I finished reading a remarkable book about Iran, written by an Anglo-American poet, a devotee of Rumi - the Islamic mystic, the author writes with the sensitivities of a first class travel writer, with the appropriate background on politics and history, alive to the ironies encountered in his travels while delving in the strange and exotic events, reminding one of writers like Rory Stewart and those upper class Englishmen who roam the world and write elegant accounts of their adventures. I supplemented my reading by looking at YouTube videos about the places the writer visited like Tehran, Isfahan, Nishpur, Yadz and Qom, and watching events attended by the writer like whirling dervishes, muharram and other solemn Islamic singing and dancing events that commemorate the martyrdom of the Shiite leader, bringing one towards a deeper understanding of Iran and the greater Islamic world. Learning by multimedia leaves one with images in the mind, the book’s words lost with the visual reality, as if one has done the travels himself, seeing the actual scenes instead of visualizing from the pages of the book, less imagination is needed by the mind.
I had visited Islamic sites in India like Fatepur Sikri, the great deserted city in the plains that ran out of water, near the city of Agra, built by a Mogul emperor, descendants of rulers from the Middle East, following the Persian architectural principles with their gardens and water pools, precise in their geometric lines, also recalling the immense courtyard of the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi as well as the majestic columns and platforms in the Red forts of Agra and Delhi and the other ancient forts scattered in the city with their architectural lines claiming lineage from Persian roots. The wide open boulevards of the city of Isfahan, the Imam square, the bridge across the river, the bazaar, one clearly sees the majestic history of the ancient city, one gets the same feeling in the gardens and lakes of Beijing, symbols of an imperial past long lost in time. I saw these places first hand in Beijing and Delhi but glimpsed Iran from videos in the Internet, accompanied by words from a book, delving into the inner life of Persian poets and the modern day politics of Islam.
Iranians, who the author met in his travels, talk about Iran before the Islamic conquest, citing writers like Ferdowsi – the author of the Persian epic ‘Shanameh’, or more enlightened Islamic thinkers like Hafez, Omar Khayyam and Rumi the mystic, as the true image of Iran and not the severe Ayatollahs that rule today, writers one has read in the books of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk in his great books ‘My Name is Red’ and ‘Snow’, writing also that the Sufi mystical tradition is the only bulwark preventing Pakistan from succumbing into a fundamentalist Islamic state like Iran, showing another face that one has deemed lost in the wars of the Middle East, a face of elegance, beauty, tolerance and enlightenment. The writer had difficulties leaving Iran, accused of being a Western spy, notably after visiting places like Kurdistan and meeting artists and other well-known people like directors and painters, some notable critics of the regime, indeed working like a spy under the guise of being a poet, now that’s a novelty, meeting with the English ambassador, having dinner in his elegant residence, with echoes of their own imperial past, the colonial masters of continents now sovereign, Britannia no longer ruling the waves.
The writer has a strange pedigree, an English poet who worked on newspapers like ‘The Guardian’ and BBC, writing popular books on poetry, accepting American citizenships and living in the San Francisco Bay Area, travelling the world especially the Middle East with his avowed love of Rumi, going to America to help the Obama campaign in Ohio, returning to see the inauguration and feeling the anticipation for change, finally travelling to Iran to visit the fabled city of Isfahan to see the blue tiles covering the domes of ancient mosques, an image seen in a dream. The thesis of his book is that the harsh fundamentalism of Islam will be saved by the beauty of Iran’s past, perhaps a separation of church and state, as in the secular countries of Turkey and Egypt, countries with a rich ancient history, alluding to the role of Sufism in preventing Pakistan fall into fundamentalism, an insight by the writer William Dalrymple, hoping for change in the same vein as the election of the new American president. A year or so later, the Arab spring erupts with the fall of the entrenched leaders in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen, with increasing protests in Syria, Bahrain and Iran, the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan and the coming pullout of foreign troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, times are a’ changing baby as someone said, the openness heralded by news services like Al Jazeera based in Qatar.
Initially one was skeptical about the book, thinking it was some mushy romantic trip back to ancient Persia, but strangely has aspects of fine travel writing and insights into politics and religion, lacking in fact the usual poetic sensibilities despite frequent quotes from mystical poets, instead a raw insight into modern day Iran, but perhaps the YouTube videos were the real gems, placing value on a trivial book. The book was the highlight of the thanksgiving weekend, filled with great movies like Kurosawa’s ‘Kagemusha’, viewed with audio commentary, providing an unknown detail into Japanese history, refreshing the mind like a tonic, amidst tasks like smoking a turkey, injected beforehand with a spicy marinade, shopping on ‘Black Friday’, purchasing furniture at a discount with free shipping, delving into picture books and magazines, one’s thoughts flying again while keeping the mind lubricated with the usual drinks, going to the gym to swim and run, missing sleep by sleeping late, aware that the deficit will hit you one day but who cares, lost in the subject of the moment, unfocused and missing real goals, perhaps like the book’s title, hoping to be saved by beauty.