Faal-e Hafez.

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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.)

~

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The Persian boy.

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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.”

~

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Eating the Other.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Persian threading.

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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.

~

Follow my travels in Iran on Instagram.


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