A New Look into Iran

Mirrors of the Unseen    by Jason Elliot

Journeys in Iran

416 pp.,St. Martin's Press, 2006  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

      This travelogue about contemporary Iran reminds one of the fable of the elephant and the blind men. Six blind men (or men in complete darkness) grope about an elephant they cannot see--describing it, depending on the part they happen to touch, as resembling a tree (leg), wall (side), spear (tusk), rope (tail), snake (trunk) or fan (ear). So many different impressions, all from the same object! This fable originated in India and was also expressed in the poem "Elephant in a Dark Room" by the celebrated Iranian poet Rumi (1207-1273).

    In this case, Iran is the elephant: which is its true image? International politics paint it as part of an "axis of evil," it has sponsored a meeting that declared the Nazi holocaust a hoax, and its extremists once invaded the American embassy and subjected its workers to humiliating imprisonment--extremists of whom one is now Iran's president. Is that the real Iran? Or is it a peaceful country whose citizens welcome the stranger and openly complain to him (since he understands Farsi) about their ruling theocracy, declaring "life was better under the shah"?

    It is a theocracy ruled by Shi'a Islam whose people resent comparison to Shi'ite Iraqis--"we are Iranian, not Arabs." "Iranian" here may mean Persian from the south, Kurd from the west, Azeri from the north, Turkmen from the northeast or inhabitant of teeming Tehran, they all co-exist peacefully, proud of a joint identity. A Moslem nation where alcohol is widely consumed (even some opium), and where women walk unveiled and unescorted, and drive cars--even a few cabs. An ancient culture proud of its past, with particular attention to poetry, to the architecture of mosques, to decorative ceramics and to sumptuous gardens. Will the real Iran please identify itself?

    One thing is clear: Jason Elliot loves Iran, loves its arts and knows both its history and culture. He can cite its classical poets (including Rumi) and few things please him more than hearing his host complete from memory a rhyme he has started. Indeed, all too often he is distracted to follow some interesting side-path to wherever it may lead him, waxing lyrical about the abstract intertwining of geometry, vegetation and calligraphy in Iranian decorative art, or about domes and squinches he has observed. "Squinch," now there is a word for you: a scooped-out cube corner, filled by a curved surface like quarter of a dome. Was this design copied from nature? Elliot visits and re-visits a bat-infested cave, just to check out this point.

    Such side-trips will try the patience of some readers, and at one point, the author himself suggests skipping some 20 pages of musings on abstract Islamic art. But stay with him, there is more. What emerges resembles in some way the method used by mathematicians to map out solutions of problems much too complex for any general formula. Instead of seeking a formula, they find, by computer, solutions for a large selection of input variables. After a sufficient number of such random stabs is mapped, the pattern of the general solution may begin to emerge, and not surprisingly, this is known as the "Monte Carlo method".

    Likewise, this travelogue is best seen as a collection of vignettes, stitched together by history, personality, geography and pure chance. It may seem random, but after a while, a pattern begins to emerge--the identity of the elephant, if you will. Bear with the author when he digresses about the faith of Mithra, god of the Parthians (themselves a mystery of Iranian antiquity), or describes the fierce onslaught of the Mongols, as they overran Iran, murdered citizens by the thousand, looted and destroyed--until the local culture assimilated them. In the end they settled down to give the country a most peaceful and enlightened period; originally Buddhists (many with Christian Nestorian wives), they ultimately embraced Shi'a Islam. Even so, throughout almost all of its history, Iran remained tolerant to all religions. In the company of Elliot, visit Louise Firouz, an English woman who married an Iranian aristocrat and ended raising purebred horses in the northeast of Iran, even rescuing from the brink of extinction a local breed of miniature horses.

    Also meet artisans restoring ancient tile-work, and men banded together for athletic displays of brute strength, wildly swinging heavy cudgel pins in intricate patterns. Picnic in gardens with Iranian families, and travel the Iraq-Iran border, Kurdish territory where smuggling is a major industry. You wonder where you are, until your host points out a town at the foot of the mountains, in Iraq. See that? That is Halabja. That was where Saddam Hussein gassed 8000 Kurdish civilians during the Iraq-Iran war (which he started), because some time earlier, the Iranian army temporarily occupied Halabja, and Saddam felt the locals were too friendly to their occupiers.

    And what about the bearded mullahs, the lack of political freedom, the official militancy? They exist too, and as Louise made clear, serving time in prison is a rite of passage for many Iranians. Yet the same Iranians also agree that the worst thing America (or any foreign power) could do would be to invade Iran. It would unite the nation against the invaders and help prop up a discredited regime, one whose hypocrisy is despised by the young. Change has to come from within, they say. They still remember how Britain in 1941 deposed the first Shah, a true reformer, and how Kermit Roosevelt (son of Teddy) engineered in 1953 the overthrow of popularly elected premier Mossadegh, in response to his nationalization of oil resources.

    Will a gradual process work in today's fast changing world, or is time running out? Tough call. All one can say for sure is that here is a different view of the elephant, rewarding the reader with a better understanding of the country, of its people, its art, its rich history, its religion, culture, its diverse terrain and its place in today's world. An interesting place, indeed.

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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 30 January 2007