What we have here is incompatibility between reader and book. Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn clearly aims at an entirely different demographic than this reader. I am definitely not the target audience, which seems to consist of those who are equally enthralled with partying and checking off historic sites.
On the positive side, Jamie Maslin writes travel stories, the best way to present travel memoir. He peoples these stories with a few interesting characters, although he tends to focus on people his own age, including westerners. All we learn about older Iranians (older than college age) is that they are either someone’s mother (who cooks fantastic meals), someone’s father (who is amazingly generous at picking up tabs), or an outspoken taxi driver. On the plus side, Maslin achieves his overall goal of humanizing Iran in the face of pretty universal demonization. And he writes humorously.
Finding a shared cab going to Masuleh was no drama but the drive there was, especially for some poor chap we saw riding toward us on a motorbike. He made the understandable mistake of trying to ride one-handed along a potholed road whilst carrying a tray of bread and wearing no crash helmet–as I’m sure we’ve all done from time to time.
On the other hand Maslin’s enthusiasm became alternately endearing and bothersome. A writer should not be equally enthusiastic for centuries-old sites and the novelty of whiskey in cans. He seems to bend over backwards to present a positive picture that will be at odds with mainstream thought about Iran. Yes, the people of Iran are hospitable, but that is not exactly shocking news. They are a desert people. Desert people have a strong culture of hospitality.
These tidbits of shallow understanding cast some doubt on the frequent ‘history lessons’ introduced into his experiences. Because his general tone does not convince the reader that he comes to the task with a deep understanding of history, footnotes might have been helpful. Whose version of history is he telling us? Particularly since the history he relates seems suspiciously slanted to his anti-war, anti-U.S. and British government views.
One of my problems, no doubt, is that I have read a lot about Iran in the last couple of years and that leads to comparisons. I much preferred the deeper understanding of culture and history brought to the subject by Hugh Pope in Dining With Al Qaeda. (You can read my review here.) If you have a chance, compare Maslin’s three paragraphs on the Hafez tomb in Shiraz–emphasis on the similarity of Hafez’ poetry to a modern band that he mocks throughout the book–to Pope’s chapter on Hafez and his analysis of how revealing it is of Iranian thought.
I also preferred the excellent Saved by Beauty by Roger Housden (You can read my review here.) Housden sets out, as Maslin does, to humanize Iran, but his narrative seems much more balanced to me, admitting deep problems in the society. Housden writes in depth about the life of Hafez, who it turns out was an outsider and a free spirit who resisted the Islamic ban on buying and drinking wine. Knowing those things would have served Maslin well as he compared Hafez to a German rock band. It also would have provided context to his discussions of the young people he had met in Iran.
On his way out of Iran, Housden tells us in Saved by Beauty, he was imprisoned, interrogated, and offered a deal to spy on the United States. Although I learned elsewhere that Maslin was banned from returning to Iran, he does not reveal that fact in Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn. Perhaps that is because the government ban does not fit with his view of the country as relentlessly welcoming?
Is it unfair to compare these three very different books? You have to decide for yourself which approach you prefer. Understanding people in other cultures–particularly the West understanding of Muslim countries–is critical for our global economy and for peace. Therefore, readers need to look for the most solid information they can find.
The golden age of travel writing (late 19th and 20th century) nurtured British travel writers richly schooled in the classics with historic references galore (sometimes annoyingly printed in the original Greek). Instead of classical references, contemporary British writer Jamie Maslin refers to recent comedy movies and fleetingly famous movie stars. Younger readers will get those references now, but ten years from now most readers will be saying, “Who?” Furthermore, his reading preparation for the trip consists of the Lonely Planet: Iran guidebook. (Love their guidebooks, but he might have looked at their suggested reading section before he plunged into the country.)
Which of these three books would you choose to read? Or if you have read one of these, or another book that helped you understand Iran, please tell us about it in the comment section below.
Note: A reader’s comment about tourism, prompted me to give you this link to learn more about tourism in Iran. For an attractive sales pitch on why it would be worthwhile to travel to Iran, visit their official tourism page. Like Syria and Libya, Iran is very high on my dream destinations list.
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