Tripping in Iran

Destination: Iran

Book: Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn: A Hitchhikers Adventures in the New Iran by Jamie Maslin

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.

Isfahan/ Jame Mosque/ Tile Works
James Mosque in Isfahan

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.

Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz, Fars in Iran
Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

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 pageLike Syria and Libya, Iran is very high on my dream destinations list.

Disclaimer: The publisher provided a review copy of this book, which obviously did not influence my opinion.  Links here to Amazon are affiliate links. That means that although it costs you nor more, when you shop through those links, you are supporting your favorite website–A Traveler’s Library thanks you.

The photos used in this article are from Flickr and are used with a Creative Commons license. Click on the photo to learn more about the photographer and see more of his/her work.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

11 thoughts on “Tripping in Iran

  1. From the sounds of it, I don’t think Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn would not be the book that I would choose to gain a deeper understanding of Iran’s people. However, I do understand writing for a specific age group since that’s what I do each and every day. While the book might not appeal to me, I’m sure it would appeal to a younger audience. If the author had referred to the classics rather than contemporary tv and music, would his 20-something audience have understood the references? Dining With Al Qaeda is the book I would choose to learn more about Iran. I’m putting it on my reading list today.

  2. I’m intrigued! I think I want to read the porn hitchhiker book. Going to see if we’ve got it at the library. Even though you didn’t like it, it sure sounds interesting…

    1. I love it when readers of A Traveler’s Library are independent thinkers. BTW, it is a very new book, so it may not be at the library yet, but I’m sure the author would appreciate your requesting that they buy it.

  3. I would not search out Iranian Rappers and Persian Porn, although the title sure is intriguing. Younger people may find the book worthwhile. I have no clue about Iranian tourism. Do that many tourists visit Iran? They are probably around 20, right? Perhaps this book is just right for them. I found the film “The Separation” enlightening. It really made me realize our government’s characterization of Iranians as evildoers only applies to the government.

    1. Alexandra: Your question about tourists in Iran sent me in search of statistics.
      I found a World Travel and Tourism numbers for 2004-2006 and it was about one million eight-hundred thousand per year International visitors. And that does not differentiate business travelers, religious pilgrims–which dominate the figures– or returning Iranians from tourists,.
      Of course it doesn’t help that most Western nations warn their citizens against traveling in Iran.
      I know that it is very difficult to get a visa, but I also know that every account I’ve read about travelers in Iran was very positive. I haven’t seen the film, Separation. Will try to get it.

      For an attractive sales pitch on why it would be worthwhile to travel to Iran, visit their official tourism page. (I’m going to add this to the main article).

  4. It wouldn’t be a book I would read either, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an audience, and if it introduces a young generation to this country, then that’s probably a good thing.

  5. You aren’t in the demographic for this one and neither, I suspect, am I. It sounds like a twenty-something slap-dash sort of affair that I would find tiresome.

  6. If you think Iranians are hospitable because they are “Desert People” then you have never been to Iran, read anything serious about its history or geography, or met any Iranians. I suggest for start with you look at Google Map and see the mountains including Zagros and Alborz ranges that cover over a third of the country, the Caspian Sea with its rain forests and the steps that supply Iran’s food & grain. Less than 10% of Iran is desert. Iranians are hospitable because they are of Zoroastrian tradition (look it up you may learn something). They may be Moslems now but The Islamic Republic of Iran still uses Zoroastrian calendar (Zodiac to the uninitiated), celebrates the New Year on 21st March (Spring Equinox – the Day of Ahura Mazda) and people still live by the Zoroastrian traditions deep routed in their culture. You need to read less Western propaganda and not be offended by anything that humanises Iranians. Here are a couple of good educational reading for you:

    A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind

    In Search of Zoroastra

    Good luck

    1. Thank you for the further thoughts on the hospitality, filling in the blanks of my short cut, “Desert people”. And thanks, also for the reading suggestions. But I think you go a bit too far in assuming I am “offended by anything that humanises Iranians.” If you will look at the books I have reviewed about Iran, I think you’ll see much praise for many books that introduce Iranians in a very friendly way, including the two I mention in this article, but also several written BY Iranians.

  7. Although I’m also not a party-while-you-tick-off-historic-sites kinda traveler, I don’t mind reading about people who are. So I’m intrigued by Maslin’s book and would probably pick it up at the library.
    It sounds like a lark.

    But the Hugh Pope looks intriguing for very different reasons.

    Perhaps the sign of true reconciliation with another country or culture is when we don’t feel that every book we read about them has to bring greater understanding about political conflicts. 🙂

    1. Wouldn’t it be nice, Pamela, if we could just assume there were no political conflicts? However, I think the deeper cultural differences (which even show up from region to region in the United States) continue to enrich and challenge the traveler. It’s a thin line between culture and political policy (which reflects at least some of the culture of a country), and I do think that a traveler is well served to understand as much as possible of the way things “work” so she can be a good guest.

      I guess my objection to books like this is that they are more about the youth culture of a Western nation (and the westernized youth the author encounters) than it is about the broader culture of the country. I’m still struggling with how to best express that.

      I’m so happy to have your comment, because in my articles I can only express one opinion–my own–and I depend on readers to chime in with different views.

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