Eating the Other.


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.


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.


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A catalogue of sacred places.


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.


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Flirting in translation.


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.


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Persian threading.


Photo: channels of natural spring water in the ancient poolhouse at Bagh-e Fin, Kashan, Iran.


Babak has a friend, Somayeh Hasalou, who’s a journalist for the Iranian Student News Agency. She contacted us to arrange an interview and, given that I also wanted to get my eyebrows threaded (it was Way Past Time), she first took me first to a salon with her friend Azadeh. We went to a nondescript white building on a side alley, took an elevator to the fourth floor, and opened a door.

Immediately there was a ten-degree difference in temperature. It was so warm. Everyone’s headscarves were pulled down or nowhere to be seen. A woman behind the desk smiled at me like she was trying not to laugh. A little girl, one of the beauticians’ daughters, ran from room to room and asking very-adult-sounding questions. Already I was laughing with them, with Somayeh and Azadeh, teasing, being teased, feeling giddy, as if I were drunk. I forget what it’s like to be with women until I’m with them again. And then I realize that I’ve been holding my breath, somehow.

The rules governing public appearance are more stringent in Iran than they are in much of the U. S. The most obvious manifestation of that is mandatory head covering for women. (I’m told that public policing of hejab is way down in recent years, and especially since the last election—as I write this at House of the Artists in Tehran, a woman lifts her thin magenta scarf to adjust it, showing her whole head of hair.) However, men are generally expected to cover up, too.

I remembered what my conductor friend Dave once said: that all music is about tension and release. Maybe even all art. And part of me can understand the appeal of a dress code. It forces you to be creative. It makes you wait. It creates desire. In the salon, it felt so good to see other women’s hair, I wanted to cry.

I told Azadeh about how my Muslim friends at Wellesley had educated me about how it was their choice to wear hejab. Azadeh was quick to point out to me that it wasn’t a choice in Iran; it was mandatory. So as always: the rhythm of tension-and-release loses its joy when controlled by men.

But because women are human, they may be stripped of rights, but never of agency. They find ingenious ways to survive the system. Like creating spaces like the salon. It was so warm, bright, loud, and intimate. I reclined in the barber’s chair and studied the pattern of red poppies on the wall while she worked on me. I loved just the feel of her stomach pressing against my shoulder and the smell of her breath in my face. She threaded me till I bled.

Once out of the salon, Somayeh took me by the hand, which gave me a lump in my throat, because it’s such an intimate gesture in the States but so matter-of-fact here, and she led me up, up, up the street and then down, down, down into an underground café where we ordered cold saffron tea. Then she opened her notebook and leaned toward me.


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In the tomb of the poets.

tomb of poets

Photo: Mausoleum of Poets in Tabriz, Iran.


Mohamad gets a text from Hafez every day. Or rather, he’s subscribed to a service that sends him a verse every day by SMS. He got his daily bread once when we were high up in the stone-carved village of Kandovan, on a ledge overlooking the valley and the walnut terraces and the fog on the mountains beyond, and he read it to me. He’s a wonderful reader.

Our third day in Tabriz, we went to the Mausoleum of Poets. Four hundred great Persian scholars are buried or otherwise commemorated there (many of the tombs were lost in earthquakes). It’s a palatial marble room shaped like a star, each spoke a separate wing, with portraits of poets and samples of their verses, and a voice reciting overhead.

I asked Mohamad to leave me alone a little so I could pray. I do this a lot when I travel—if I’m in a holy place, either in the spiritual or creative sense, a cave or church or shrine or temple or ruins thereof, I spend some time talking to the presences that are there, and asking them for their help in my work.

So I found a corner and knelt and closed my eyes and the first thing that came out was, as I knew it would be, fury.

“Why? Shahriyar, Khaqani, Anvari, Asadi Tusi—why is every single face in this mausoleum of a man? Do you know how that makes me feel? Not inspired. Invisible. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Why are your voices the only ones that are heard? How many women did you silence during your time on earth? Or what women did you allowed to be silenced? How can it have remained this way for two thousand years? Why are we always the object and never the poet? I’m fucking tired of being the beloved. I want to be the lover. You owe me your help.”

And the part of me that is them answered, “Yes, we understand, we do, and we will be with you.”

Only then could we proceed.


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Alone, together.


Photo: Babak taking a picture of Parviz in Andabad, a village in northwestern Iran.


If I have any choice in the matter, I rarely travel with guides. I like solitude. I also like learning things for myself, in my own roundabout and impressionistic way. But there was no other option for me to travel in Iran. American tourists are watched closely for obvious reasons, and in fact, there are only a hundred guides in the country (out of four thousand) who are licensed to accompany Americans. I felt absurdly privileged to be allowed to travel to Iran in the first place, so I accepted whatever terms they gave me.

A friend of a friend, Babak Kianpour, arranged my whole trip; he’s with us for these first few days. My guide is Mohamad Shirkavand, a young engineer just out of “uni.” Our driver is Parviz Sabery, a retired teacher of literature. They are all wonderful: kind, respectful, and good-humored.

When I travel alone, I’m in charge of my lodging, schedule, food, itinerary, everything. But in this case I don’t have to be in charge of anything. It feels really nice, for a change. I feel so taken-care-of, like a baby princess. We drive and drive and drive in the cold mountains in northwestern Iran, and I’m content to sit at the window and watch the endless Forms pass, hill after hill, gully after gully, village after village, shaggy brown sheep and green torches, boxes of bees on the cliffs, women in black chadors, men in argyle sweaters. We stop for hot tea and biscuits at an overlook. We get back in the car, cheeks burned by the wind. Mohamad, Babak, and Parviz have long impassioned conversations in Farsi, of which I understand maybe five words, so in a very real way I have my solitude after all, and the rhythm of their talk becomes a sort of lullaby to me, a soundtrack to the endless Forms; and in my still-jetlagged state, I nod off, and when I come to, I realize that they’ve all gone quiet for me.


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