Author leads us past the rhetoric and deep into Iran
Immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, I hurried to the bookstore, hungry for information about Islam, the Middle East, Afghanistan, the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Who were these wicked people? Where were they coming from?
Others had apparently scoured the shelves ahead of me and there was only one copy of one book on the region left: An Unexpected Light, by British author Jason Elliot.
I doubted that a travelogue was what I was seeking, but bought it anyway. That turned out to be one of the most fortuitous book purchases I have ever made.
As the chaos and angry talk escalated over the coming days, I became consumed by the young man’s account of life among the people of Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.
Through Elliot’s eyes, I began to appreciate the awesome gulf that stretched between the parasitic terrorists hiding in the badlands of Afghanistan and the other people who endured, worked, loved, worshipped and suffered there.
I gleaned some sense of the complexity of the task facing the US and its allies, when I learned that theocratic fascists called the Taliban were derided as “Americans” by the people they attempted to rule.
That was because of the US support the Taliban had enjoyed while they were fighting the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
It became clear that the West risked disaster if it couldn’t figure out, and quickly, who the enemy is — or enemies are — in 21st-century Afghanistan.
An Unexpected Light originally came out in 1999. Eight years on, Elliot has released his second book, one about the people, history and cultures of Iran.
Meanwhile, the anti-Iran rhetoric of the White House and the anti-American rhetoric of Tehran are boiling over. No one would be surprised to wake up one day to news of an American invasion, of yet another misunderstood people in a developing nation ruled by thugs.
Both of Elliot’s books are worthy attempts to take us beyond the pundit babble, the propaganda, the shallow TV images, and enduring preconceptions — and Elliot’s attempts would succeed, if more of us bothered to read.
“There is nothing like writing a book about another country to extend the frontiers of one’s ignorance,” writes Elliot. At least he was more than willing to have his frontiers extended, and, not surprisingly, this was done in increments — not in a blinding flash:
“We lounged in the grass, eating ice cream. Ramin asked why I wore a beard. I confessed I preferred life without one, but that I’d let it grow in order to look less conspicuous while I was in Iran. It had worked in Afghanistan.
“He chuckled at my naivety. ‘Haven’t you noticed?’ he asked. ‘Only fanatics and people who work for the government wear beards.’”
Over the course of his travels in the country, Elliot kept encountering examples of the huge chasm that separates Iranians, especially the young — and demographically it is a very young country – from the dour, oppressive and hugely unpopular rulers.
The young people, especially “hated the reputation that the regime had given their country.”
One disheartened elder declared: “There was nothing ‘Islamic’ about the revolution, if that’s what you’re thinking. Look at the proof! Now that we actually have an Islamic government, nobody wants anything to do with religion. This government has killed Islam. There is no religious feeling among the young … this is the saddest thing of all.’”
Of course, if one ignores the example of Iraq (among other places), it might be possible to imagine that the Iranians would welcome US soldiers, the toppling of hypocritical religious dictators, and the imposition of ‘democracy.’
“It has to happen at the right speed,” one Iranian warned Elliot. “It’ll happen, but not from the outside. That’s what Americans never understand.”
Another Iranian commented on the possible, perhaps probable, US invasion.
“If they force, will be worse. Much worse. Extremists will have the right to do anything — the lowest people… For this all fanatic will love America.
“What American can not understand — Iran is a democracy. Not like West, but democracy. For sure is more democratic than time of Shah.”
Nothing would bring the people together in support of their unpopular leaders more effectively than an attack from outside. The leaders know this, hence the threats, the nuclear posturing, the goading of America.
Elliot recalls the time of the Shah: a venal, corrupt and brutal dictator supported by the oil-mad West.
“The quadrupling of oil prices in the mid-1970s brought billions into the treasury, and huge sums were spent on American military equipment. Resentment was widespread. The number of American advisers and military personnel in the country grew to over twenty-five thousand; American teenagers rode their motorcycles through the courtyards of the Royal Mosque of Isfahan….”
Americans aren’t tops on the average Iranian’s list of potential saviours.
With the current state of suspicion and hostility between Iran and the West, it’s all-too-easy to become carried away with the political strife, and to neglect another, more important, and more enduring facet of Iran — its art.
That’s, in part, what Elliot’s title, Mirrors of the Unseen, refers to.
While discovering a case for not conflating Iranians with repressive government, Elliot also attempts to find a path that leads beyond some stereotypical notions about Islamic art.
One of the most enduring of these is that the abstract designs in so much of the visual art is a slavish response to religious proscriptions against recreating the human image.
While the more-ignorant of Westerners tend to think of Iranians as just a bunch of Muslim fanatics, Western scholars tend to reduce Islamic art to mere decoration: masterful, beautiful, but not fully art.
“The abundance and vitality of nature is nearly everywhere in Islamic art, and in Persian art is nearly overwhelming; though reading about Islamic art you never get this impression. This, I think, is worth repeating,” writes Elliot.
“The tendency is to reduce the almost primordial presence of nature’s pulse to the exigencies of mere design and hugely undermines its significance.”
At one point, in a footnote, the author admits, “We are already swimming in detail here,” and the reader nods.
A word of caution: At first the barrage of names, of styles and techniques, of locations can be almost overwhelming.
But as with all of the best writing, perseverance yields many rewards. Eventually, the reader will become as intoxicated by the humble seeking and enlightened creations of Islamic architects and poets as Elliot is.
Meanwhile, this is a travel book. Along with glimpses of Iranian zeitgeist, loving reflections on Iranian arts, poignant evocations of the myriad vanished civilizations that have contributed both wisdom and mayhem to Iran’s complex history, there are the many immediate adventures and challenges that such travels as Elliot’s always offer up.
If venal cab drivers, and surly managers of fleabag hotels appear often in this tale, so do more engaging people who lead the author off into fascinating mountains, enlightening caves, up scaffolds and into crypts — to establish meaningful dialogue with both the quick, and the dead.
Thanks to Elliot, both the seen and the unseen of Iran will linger in my mind for a very long time.
Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran, by Jason Elliot, St. Martin’s Press, 416 pages, $36.95, cloth.