Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran

Amir Taheri, Asharq Alawsat:
Book Review

When he embarked on his journeys to Iran three years ago, Jason Elliot was vaguely hoping to re-live part of the experience of the English traveler Robert Byron as narrated in his 1933 classic “The Road to Oxiana”.

The result of that quest is “Mirrors of The Unseen” which although focused on Iran is also about the death of the kind of travel writing of which Byron was one popular example.

Drawing a parallel between his experience and that of Byron, Elliot shows how the world has changed. Byron came from a Western civilisation that was self-assured, not to say arrogant, and was looking for the unusual and the exotic, which he found aplenty. He ran into colourful characters representing the “mysterious Orient” and illustrating the truth of Kipling’s aphorism that East and West shall never meet. Elliot by contrast comes from a civilisation ridden by self-doubt, not to say self-loathing. At a hotel in Isfahan Elliot runs into a group of European women and finds them loud, graceless and aggressive- “like navvies”- because they behave as if they were equals of men. A generation earlier, Elliot might have been a backpacker on the road to Katmandu via Kabul. READ MORE

Elliot says he was pursuing a dream of smoking a hubble-bubble with a native in Isfahan, something he could have done in any of the oriental teahouses on Edgware Road in London. As he moves through Iran the shocking truth dawns on him that the country he had dreamt of does not exist. Iran today is a largely Westernised society with the same ugly concrete buildings, pizza parlours, hamburger joints, traffic jams, mobile telephones, and Chinese-made T-shirts and shoes everywhere. True, women are draped in the Hijab and many men sport designer stubbles. However, these are mere props for a people who seem to be too enamoured of the “decadent West” for Elliot’s taste.

On occasions, Elliot tries to defend the Islamic revolution against Iranian interlocutors who want none of it. He is shocked that Iranians prefer to talk of money, fast cars, sex, plastic surgery, foreign travel and whisky and, in most cases, even dream of one day immigrating to the land of the “Infidel.

As a sign of respect for the “natives” Elliot grows a beard, dresses as an Islamist proletarian and, initially, rejects offers of alcoholic drinks. Soon, however, he finds out that people avoid him precisely because he looks “Islamic”. He shaves, dresses in a normal way, accepts drinks, and is, once again, popular.

Elliot encounters no dancing girls to hypnotise him, no snake charmers, no fortune tellers, no mysterious sheikhs, no hashish dens, no camel caravans, and no djins dressed as princesses. Instead, he runs into extra-sharp businessmen, double nationals who live part of the year in California, young ladies who turn out to be engineers or business managers, a young man who designs equipment for underwater warfare, a professor of forensics returning from seminars in Europe, a married lady who has the audacity to invite Elliot for a ride in her ultra fast car, a dowager of American origin who breeds horses and is an atrocious name-dropper worthy of Hello magazine, and horror of horrors, Iranians who have traveled more widely in the five continents than the Englishman could dream of. At one point Elliot complains that it was he “who should do the traveling” not those cheeky natives!

At times the cast of characters Elliot portrays is no different from ones he might have encountered on a train to Birmingham or in a pub in Hackney, except for the physical setting and the better Iranian weather.

In the end it is Elliot who ends up as the exotic item for wealthy Iranians who invite him to lavish dinner parties, with Filipino “slaves in attendance, and, at times, present him as “the grandson of the famous English novelist George Elliot.”

Almost all Iranians he encounters tell him that “This government has killed Islam”, and that” there is nothing Islamic about Iran.”

In Kermanshah he is asked by an hotelier why he had made the trip. Elliot replies: for the culture. The hotelier becomes incandescent: “Culture? There is no Iranian culture” Not in Iran. It is in New York, Paris, London…. Look outside at the street: what do you see? Poverty, misery, drugs-and everyone lying and cheating…. That is the only culture you’ll have here.”

Elliot is disappointed: Where is the spirituality, the disdain for this transient world, the goddamned mystery of the “ancient East”?

Desperately, he tries to find this in classical Persian poetry and gets himself tangled in a cobweb of ultimately empty speculation about “Islamic art”, whatever that means.

To compensate for the disappointing present he clings to a wildly romanticised account of the past. He tells us that almost anything that is worthwhile in human civilisation came from Iran and that Christianity itself is a poor copy of the ancient Persian cult of Mithra, the Sun God.

As an Iranian I should feel flattered. I don’t because Elliot’s account is inexact and ultimately insulting. If the Persians did all that he says they did then, their heirs, including my humble self, must be exceptionally stupid to have created the mess of poverty, despotism, corruption, and cynicism that he so accurately describes in Iran today.

It is not clear what the word “Unseen” in the title of the book actually means. Is it a reference to countless major monuments that Elliot decided not to visit, although in most case he was just a few hundred metres from them? For example, how could anyone go to Isfahan and not visit Haroun-Velat or to Shiraz and skip Shah-Cheragh and the Safarid mosque, the oldest in Iran, or to Hamadan and skip the mausoleum of Esther and Mordecai? He also went to Yazd but did not bother to visit the world’s oldest fire temple and Chahchaku, the “holiest” spot for the Zarathustrans. He goes to Natanz, the centre of Iran’s controversial nuclear project, and makes no mention of it. Visiting almost every major carpet-weaving centre in Iran, Elliot does not bother to have a look at a single workshop to see how it is done or to devote a paragraph to those exquisite works of Persian craft. The list of places he missed could go on and on.

Elliot says he is passionate about architecture. But, when in Tehran, he does not bother to visit Oud-Lajan, the city’s oldest “quartier” or the suburb of Rey with a plurimillenial history, or the shrine of Bibi-Shahrbanu.

Elliot’s book suffers from poor editing and poorer fact-checking.

The Caspian, for example, is an inland sea not an “ocean”. Ctesiphon was the capital of the Sassanids not “the capitol (sic) of the Parthians”. The 25th centenary of the Persian Empire was celebrated in 1971 not 1975. Rustam was not a “Sassanian (sic) king” but the hero of Ferdowsi’s epic“Shahnameh (Book of Kings). There is no “Hide Park” in London. The poets Saadi and Nizami were anything but “mystics”. Sepah does not mean “cavalry” but “army corps”. Alexander the Great’s sacking of Persepolis was not part of the “ crusades”. Darius the Great was not a grandson of Cyrus the Great but a distant relation. Iranian territory covers 1,648000 square kilometers not 600,000. Kay Khosrow and Kay Qobad were not Sassanid kings but monarchs from the mythical Pishdadi dynasty. The animal Elliot hunted in the Turcoman plain was a wild boar not a pig which Muslims regard as “unclean”. Richard Helms was CIA Director before becoming Ambassador to Tehran not after. Tekkyeh is not a Sufi centre but a place for mourning the martyrs of Karbala. Taj is not “the hero of Shahnameh” it only means “crown.” The oldest church in Iran is not Saint Mary in Urumia but Saint Thaddeus in Maku (1st century AD). Esther was not the queen of Xerxes but of his son Arthaxerxes. Iran never bought “submarines by the dozens from the Americans” under the Shah. In fact, Iran has just two submarines, bought from the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The Persian greeting is “Salaam” not the Hebrew “Shalom” as Elliot was offering people he met in Iran. (One wonders what their reaction was!) The Tehran Railway Station is not an example of “Soviet architecture” but was built by a Danish company in the 1930s.

Elliot says he had decided to “give politics a wide berth” when writing about Iran. But his book is a dramatic political portrayal of Iran today.

He writes “I had a feeling that I had learned nearly nothing meaningful about the country I had come to explore, and certainly not enough worth writing a book about.”

But Elliot is wrong for two reasons.

First he discovered a great deal about Iran, only not what he had set out to discover. His conclusion that Iran is full of resentment and “simmering like Vesuvius” is amply demonstrated.

Secondly, all travel writers ultimately write about themselves and the way their culture sees “the other. And Elliot has done a good job of showing that the English need a new kind of travel writing in which the “other” is not typecast, and ultimately patronised, which was what Byron had done. I enjoyed reading Byron not because I learned anything about Iran from him but because, by writing about Iran, he taught me a great deal about the English towards the end of their empire. In the same way by reading Elliot one learns much about the British today, their insecurities, guilty consciences , and what, to sue a pompous phrase favoured by the French, “ crisis of identity.”

Incidentally, the book is worth its price for one of the many photos it offers. This shows a shopwindow in Tabriz. And guess what you see? Several posters of the Prophet Muhammad, and “saints” of Shi'ite Islam, all on sale. Remember the recent cartoon controversy?