Story and photos by Roger Housden
In an excerpt from the book Saved by Beauty, a writer looks at the draw and visual poetry of Iran, beyond the headlines, the current rulers, and the infamous legal system.
Who in their right mind would go to a place so maligned by much of the world, so apparently depraved in terms of man’s humanity to man, that even to utter the name Iran is liable to trigger images of mad mullahs, rogue nukes, ranting politicians who deny the Holocaust, and protesters shot down in broad daylight or dragged away to be raped and beaten somewhere in the sordid labyrinthine obscurities of Evin Prison?
But let me ask this: If you had nurtured images of another Iran, one which predates not only the current regime but even Islam itself, might you be willing to look beyond the prevailing headlines? Might you search for evidence of a culture that happens to have one of the longest and more venerable histories of enlightened humanism anywhere in the world?
I was one such dreamer.
Forty years ago I would listen to the plaintive, heart-rending melodies in minor key of Iranian music rather than spend time with the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd. I would read the work of Hafez and Rumi rather than the latest renderings of Alan Ginsberg. I would gaze in wonder at the blue domes of the mosques of Isfahan, all trapped in a book I found in the British Library in London. In my twenties, Iran was for me a place that seemed able somehow to marry heaven and earth. Its aesthetic sensibility, blue-drenched and sensuous, merged effortlessly with an awareness of invisible realms which nourished and infused this physical world.
Some forty years later, those images had long since retreated into the more anterior regions of my mind. But when George Bush labeled Iran as the center of an axis of evil, and the press was filled daily with story after story of abuse of power and the ravings of a fanatical President (both here and in Iran) those old images fluttered their wings and found their way again to the surface of my daily wonderings and thinking.
I wondered if the Iran I had imagined all that time ago was merely a figment of my imagination, or whether there was indeed some remnant of a culture, even today, that could justify my youthful ardor for a place I had never set foot in. Just weeks after the thought had first entered my mind, I was on a plane to Tehran to find out.
I wanted to see if the long cultural and artistic tradition of human dignity and values that was already in place in the 10th century when Ferdowsi wrote his great epic, the Shahnameh, The Epic of Kings, and that had woven its way down through the centuries in the work of poets like Omar Khayyam, Rumi and Hafez — I wanted to see if anything was left of such a tradition today. And there was more: if I could find the same thread alive today, I could give a human face to an ancient and sophisticated culture that was only portrayed to us in the West in the form of a caricature.
I found in modern Iran all that I was looking for and more. I discovered an intensely vibrant cultural scene in Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan, with artists, filmmakers, writers and poets who, even though many had international reputations, chose to continue living in Iran despite all the restrictions on their freedom. Iran, they said, was the soul of their work. They had to live there to make their art. Then I met Sufis — the mystical brotherhoods of Islam — whose religion was nothing if not one of love and tolerance. Above all, I found a land whose people were the most gracious and welcoming I had ever encountered.
And yes, I did meet the other side of Iran. I was taken from the airport on leaving and interrogated for a couple of days by members of the Intelligence Services. They claimed I was a spy and threatened me with several years in Evin Prison. How I got out I will never know. But I was saved from cynicism, from blanketing an entire nation with the standard stereotype of a ruthless regime, by the beauty of a people, a culture, that still today bears the signature of lasting human dignity and creative achievement. If I could go back, I would. But I can’t.
That First Arrival in Tehran
There’s a cappuccino and some apple cake on my table, a hum of activity around me in the café at Frankfurt Airport; everything’s normal, my flight is on time, and I’m nervous. I’ve never been nervous traveling before. But I’m nervous now, sitting here waiting for my connection to Tehran. I feel like I am about to get on a plane to nowhere — to nowhere in my known world. The only other time I have felt anything close to this was when I was twenty years old and leaving the shores of Europe for the first time to enter the (then) exotic world of North Africa. Even at that time, I had felt less trepidation than sheer excitement. Now the balance has swung marginally the other way.
But why? What about the other Iran and the thrill of finally seeing a land I had dreamed of for years? And then surely I was used to landing in strange and even remote parts of the world? I was, but in these last few weeks of preparing to go there, Iran had already become in my mind a more shifting and complex world, one with rules and challenges that I had never encountered before. No other country I know of has kept my passport for its visa stamp until the day before my departure. Neither are visas granted automatically, and it was impossible to know beforehand whether or not I would get one. (The same is true for Iranians hoping to visit the United States, I was told later.) Yet I had to book my flights and give them my flight details, leaving it to fate that it would all work out and my tickets would not be wasted. Then they gave me fewer days in the country than there were between my arriving and departing flights; which now meant that I would have to apply for an extension once I got there. At least I am using my British, rather than my American, passport, but I’m not even sure that makes things any easier. Dutch or Irish, perhaps, but British, I don’t know. Salman Rushdie is British, and it wasn’t much help to him.