Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran

Category: Travel - Middle East; Non-Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publisher: Knopf Canada

"Here with a little Bread beneath the Bough,

A Flask of Wine, A Book of Verse - and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness -
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Omar Khayyam in The Rubaiyat

Blending travelogue, stories of Iranian poets and poetry, bits of Iranian history, trips to sacred mosques, zurkhanes (where wrestlers practice their art) and anecdotes about people he meets as he travels through Iran, author and former wrestler, Marcello Di Cintio attempts to find out if in Iran there is an emotional link between poetry and another central aspect of Persian culture: wrestling. As he travels through the interiors of Iran we see, through Di Cintio's eyes, an Iran of startlingly beautiful,friendly and hospitable people who contrary to what the media will tell us, love Westerners (yes, even George Bush). THis is a land where poets are revered (where else in the world is a poet's tomb a popular picnic spot?) and where everybody, rich, poor, old, young can recite poetry, even daunting epics like the Shahnomeh or "Book of Kings" which recalls a thousand years of Persian history. The Iranians are a very social people; they love to eat in groups and socialize hence Tea houses where people gather to discuss politics while smoking qalyuns (Iranian water pipes with sweet, fruit-flavored tobacco) are very popular, and yet, for all this bustling activity there is a melancholy about the place that he can't quite put his finger on.

"...Sadness was as Persian as swirling poetry and spinning pahlevans. I was back among a people who bemoaned what happened to their country, its highjacking by severe men in robes, and longed for what once was. For too many Iranians, their nation had the taste of Qalyun (water pipe) once the sweetness has charred away and all that is left is cinders."

Liz Gilbert says in her travel memoir "Eat,Pray,Love" that every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. According to her SEX was Rome's word and for the Vatican it is POWER. In New York City the word is ACHIEVE, in Stockholm it's CONFORM, in Naples it is FIGHT etc., and so, according to di Cintio, it would appear that MELANCHOLY and POETRY are synonymous with Iran.

I think it's safe to presume that the melancholy comes from being held so tight in the mullahs' grip and poetry is the antidote - only in poetry can Persians exchange kisses with their lovers in rose-scented gardens. Only in the Divan of Hafez does ruby wine flow free. So much sweetness has been lost in Iran, and it is only found in the rhymes of ancient measured lines.

So, coming back to the premise of the novel, does Di Cintio find that emotional link between poetry and wrestling?

The Iranians have a word "fotovat" which is the combination of unabashed masculinity with chivalry and kindness. Iranian wrestling champions— called pahlevans—embody this concept. Di Cintio wishes he could strive for fotovat but realizes it is not his to have, it is the birthright of the Iranian people, the inheritance of poets and pahlevans. Despite the wars, the sorrow, the revolution, the oppression, the crown and the turban the Iranian men hold within themselves a poetic civility. Noble verses are inscribed on their hearts like tattoos on muscle, and ancient verses direct them towards kindness.


Perhaps we all need more poetry in our lives.

What more can I say about this book? I can only suggest that if
you have time to sit quietly and ponder you will benefit much from this read.


Bellezza said...

Your review put me in mind of Snow by Pamuk; in terms of quietly pondering life, poems, tea houses, melancholoy (even though his setting is Turkey). My knowledge of the Middle East is sorely lacking, but I am encouraged by the beautiful children in my class who bring such a sweet seriousness, along with gentleness, to our room.I am also touched by their parents' appreciation of the culture here, which is so very different.

ML said...

Hi Lotus!

Perhaps we do need more poetry in our lives :)

You mentioned Eat, Pray, Love in your review. Thanks for referring to that because I just started reading it last night.

This review made me realize (along with many of your reviews) that I really need to read more books about other countries and their customs. Thanks for the heads up and the review!

Asha said...

Very interesting book!:) Thanks Lotus.

Hollydolly said...

I picked this book up and put it down at Chapter's over the week-end. Wasn't quite sure about it, so pleased to read your review. I will certainly go and look at it more closely.
I read "Eat,Pray,Love a while back and throughly enjoyed it. Certainly a book to be savoured and read again.
BTW, just picked up "Thirteenth Tale.

Sruthi said...

hey lotus! haven't read it, but i definitely need to be in a particular mood to enjoy poetry for what it's worth. can't remember the last book of poetry i read, unfortunately.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello, bellezza Thank you for your wonderful comment. I absolutely love books set in Iran and yes, I would imagine that books set in Turkey would have many common elements. I would love to know what you thought of "Snow". Many bloggers seem to have found it a difficult book to read and yet, the newspaper reviews seem so alluring - what did you think?

Those kids are fortunate indeed to have a teacher like you. What grades do you teach?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, ml!

Thank you! :)

World lit. can be addictive. Once you get used to visiting different countries and cultures through the written word it is hard to stop because there are so many worlds out there beckoning to the reader! :)

I am so excited you are reading "Eat,Pray and Love". I really enjoyed the book but it's had mixed reviews. I think so much depends on what is going on in your life when you read that particular book. Can't wait to read your thoughts on it, ml!

Asha You're welcome! Anytime I see a book on Iran, I just have to read it. I may have been an Iranian in my last life! ;)

Hi hollydolly! Wow, you browsed through it at Chapters? We really do eye the same books don't we? :) It's a beautifully-written book and I will be the first to admit my review doesn't really do it justice. There was so much I wanted to say, but just couldn't find the right words. Some books are just meant to be read,felt and enjoyed and not analysed. This is one.

I'm glad you liked "Eat,Pray,Love". What was your favorite section? I loved reading about her time in Bali - I thought the Indian part dragged a bit.

Hi Sruthi No, you don't have to enjoy poetry to enjoy this book...it's a lovely trip through Iran and back. If you like travelogues, you will like this one. Lovely to see you here, my book buddy! :)

booklogged said...

Your review is beautiful, Lotus. I found the premise of the book to be quite peculiar but interesting. And, just from your review, I felt a regard for the author. I never learned to read poetry and have a hard time understanding it, so I don't read much of it.

What a noteworthy passage - Noble verses are inscribed on their hearts like tattoos on muscle, and ancient verses direct them towards kindness.

beenzzz said...

This is indeed a beautiful review. Iran has such an old and exotic culture. I find it interesting that they combine gentlemanly concepts/behavior with sportmanship. We try to do that too, but often fail.

Anali said...

The book "Eat, Pray, Love" has been on my list of books to read since it first came out. And you have reminded me!! I like the idea that each city has a word that defines it. That sounds like an interesting post to write...

Lotus Reads said...

Awww,booklogged, I'm so glad you enjoyed the review. From what I can tell, the author, an ex-wrestler was very keen to find out how two seemingly different activities (poetry and wrestling) could thrive together like it does in Iran and his book was born out of that curiosity. I was never a keen reader of poetry myself, but once I found the Sufi poets all that changed! :)

Hi Beenzzz! You're so right. Maybe reading a little poetry might make us more civilized, huh?

Hi Anali Glad to have been able to jog those grey cells! :) I hope you like "Eat,Pray,Love". And yes, I thought having one word to descrbe a city was a cool idea, too. What word would you use to describe Boston? I'll tell you the word for my city, it's "POLITE", seriously!

J said...

What a great review! I haven't read any poetry at all in so long...this might be a good place to start up again.

And is that a pic of you at the bottom of the sidebar? I never knew you were gorgeous! Your celebrity doubles would be Alanis Morrisette and Courtney Cox.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi J! Funnily enough, the book doesn't include that much poetry, but it does talk a lot about the Iranian poets, their lives and the influence of their poetry on the Iranian people. The Iranians, even the most ordinary among them, can quote poetry effortlessly. I am in awe! I don't understand why our schools don't encourage children to learn by rote - I cannot imagine that anything but good would come out of that, no?

heehee, glad you like the picture! You know, I did that celebrity look-alike thing on heritage one time and according to them I looked like Matt Le Blanc, needless to say I was not amused, but when I did it again I got Jennifer Connolly. I will take Courtney Cox though, thanks! :)

Lotus Reads said...

I meant, learn poetry by rote, ofcourse.

gautami tripathy said...

Amazing. I got this book as a gift.


Bellezza said...

Lotus reads, the book "Snow" was a bit of a challenge for me, but one I considered well worth the effort. I learned so very much about Turkey, and it's politics. Also, Orhan Pamuk created such an incredible mood and atmosphere with his writing. I felt like I truly was there as I read.

I teach third grade, and even though our district is in a suburb of Chicago we are very, very diverse. Out of 28 children, at least 6 of them are Indian. I'm learning to pronounce new (to me) names, such as Amritha, Irteja, Raj, Dhruv, Neva, Aishwarya and those are just a few I have this year. They delight me with their constant effort to produce their very best work, and their sweet appreciation of anything clever I think up for a project in class.

I'm so happy to have found your blog.

sasgirl said...

Great review Lotus!

I have also been fascinated by Iran as my husband and I know a couple who are from there. We are very close with them! They left for Iran a week ago to visit their relatives.

Everytime we meet them, we always discuss that one day in the future, we would go together so they can show us their beautiful country. :)

Beloved Dreamer said...

Lotus , it sounds like a book I would love to read. I find that the more poetry I read, the more ideas, images and feeling come to me. Sometime late at night. I do my bvest work then, when I am alone.
Thanks for your ever faithful reading of my poems and I am glad you liked it.


Sugarlips said...

Persian language is the most sweetest language inthe world :) I'm trying my level hard to learn :) Have u read divans of Hafez? Speaking of which Shahnomeh...Rustam & Sohrab reminded me of "The Kite Runner" I'm sure u know about it...This book brought tears to my eyes..very touchy indeed.
There are so many books on my list & there is no harm in adding one more theek hai na? ;)

Stay Beautiful..!!

Lotus Reads said...

Everyone, thanks for your comments - will respond soon!

ML, if you're reading this, just wanted to say a big thank you for the Christmas banner idea, as you can see, I couldn't resist using it! :)

ML said...

Yeah Lotus! I'm so glad you liked the banner idea!! It looks great and very festive on your blog :-)

Lotus Reads said...

I wrote out fairly long responses to everyone and for some reason lost the entire comment, grrrrrr!

Gautami Heck, I'm going to have to think of some other gift to you give you in that case ;)

Bellezza! I'm so happy to have discovered your blog, too! You make me want to read "Snow", the only other Pamuk I have read is "My Name is Red" and although it was a little dense it was a great read.

Third graders are delightful! I'm sure you must have lots of fun with your class.

Sasgirl How lucky you are to know these people. I hope you get to see Iran with them, it will be wonderful! Please keep yourself (and T.) free on the evening of the 29th. I will write you to tell you why.

Beloved You have been writing some stunning poetry - I so look forward to your next one! I received your card today - thank you so much, you always find the nicest "Madonna with Child" cards!

Sugarlips Is Nabeel Iranian? ;) Farsi is a beautiful language, good on you to want to learn it. No I haven't read the 'Shahnomeh', but I would sure like to. How interesting you saw Shorab and Rustom in "The Kiterunner", excellent observation.

ml Thanks! :))

Sruthi said...

hey lotus! this is completely unrelated to this post, but...

1. i didnt notice u had a picture up before! verrry nice:)

2. i was at the library today and getting frustrated because none of the books were where they were supposed to be, so i logged onto ur website to get more book suggestions. but then the internet was being lame so i couldn't do much. But...you know how on your old blog you had a section that said "my library" or something? Do you still have that built into this blog somewhere that i'm not finding? just wondering, because i've been going through those for book selections! thanks and bye!:)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sruthi!

wrt the picture, thanks! :))

Ahhh yes, you must mean Library thing. Thank you for reminding me. I lost the code when I changed templates but will reinstall it the minute I get some time to myself today.

It's librarything.com

Angela in Europe said...

I love poetry. I think it is so cool how words work together.

Sruthi said...

btw, i found that if you go under templates and say "switch to classic", you can go through your old code and find the code for the Library. Then, you can copy that section, NOT save changes, and you'll be back in beta with your blog. you can then go in and paste that code in the "add blog content" section, in case you don't want to reinstall everything. I did this for my clustrmaps feature

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Angela Give us a holler when you reach the US!

Hi Sruthi Thanks so much for the tip - I'm going to tinker with it when I have a little free time! Thanks again, and would you happen to know how to insert a new background page onto blogger's beta version? Thanks muchly my computer-savvy buddy! :)

Nabeel said...

no I am not Iranian .. i am from Pakistan .. however I would love to learn Farsi .. when sugarlips (smooch for her) starts learning, I will too .. because Farsi is more beautiful than Urdu (urdu is one of the most beautiful languages in the world) .. and aa not just saying it because it's my language ..

awww man I gotta read the Kite Runner ...

Sai said...

We certainly do need more poetry in our life. This is such a beautiful post Lotus! This is on my TBR. By the way I started Kiran Desai's "Inheritance of Loss"

Lotus Reads said...

Nabeel I am in total agreement with you over Urdu, it is one of those languages that caresses the ears when spoken correctly. How lucky you are to be so fluent in it - I can barely speak Hindi without messing up! :( I haven't heard much Farsi spoken but the little I have has left a lasting impression on me. Good luck to you and Sugarlips, I commend you both for wanting to learn another language!

Sai Thank you! I hope you enjoy the read as much as I have. I loved Kiran Desai's book as you know, but it got a lot of mixed reactions from readers - I cannot wait to find out what you think!

Sruthi said...

hiiii you're welcome! also, i'm not really coding-savvy, i just had to learn some of these things from g so that i could use them to do nerdy things on my blog hahaha. Also, i haven't figured out how to add images to the beta blogger yet... but i think the same thing as last time might work, where instead of using the new way of changing background color on your blog, you put up a picture as a post and then copy that url and enter it into the regular template with all the confusing code. I'll try it out this weekend and let you know!

Lotus Reads said...

Sruthi! I so hope you come up with a fix for the background - I can't tell you how much I miss my flowers and how insipid this green background seems to my eyes!

Hope you're having a wonderful festive season so far. Is G. in town for the holidays?

Sruthi said...

yep g's right here! i'll try to figure out the background thing im curious too:)

neda said...

Dear Lotus,
Your review is simply great! when i read "eat pray love" a while ago, i was thinking about the words that would describe my home town, Tehran and my second home Bombay, the best... beleive me "MELANCHOLY BEAUTY" was what i chose for Tehran! and "POSSIBILITY" was what i chose for Bombay.

I lived a good 26 years of my life in Tehran where i was born, and then moved to Bombay.

about poetry in Iran.. I think that is something everybody just so much lives with it... by and large, Hafez Divan is as precious as a prayer book in most Iranian houses.

Lotus Reads said...

Neda Thanks so much for stopping by and for the insights! I so badly want to visit Tehran some day. I love the people and the place sounds fascinating. I often think about what it must be like to live in a country where everyone recites poetry so easily...amazing. I'm so glad to have "met" you Neda.