4.5 out of 5 stars
The Iran we see portrayed on the TV is very different from the country and the people that inhabit it. They are a generous and warm people who are prepared to welcome visitors to their homeland and most importantly their homes to show generous hospitality to guests.
Elliot starts his journey in the back of a taxi leaving the airport that he had passed through with surprising efficiency. The driver asked him if he had been away long and was slightly surprised to find that this was Elliot’s first time in the country. He’d thought that he was Iranian…
As is the taxi drivers right, he is full of opinions of his city and how is was much better back in the day. A cigarette is passed forward, and he lights it while steering with his knees. Asked why he has come, he says that he is there to write a book. What is there to write about comes the question back, so he reels off a list of things that the Persian people have given humanity over time. The driver looks puzzled but shoves a tape into the slot on the dashboard. Listen he says and this wonderful, hypnotic music comes out of the speakers. He arrives at his hotel, pays the driver and tries to pass him the rest of the cigarettes, he refused to accept, until pressed a little more and then grudgingly accepts. The ritual of ta’arof has been performed once again. It is utterly different to Afghanistan, with no bullet holes in the buildings and he can just see a normal street from his modestly equipped room. It felt both surreal and yet normal.
It is a welcoming start to his travels in this most ancient of countries. He is there primarily to absorb the culture of the people and the places and has a particular fascination with the Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Isfahan and what he thinks is the glaring lack of alignment between the dome of the Sheikh Lutfullah Mosque and its entrance portal. This seeming lack of attention to detail that he had come to expect from the Persians piqued his curiosity and led him to a detailed investigation and trips back to the place to study it before it reveals its secrets to him.
The book is full of evocative scenes. When he is in the land of the Parthians and as the lamb kebabs are grilling over the open fire you can almost taste them yourself. He spends time with a young man called Zizou, who has taught himself about the history of the Iranian ancient sites, he refused to accept any money for the time spent, saying that the cost had been spent and shared with learning and knowledge. He spends time in the home of many people seeing just what they are like out of the glare of the religious police and spends many a night in some grubby hotel rooms, sharing the space with cockroaches and bathroom taps that spit like demented cobras. It didn’t matter if he was speaking to a plaster adding ornate touches to a domed ceiling or watching a tile-cutter teach his son the trade or sharing an opium pipe with an older man on a horse ranch.
The landscape pales, unfolding from the roadside in yellowing sheets which merge with the sky along a mirage-infused horizon. Moving against these desiccated expanses, one feels like a survivor, adrift without bearings.
His first book, An Unexpected Light about his travels in Afghanistan was so jaw-droppingly good that I had very high hopes for this one. And mostly this book didn’t disappoint. The way that he engages with the people that he encounters as he travels around the country is the best part of this book, he is sympathetic and tolerant of almost all, bar the one or two that see him, as a tourist and therefore a source of income. He has grown up too, there is not the wide-eyed joy that you got in the first book, rather he has taken the time and effort to find out about the places he is going to with the intention of bringing extra depth to the book. He has learnt the language so his passage through is easier he can bring those subtle nuances to life even more. It is a fascinating book about a wonderful country. The accompanying photos are excellent, in particular the one taken in Kurdestan. If you want to read more about Iran, I can also recommend Revolutionary Road by Lois Pryce for another amazing book.