Tag Archives: Isfahan

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.

Surprises in Iran

Books for Troubled Times in the Middle East

Saved by Beauty book coverDestination: Iran

Book: Saved by Beauty: Adventures of an American  Romantic in Iran (NEW May 2011) by Roger Housden

Roger Housden‘s Saved by Beauty combines an enticing travel guidebook with a philosophical memoir as he travels in Iran, seeking the beautiful culture he first fell in love with (at a distance) as a student.

If I am right, and poetry provides the key to Westerners understanding The Middle East, particularly Iran, then Roger Housden will be the perfect person to unlock that meaning.

Before visiting Iran, he wrote several books about poetry, including one about Rumi, a revered Iranian poets of the 13th century. So in 2007, about to turn 60, he sets off with Rumi in his pocket to find what he calls the other Iran.  What he finds confounds some of his prior assumptions about a deeply complex society.

The book has a chilling prologue in which police interrogate Housden about his real reasons for being in Iran. This scene sharply contrasts with the world he plunges into when he arrives in Iran.

This is a pilgrimage to ancient poets and contemporary artists–to the intellectual, expressive part of a culture that in America generally conjures up only forbidding images of the Ayatollah and “Kill all Americans” slogans.

Photo of Iran poet tomb
Tomb of Omar Khayyam from Find a Grave. Photo by Güner N. Akqün.

As he visits the ornate grave of Omar Khayyam, best known in the west for The Rubaiyat (verses) of Omar Khayyam, his guide points out, “We have no memorials to soldiers or generals…We have our poets and saints, and each of them has his story.”

We learn that Omar was much more than a poet. He was a philosopher, a scientist, a mathematician and an inventor.  Housden muses,

“…I asked myself why a one-thousand-year-old Omar should matter to us in the first decade or so of the twenty-first century.  Even if he was the Einstein of his time, there have been hundreds more bright stars since then. But it was not the sum of his particular achievements, impressive as they were, that moved me… His poetry and his science contribute to something greater still…”

Housden continues:

“The human spirit runs like a current down the line of the generations, binding us all in a rolling wave of continuous story.  In Iran, this sense of shared history is in the air, and people breathe it in as their daily bread.  It nourishes them in a way that we, in our transient and disposable culture, can barely begin to imagine.”

Housden’s biggest self-realization comes when he, who thinks of himself as apolitical–simply a seeker of understanding–realizes that there is no such thing as apolitical. “Art itself was a political act. The book I was writing, whether I saw it that way or not, was necessarily a political act.”

Despite the difficulties of travel to this country and a frightening episode referred to in the prologue, after reading Housden’s irresistible descriptions of Iran you may decide to travel to this amazing land.

Isfahan blue dome
Isfahan blue dome

Unlike many foreigners who never get outside of Tehran, he introduces Isfahan, a city of great beauty, with the blue domed mosque that called him to Iran to start out with– just one of many in the city. He goes to Shiraz, the city of roses and wine and the tomb of the poet Hafez. He visits the ruins of once great Persian cities, Pasargadae and Persepolis. He talks to people about Zoroastrianism, the religion founded by Zarathustra and Sufism,  Rumi’s religion, known in the west for mystical Dervishes.
The variety of religion and cultures and depth of history  is overwhelming and alluring. I could not help thinking throughout, however, that I was glad to read about some of his experiences that simply would not be possible for a woman–particularly a foreign woman.

I will leave it to you to discover how that interrogation turns out, because I would like to lure you into adding this lovely book to your traveler’s library.  Meanwhile, I’m off to gather some poetry by Hafez and Rumi to continue my Iranian journey.

You can see Roger Housden talking about his book in this book trailer at YouTube.

Disclaimer: Broadway Books/Random House provided me with an uncorrected review copy of this book. Photo of book cover is from publisher’s page. All others are from Flickr and you can find out more about the photographer by clicking on the picture.

NEWThe New York Times reviews Saved by Beauty in their summer reads, travel section. (and two other books that have been reviewed here.)

If you had an opportunity to travel to Iran, would you? If yes–what would you want to see? If not, what would stop you?