My friend called to tell me of a new book about Iran, written by someone I had briefly met in Chicago. With nostalgia now a permanent companion, I’m always on the lookout for such books. She went on to explain, “Some people compare it to Searching for Hassan, but I think this one is more of a documentary on Iran’s history and geography.”
I had read Terrance Ward’s book and enjoyed his sweet story. Since my husband and I often share books, I decided to buy a copy of A Persian Odyssey and make a gift of it to him and kill two birds with one stone.
In A Persian Odyssey, Dr. Yalda, an Assyrian-Iranian-American, pays a visit to Iran, his place of birth and where he grew up. (I don’t use the word ‘homeland’ because at no point does the author give a ‘homely’ impression and the closest he comes to showing any attachment is in the end when he calls it “the fatherland”.) His American wife understandably refuses to accompany him on account of the mandatory Islamic garb, thus missing the opportunity of a lifetime.
The book offers its average reader a wealth of information about Iran, past and present. I have to emphasize on the word average because to those of us who know Iran in general, and no doubt to scholars in particular, the information is incomplete, if not biased. The brief history review and the description of the architectural sites are educational, however, the author tends to generalize one man’s view. Much of the information on today’s Iranian society comes from taxi drivers and talks at chai-khaneh – spelled chay khane and, knowing Iranian storytellers’ tendency to exaggerate, most of the author’s analysis amounts to heresy.
Had the author been less partial, A Persian Odyssey could have been the ideal guide for those who know little of Iran. Since the Islamic revolution, not too many writers with Dr. Yalda’s impressive background have attempted such a daring tour. He takes us from the shores of beautiful Caspian to the mountains and down to the arid desert while telling historical tales along the way and describing the ancient architecture in a most eloquent fashion. Unfortunately, he goes through his journey with a chip on his shoulder and a heart as cold and dark as his namesake, Yalda – the longest night.
Such a detailed remembrance will be sure to offer joy to those who know Iran, but I saw little similarity between Yalda’s outlook and that of Ward – and in fact found them to be exact opposites. In Searching for Hassan, Terrance Ward is an American who grew up to love both Iran and its people. The emotional bond takes his entire family back to Iran – despite the Islamic garb. Dr. Yalda, on the other hand, is an Iranian with scorn for Muslims in general and Iranian Muslims in particular and he returns as a curious tourist determined to find fault with a nation.
In all fairness, he has worked hard to get his point across and readers are bound to feel deep compassion for the Assyrians and other minorities who endured incredible atrocities throughout Iran’s history. As someone who grew up among Armenian, Jewish and Assyrian friends, I was ashamed of how little I knew about their suffering prior to my time. Yalda describes in detail Muslim’s discriminations against minorities. In particular, the Assyrians, who not only suffered under Iranian rulers, but were mistreated by Turks, Persians, Russians, British and even Arabs. Considering that they posed no threat to any of those governments, one can’t help but wonder why? What was it about the Assyrians that provoked so much animosity and aroused all these different nations against them?
Most readers’ knowledge of Islam is limited to what is offered in the media, and owed to the recent political uproars; criticism of Islam has become an acceptable trend. Today, Muslims are one billion strong, yet most authors continue to write about them as if they were an odd minority. Dr. Yalda follows suit, using wars of centuries ago to prove Muslims evil. As gruesome as those descriptions are, the fact remains that all history books are filled with such scenes.
Indeed a close look at any country’s history leaves humanity in shame and Iran is by no means an exception. But times have changed and what is considered barbaric today, at one time used to be common practice. Is the author forgetting the Crusades? What about Christians who uprooted the entire Mayan civilization, and let us not forget the crimes of slavery or what KKK did to innocent families. They were Christians, too, but no one blames the God-fearing-church-goers nor should we shame Christianity in general.
Recent political changes in Iran, indeed the Middle East, have harmed more Muslims than any other group. The brutality of such rulers is no secret, yet one billion faithful Muslims continue to bow and pray to “Allah, the kind, the merciful,” the very same God that Dr. Yalda presumes unkind, even cruel. “Ahura Mazda, unlike the ferocious Yahweh and the Moslem Allah, is a kind and forgiving God.” (Pp215) The author’s contempt for Islam is reflected throughout the book. When he meets a Muslim man from Switzerland, he writes, “The Swiss convert to Islam repelled me, and I did my best to ignore him.”
He speaks of najes – religiously unclean – as if it were an insult to discriminate against other religions. “Najes” is a general term for religiously unclean and even Muslims are considered so if they leave the bathroom with traces of excrement still on them – as is the case with the use of paper. How ironic that the author is appalled by the Islamic requirement of a simple wash after using the toilet, yet is acceptant of the Zoroastrian trust in the cleansing wonders of urine of Ox. As far as I know, Islam considers bodily fluids najes, even when they are on one’s own child. If a Muslim calls her own son najes for alcohol consumption it isn’t offensive, but Christians, who not only enjoyed an occasional drink but also happened to run most of the liquor stores took it as an insult. I guess it’s all in the way we present an argument, isn’t it?
To honor other’s faith is among the basic rules of etiquette. Dr. Yalda, who is raised with such standards, asks permission each and every time prior to entering a Zoroastrian temple. Yet he takes the liberty to impersonate a Muslim and sneak into a shrine without permission, an act that he admits, “would insult the purity and sanctity of the place.” (Pp 178) In fact, there is plenty of controversy throughout the book, for example, he refuses to go to places that cater to western tourists, yet when he is ignored in one such hotel, he forgets all western manners and reacts in a harsh way.
An Orthopedic surgeon, not once does Dr. Yalda glance at the many victims of war, nor does he take a single step to help them. To him, these are the same people who beheaded his great-great-grandfather. A mere tourist, he views Iranians as a barbaric nation, who has done nothing but torture, mutilate, and commit genocide. In our twenty-five centuries of glorious history, he finds only one king worthy of praise – Reza Shah – and sees everyone else a fool, a thug and a self-centered criminal!
Based on stories told him by the cab drivers, he views the Iranians of today a nation left to rot in prostitution and drug abuse. Not once does he enter a university, nor does he make an attempt to speak to writers, artists or scholars. The only people he empathizes with are the remaining Zoroastrians and a group of western tourists in Yazd. He comes across as an outsider in Iran, almost as foreign as the British anthropologists who preceded him on such a journey, except he shows even less compassion than they did.
Religions evolve with history, politics, psychology, and above all, man’s need to feel a supreme power watching over him. Iranians have survived centuries of different religions and there is much more to their existence than that. In a civilized world – and one that prides itself on freedom – it is erroneous to attack followers of any creed. At a time when clerics are causing great damage to the reputation of Iranians and while firearms are turned on innocent Muslims, it is tragic to hear someone, in particular one who considers himself a man of knowledge, use harsh words to settle old scores.
In the end, the author makes an effort to redeem himself as he writes, “Iran will arise from her ashes like a phoenix and reclaim her eminent place in the world community, as she has done so many times in her long history.” And that is a beautiful way to look at it, even though it may be a little too late.