Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Review of Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran by Jason Elliot

Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran is Jason Elliot's account of several journeys through Iran. It is a timely and engaging book. Speaking Persian and having previously toured and written about Afghanistan, he is more likely than other Western journalists and writers, who dip into the country only briefly, to get beyond northern Tehran, meet a broad spectrum of people and see more of the country.

As it turns out, the majority of people he meets are fairly homogenous. They are either the lofty and wealthy who have fallen on harder times since the revolution or they are ordinary Iranians annoyed at the corruption and nepotism, hollow promises, petty restrictions and plethora of other things keeping them from realising their ambitions.

Arriving in Tehran, he speeds through and quickly discards all of the clich├ęs of writing about Iran: the ruthless taxi drivers, foreigners being charged more at every opportunity, the paradoxes and "puzzles" of Iranian life, inner city congestion and pollution, realising that growing a beard made him stand out rather than fit in, etc.

Things I had at first thought strange - the sight of women with pink toenails, daily battles with unscrupulous taxi drivers, or the lack of religious observance among ordinary people - no longer seemed like novelties worth recording, and I was asking myself questions about things that hadn't caught my attention before; abstract things, like the notion of social liberty, what Islamic art was really all about, and why Iranians banks were so incredibly inefficient. You can report from a foreign country as a newcomer, and people will share your delight or surprise or disbelief. But familiarity blunts the impact of these first impressions. And the more time you spend in a different culture, the more your reactions and judgements begin to shirt and accomodate; and soon, like a man asked to describe his home town, you can think of nothing to say. It's home that feels strange. p. 259

His prose is lyrical and easy flowing, with the occasional tendency to drift off into day-dreams, historical re-enactment and fantasy. He mixes architecture, art criticism and geometry with wading knee deep through bat dung, history and Iranian hospitality. Describing the mountains between Shiraz and Isfahan his metaphors evoke that nexus between the earthly and spiritual that the book's title alludes to

the mountains erupt in clusters of shimmering rock like the spires and battlements of weightless metropolises. These resolve illogically as one approaches into unexpected shapes, split apart by ragged valleys or extended by new ranges like convoys of airborne sharks' fins with stretch for miles. Around them the colours regroup in bleeding spectrums of bleached celestial inks that seem borrowed from some cruelley arid planet. Then, without warning, they falter, as if responding en masse to some cosmic warning signal, and moments later sinnk and collapse downwards into plains barer than the sea. p. 357

Elliot's main interest, and his stated aim, is to discover and understand the art of Iran. He waxes lyrical and at times sounds like he's taken LSD. Reviewers on Amazon have criticised his habit of explaining the history of something he's visiting or the long pages where he explains his quest to understand the meaning behind some minor feature of a building.

Elliot's is the first travel book I've read where I've visited many of the monuments and places written about. I found myself nodding along saying "Yes... Yes, it is like that", or smiling smugly to myself when he fails to mention something I know. His descriptions of the Sheik Lotfallah mosque in Isfahan made for disconcerting reading. He writes that

[t]he surfaces of the right-angled walls are covered with complex repeating designs; these tease the eye, resolving at the very moment they are deciphered into an altered pattern. Wide bands of brilliant white calligraphy on a lapis field run everywhere, coursing like foaming torrents beside the abundant gardens of spiralling vines. Above these reciprocating melodies of light and colour stretches the dome... p. 71

I was jealous of his observation and perception, his deeper understanding. I'd been there. I had seen it with my own eyes, marvelled at the way the light breaks through the dome, run my fingers along the glazed tiles in the corridor leading to the main area, but my ignorance was only apparent on reading Elliot's descriptions.

In other places his lyricism really captures the essence and the experience of being a foreigner travelling through Iran.

A shaven-headed boy of about ten, whose scalp bore a dozen scars of varying length, took my order and shouted it to the owner, who lifted a ragged haunch of meat from a hook above his head and began to carve it swiftly into morsels with a knife of black steel. An old woman, wrapped in folds of black cloth, hobbled in from the cold, croaking a please for loose change. She leaned heavily on a walking stick painted the colour of lilac, and walked almost unseeing from the door to the other end of the room and back, then disappeared into the dark. 'Befarmaid,' said the man next to me, as I was about to eat. It was eight o'clock, and all around the shutters were beginning to fall. Within an hour the city was sleeping. p. 225

Towards the end of the book Elliot appears frustrated with being in Iran and having to deal with the small things. Taxi drivers seem to be a particular annoyance for him. He becomes wary about the people that attach themselves to him. Are they hoping to extract a fee for some particular service? Or are they genuinely interested in finding out about him and practicing their English? The real problem being, for Elliot, the awkward overlap between the two. He continues to travel, but it seems to be less of an adventure and more of a duty or penance.

I had a familiar feeling that I had learned nearly nothing meaningful about the country I had come to explore, and certainly not enough worth writing about. p. 259

The politics are there, and relayed through transcripts of conversations, they seem more realistic and insightful than it would have been otherwise. On occasion Elliot finds himself defending the Islamic Republic. But this is a journey through the land and architecture of Iran. It is the other side of Iran. A magnificent journey to take.

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