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.