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`PERSIA' OFFERS GLIMPSE OF EXOTIC BUT MISUNDERSTOOD LAND

She was born a princess in the waning days of the Persian royal dynasties. Now 70 years old, the American-educated woman who brought Iran its first school of social work, looks back on her life and on her country.

"Daughter of Persia" is the autobiography of Sattareh Farman Farmaian. In a word, it is fascinating.Farmaian is in a particularly effective position to explain Iran in a way that Americans can understand. She's an insider and yet - partially because her family was disenfranchised and partially because was she was educated abroad - Farmaian is a fairly dispassionate observer.

Farmaian's mother was her father's third wife. They married when she was 12 and he in his 50s. Her father was quite radical in his belief that women should be educated. But he forbade her to go to college and set out to arrange a suitable marriage.

But she did go to college. She'd only eaten in a public restaurant once in her life and never had conversations with men outside her own family, yet Sattareh Farman Farmaian set off alone through India, during the middle of World War II, to try to make her way to America.There, she was the first Persian to study at the University of Southern California. After getting her master's degree in social work, she came back to her own country and began a 20-year battle against disease, poverty and ignorance.

Farmaian's lifetime straddles two worlds - ancient, tumultuous Persia and modern, tumultuous Iran.

Of her infancy she writes: My mother said that I was colicky and screamed for all of the nearly three weeks it took our caravan to [travel 150 milesT.

Of her later life, trying to operate her social work college and stay out of trouble with the shah's secret police, she writes: Four million of Tehran's five million inhabitants, most of them illiterate or barely educated and nearly all of them deeply disappointed in their visions of a better life in the city, now lived in South Tehran, where many dwelt in rat-infested hovels and worried about their children. These children had no place to play, often no schools to attend, and either went to work or got into mischief in the immoral city - a place full of shameless Western advertisements, cinemas, liquor stores, nightclubs, and discos where Moslem daughters wore clothes that left their limbs naked and strange boys and girls danced together publicly.

Worse days were to come for Farmaian and for the country she loved.

Through the straightforward narration of her own exciting life, Farmaian shows her readers how Americans have meddled in Iranian politics for decades.

We never understood the culture we were trying to influence. Farmaian makes that tragically clear, too. Reading "Daughter of Persia" gives us a chance, however belated, at understanding.