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Third alley, right door
Does a landscape adapt to the soul of its people?

November 4, 2002
The Iranian

It's funny how time and distance make wonders of one's memories, turning familiar to exotic, impregnating quotidian with unexpected meanings.

Once or twice a year, as is the custom of all exiles, I receive packages from Iran, mostly dried goods and occasional books. Battered cardboard boxes, mistreated, bashed around in many a ports, they resemble exhausted travelers, as if of medieval caravans, having just arrived from Balkh or Samarghand, carrying spices and sweets in their bellies.

At the verge of falling apart, covered with sheets of stamps -- nay, posters; imagine Warhol's Campbell soups Iranian style -- witness to the ever devaluing Rial, it's the street addresses written hastily on all sides that are a wonder. You know what I'm talking about; the twisting, labyrinthine, illusive little hykus and Borgesian puzzles that masquerade as street addresses in Iran.

Here is a typical example: Seyed Jamalaldin Asad Abadi street, Ibn Sina street, Third alley, Number 19, Fourth floor, Left hall, right door. The mailman in Iran surely must be part cipher, part numerologist, part poet, part interrogator.

Accustomed to the scientific precision of North American street grids, efficient yet bland, it's the inexactitude and open to interpretation nature of Iranian street addresses that is both bewildering and exhilarating. How does one judge "Baalaa-tar az do raahiye Gholhak"? Is it fifty feet, seventy-five feet, two blocks? What lies beyond "Ba-ad az Salmaani-ye Ibrahimi"? What if Mr. Ibrahimi no longer cuts hair in that location and the place is converted to a produce store? Would the mailman follow Mr. Ibrahimi's trail or be satisfied with "Sabzi forooshi-e Safavi"?

A couple of years ago I visited Paris for the first time. Walking down Boulevard Sain Germaine on a sunny October afternoon, I had a strong feeling of deja vu, if you excuse the French, a very strange primeval feeling. It all looked very familiar.

Normally I don't have much time for nostalgia, but I couldn't deny the sudden surge of emotion as I crossed the wide tree-lined span of the boulevard to a very narrow alley which in turn, suddenly without warning opened up to a semi-palazzo hiding a medieval church. Of course, I smacked the side of my head; this feels like crossing Pahlavi Boulevard or Amirieh Street in the Tehran of my childhood.

Tehran's urban designers quite possibly followed the French model (1) where boulevards and modern architecture co-exist with haphazard leftovers of medieval cities. Finding places in Paris could almost be as cryptic as it used to be in Tehran. Unlike say Manhattan, where in the 1830s the entire Island was flattened to give way to a strict grid system, Paris has adapted more or less to the natural shape of the land itself on one hand and the whim and temperament of Seine on the other.

The result is that one could be within a few feet of a destination and spend hours in the maze of back streets and narrow alleys looking for it. But, ah, the pleasure of getting lost in the streets of Paris, especially right around the historic Latin Quarter. Which brings us back to the street addresses in Tehran.

Khaane Doost Kojast?(2) asks the stranger in Sohrab Sepehri's well-known peom, "Neshani". And this is how response comes: "Naresideh be derakht, Kooche baaghist ke az khaab khodaa sabztarast, va dar aan eshgh, be andaaze parhaaye sedaaghat aabyst..." Well, you see what I mean. Epiphanies around the corners, enlightment down the street, dreams of trees at the fork of the road. Poetry of the mundane.

There is a magnificent scene in the Iranian director Parviz Kimiavi's film P for Pelican, made in the mid-Seventies, where an old man wanders in the sun baked narrow alleys of the desert town of Tabas in central Iran. As the hand held camera follows the rambling, whirling, sun stroked old man from behind in the snaking alleys of the city, suddenly we find ourselves in a garden, a sort of medieval oasis.

There is a small pool and in the midst of the desert, a lone white pelican luxuriously bathing in the cool water. It's as if some parched soul slept one summer night and dreamt of water and green and birds and his dreams gave birth to a pelican. Does a landscape adapt to the soul of the people it hosts or the people mirror the architecture of their city?


(1) For those interested, it appears that behind the romantic French boulevard, a much more pragmatic and sinister logic lays. After the street riots of French revolution, the city planners decided that the street system in Paris needed to be changed to accommodate rapid troop deployment against future riots; hence the boulevards.

(2) "Where is the friend's house?" The English readers should be advised that the word Doost, translated verbatim in English to "friend", in sufi poetry alludes to the Being or being of beings as in Rumi's work (Jaan-e Jahaan). That is, 'god', 'lord', the essence of being is taken as a friend, a compadre, rather than a stern vengeful father. Kiarostami's film may have survived this lame translation given the visual aid, but Sepehri's poem deserves better. Alas I'm not a translator.

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