A thousand years of grief.

132883215_111n

Photo: a Muharram procession in Tehran. Source here.

~

I finished The Persian Boy in the courtyard of my guesthouse in Shiraz. For the last ten pages, I was crying pretty openly, while my tea got cold. Later Mohamad told me that his friends at the next table were shocked; but he knew me, and told them to just let me be. It couldn’t be helped. I’ve been in love with Alexander—and especially Renault’s creation of Alexander—since I first read The Persian Boy when I was seventeen.

But at seventeen, I hadn’t yet seen death. Now I have. And my mother died in a very similar way to Alexander, over a period of days, moving back and forth between this world and the next, with the many changes of breathing, first shallow and rattling, then sharp inhales, then deep sighs, and then, nothing more.

Outside the guesthouse, the funeral drums beat all night. It’s Muharram in Iran now, the ten-day commemoration of the death of the third imam Hossein and his family—including his six-month-old son—at the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD. During the day, you can see the funeral trappings parked by the side of the street—cages threaded with flowers and lights, banners of a baby wrapped in green, pennants colored black, with Farsi writing in neon pink and orange—and at night, men take up the enormous alam’ha, which resemble giant menorahs, each weighing four hundred kilograms, and carry them on their shoulders down the street with the funeral parade, only a minute at a time, with a retinue of spotters; followed by the drummers beating full moons, and the grids of men in black turning ninety degrees with every boom, lashing their backs with zanjir. The marches bring the entire city to a halt, stretching for ten kilometers or more. From the courtyard it sounded like a great black caterpillar of noise, drums and lamentations rippling up and down the city, sounding like ten tapes played backwards on a psychedelic Beatles track.

I went back to my room and messaged a friend in Pakistan. We wondered at so much grief for someone so long dead, and the specific burden carried by those who traced their lineage back to that family, and what the martyrs themselves would think of these displays of grief for their sake.

But then I thought my mother, thirteen years dead; and of Alexander, two thousand years dead, and how hard I cried for them, and I understood. It’s not for their sake at all.

~

Follow my travels in Iran on Instagram.


Faal-e Hafez.

IMG_6450

Photo: at the tomb of Hafez, the greatest Persian poet, in Shiraz.

~

First, I walked around the tomb seven times, and noticed that my breathing had become as slow and soft as if I were sleeping.

Then I ascended the stairs and touched my fingers to the tomb, as I’d seen Iranians do.

Then I sat down with my back to one of the pillars, asked a question in my mind, and opened The Divan of Hafez to a random page.

The question, I’ll keep to myself. But this was the answer:

Whoever holds a cup in hand
forever will rule over the land.
The Water of Life that Elias found
seek in the tavern where the cups stand.
The essence of soul, submit to the cup;
rules of the cup are in command.
We and the wine, pious and virtue—
let’s see which ones He will demand.
It is but a word from His lips
for he who has wished and planned.
Narcissus’s ways of drunkenness
were borrowed from His eye’s gland.
My heart pictures Your face and hair;
this prayer my day and night spanned.
It is the pain in the heart
who Your sweet lips understand.
Your features, Your goodness, O soul,
like HAFIZ, two hundred slaves command.

(Translated by Shahriar Shahriari.)

~

Follow my travels in Iran on Instagram.


The Persian boy.

IMG_6211

Photo: Mohamad and I reading in a coffee shop in Isfahan; Tolstoy for him, Renault for me.

~

I remembered pretty late in this trip that one of my favorite books of all time, The Persian Boy by Mary Renault, is set in present-day Iran. I was reminded when touring a palace in Kashan and thought, “This is the kind of place Bagoas grew up in.” So I sat down by a column and reread the first few pages. Now I can’t put it down, even though I know everything that happens.

Bagoas was the name of a eunuch of legendary beauty who became Alexander the Great’s lover, close friend, and confidante during his conquest of Persia. The book begins with Alexander being only a distant rumor that filters in through harem gossip in the court of Darius. But when Alexander defeats Darius in three successive battles, and Darius is murdered by his own men, Bagoas gives himself over to the Macedonians. Then begins one of the greatest love stories of all time.

As for Mary Renault…there aren’t many writers whose work I feel like I wouldn’t be capable of producing, but she’s one of them. Each sentence of hers is like a perfectly distilled crystal that dissolves and expands once you drop it in water. When I’m reading her, I forget to eat, because I feel so full.

Here Bagoas describes the character of Alexander:

“He needed love as a palm tree needs water, all his life long: from armies, from cities, from conquered enemies, nothing was enough. It laid him open to false friends, as anyone will tell you. Well, for all that, no man is made a god when he is dead and can do no harm, without love. He needed love and never forgave its betrayal, which he had no understanding of. For he himself, if it was given with a whole heart, never misused it, nor despised the giver. He took it gratefully, and felt bound by it. I should know.”

~

Follow my travels in Iran on Instagram.


Eating the Other.

IMG_5951

Photo: a cup of saffron ice cream on Heaven Street, Tehran.

~

There’s a famous essay of this name, by bell hooks, written in 1992. It describes the tendency of young white Americans both to consume other racial heritages and to seek out sexual encounters with other races as a means of personal transformation, i.e., just another reassertion of white dominance. I resisted reading it for a long time because I’d read the beginning and thought, “Well shit, this is what I do.”

In Tehran I went to House of the Artists, in the center of a beautiful sculpture garden in the middle of the city. There was an elegant restaurant where I ordered a latté served in a tulip glass. Later I wandered up and down the stairs, in and out of photography exhibits, in and out of an art opening, where the painter seemed to be explaining his work to fawning students; then up to a cinema where there seemed to be a grand film premiere, with the director posing for smartphone pics. I didn’t understand anything except by context, ambiance, and body language. But I was just manically, wordlessly happy, and had the very intense feeling that I needed to come back—to the House of the Artists, to Tehran, to Iran itself—because I have important things to learn here. Something about austerity and longing. Something about restraint and decadence. Something only a very ancient culture could teach me.

And then I think of bell hooks’s essay. I fear it explains my motivations completely. Am I just eating the Other, sampling cultures a la carte, unable to enact any social dynamic other than consumption? I want to argue with hooks and say, “Doesn’t everyone have their own agency?” And of course they do have full agency, but from within different spheres of privilege. Or I might say, “Am I not just as willing to be eaten as eat?” But again, of course that doesn’t mean the same thing, coming from me. I belong to the white American capitalist hegemony. There’s no risk of loss; except the continued constant one, of whites’ own humanity diminished by other races’ dehumanization.

The way travel feels to me is not that I’m eating a culture, but that I’m remembering it. Like segments of my genome are lighting up, or my cells are remembering other phases of being, the atoms themselves remembering all the paths they’ve taken before they became a part of my body, and maybe seeing all the paths they’ll take in the future. But in that formulation, there’s no regard for the Other, just myself and my feelings, Moreover, hooks describes it, too: “The [desired] message again is that ‘primitivism,’ though more apparent in the Other, also resides in the white self.”

I am a racist person, as we all are; products of a racist society. I crave absolution from bell hooks, of course, and permission to travel and seek contact with people different from me. But it’s not my place to ask that, and not her—or anyone else’s—place to give. So I have only my own counsel, and that of the individuals I meet. I hope it means something, at least, to understand the landscape. That it will help me to cause least harm in my travels, and even some good. I’m vividly aware of this in Iran, especially, a country that’s been so long estranged from my own.

In the essay, hooks hopes for a middle way:

“Mutual recognition of racism, its impact both on those who are dominated and those who dominate, is the only standpoint that makes possible an encounter between races that is not based on denial and fantasy. For it is the ever present reality of racist domination, of white supremacy, that renders problematic the desire of white people to have contact with the Other…whether or not desire for contact with the Other, for connection rooted in the longing for pleasure, can act as a critical intervention challenging and subverting racist domination, inviting and enabling critical resistance, is an unrealized political possibility…acknowledging ways the desire for pleasure, and that includes erotic longings, informs our politics, our understanding of difference, we may know better how desire disrupts, subverts, and makes resistance possible.”

That is a possibility I am trying to realize.

 


Courtyard lullaby.

IMG_6106

Photo: the courtyard at Sunrise Hotel, Isfahan, Iran.

~

We reached Isfahan after sunset. At our guesthouse, the rooms were arranged around a courtyard with a blue fountain and divans around the sides, where I settled with my book. Mohamad was there, talking with Nima, one of the staff, who kept us well-supplied with tea.

A traveling family came in late. First there was a big-boned paterfamilias who went straight to his room, turned on the lights, left the door open, and busied himself back and forth while his daughters, sons, and grandchildren fanned out into their rooms. When they’d come back out onto the divans, he emerged from his room with a silver tray of pomegranate eighths. He put one right in my hand. I resisted. He insisted. I took it, and then three more. The seeds were colors I’ve never seen before, yellow and orange and pink, along with the usual red. I ate them whole and tried not to drip juice on my Kindle screen.

All of a sudden, to my right, I heard singing. At first I thought it must be a recording. But I realized it was Nima. He’d been talking like a regular mortal just a minute before, but was now filling the whole courtyard with Hafez; his voice was so beautiful that it seemed impertinent, how good he was, how much of God he was channeling at once. At first I stared at my book trying to keep reading because part of me couldn’t believe this was happening, wanted to resist it, wanted to go on as before. I wasn’t prepared. But we never are.

~

Follow my travels in Iran on Instagram.


A catalogue of sacred places.

IMG_6072

Photo: overlooking the mountains near Abyaneh, the Red Village, Natanz District, Iran.

~
Somewhere in my mind I’m keeping track of all the sacred places to me in the world. It’s like drawing a star map of my inner geography. Iran is yielding so many new ones. I write them each down in my Moleskin.

 

—The wild apple orchard at the foot of Abyaneh.

—The walnut terraces across the valley from Kandovan.

—The stream by the ravine in the moonshadow of Alamut Mountain.

—The hidden crawlspace over Room #2 at Neghri Guesthouse in Kashan.

 

I keep them all in my heart, where I revisit them often.

~

Follow my travels in Iran on Instagram.


Flirting in translation.

DSC_0225

Photo: arm-wrestling my new friend Mohammad in the courtyard of Sunrise Hotel, Esfahan.

~
Four strapping young men came to Sunrise Hotel yesterday, where we’re staying in Esfahan. As soon as they put their bags in their room, one of them introduced himself as Mohammad from Mashhad (not to be confused with my guide, Mohamad from Tehran), and started asking me something about the Internet connectivity, since we both had iPhones. But we just didn’t have enough shared vocabulary for me to understand what he needed. However, he was very flirty, and we exchanged Instagram handles. When I got online again in the afternoon, he’d liked every single one of my selfies, going back a year.

That night I was reading on one of the divans in the courtyard, sitting next to a box of gaz (pistachio nougat) that I’d bought to share with anyone who came through. He came down from his room on the upper balcony and sat down next to me. He showed me he was using Google Translate, typed something in Farsi, and then hit the translate button. It said:

“with my lips I would like to download software ?you are stable”

I started laughing so hard that tears came out my eyes.

He retreated back up the steps to conference with his friends.

A few minutes later he leaned over the railing to invite me to come up to the upper balcony with the box of gaz. I said, No (nah in Farsi), I’m comfortable, you come back down here. So he did. And then I challenged him to arm-wrestle. His three friends, plus Mohamad, took up stations around us to record the event on all available media on their smartphones.

It ended in a draw.

~

Follow my travels in Iran on Instagram.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 189 other followers