film The Wedding of the Blessed and the novel Soo va Shoon, about life in Iran under British and Russian occupation.
Mixed in with this are often quite lengthy explanations of background history and politics: the Revolution, the war against Iraq, the Iran-Contra affair from an Iranian perspective, the career of general Hossein Kharrazi, the succession to Khomeini and the power struggles within the clerical elite, and so forth. There are also reflections on changes in Iranian society, in particular the loss of revolutionary zeal and the reestablishment of traditional class differences (De Bellaigue includes for comparison some of George Orwell's descriptions of declining fervor in revolutionary Barcelona).
In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs is an involving read and contains some fascinating material, but it is often frustrating. The historical exposition is done piecemeal and is based on a limited range of secondary sources (there's a small bibliography), offering only a little for someone who has read longer newspaper and magazine pieces on Iran. The personal material is much more interesting, but it is always heavily filtered and interpreted. De Bellaigue doesn't claim too prominent a part for himself — he is if anything too self-effacing — but he tries to smooth over the less pleasant or more awkward parts of his interlocutors' lives and beliefs and he never allows them to talk for themselves. Until we get an oral history of Iran and the Iran-Iraq War of the quality of Ronald Fraser's work on Spain, however, there's little competition in this area.