Melinda Barnhardt

Persian Pilgrimages: 

Journeys Across Iran

Searching For Truth By Taxi

by Afshin Molavi

W.W. Norton & Company, 308 pages

A review by:  Melinda Barnhardt

Deliberately disordered -- shifting between cities and conversations (with the butcher, fruit seller, student, war veteran, and taxi driver) -- this insightful account of a year’s travels through present-day Iran maneuvers around its own deficiencies.  In a country in which indirectness is a customary response to exploitative regimes, an investigative approach that meanders and doubles back on itself like the route of an ancient bazaar is likely to succeed.  In short, to get to the bottom of things, there must be time to linger over a cup of tea.

Afshin Molavi alerts us to anticipate something other than conventional reporting, calling his travels "pilgrimages.” Iranian by birth, but raised from an early age in the United States, he forgoes subjectivity.  The object of his pursuit is the real motivation of Iranians, beyond the glib formulas (“conservatives vs. reformists,” “religion vs. the monarchy,” “democracy vs. Islam”).  Educated in the West with a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies, he recognizes, after a series of brief, highly-scheduled visits, that grasp of his native country’s underlying dynamics will come only by patiently working through its everyday intricacies.

Persian Pilgrimages consists of a series of separate journeys – each a “pilgrimage” to a site influential in the country’s 2600 year-old history.  Molavi’s central insight -- which should become mantra to Iran watchers -- is that the country’s resilient, living culture continues to interact with the lives of its citizens; that the real conflict in Iran involves the struggle between its culture and an authoritarian, repressive regime.  His sacred sites in this context are both secular and religious – located throughout the country, and dedicated to saints, poets, kings, reformers, and war veterans -- each representing an influential moment that reverberates in the present.

If the protagonist is the country’s culture, its struggle is articulated through the voices of its citizens. An initial

 pilgrimage to the tomb of Cyrus illustrates.  Representing Iran’s first king, who in Plato’s words “gave his

 people the rights of free men,” the silently poignant site alludes to a glorious past.  In the nearby city of Shiraz,

 its present relevance emerges in ongoing wars over the names of streets:  Walking down Towhid Street (a

 post-revolutionary name signifying “the oneness of God,”) Molavi asks where he can buy film, and is told to

 continue down this street, as “Darius Street has everything you need.”  Surprised by the reference to Cyrus’s

 most prominent successor, he repeats, “Darius Street?”  “Yes,” comes the quietly rebellious answer, “you are

 now on Darius Street.”

In a hasty, nutshell evaluation, the encounter epitomizes the book:  the insistence of men (mostly, because of access) and women (to the extent possible) in the street – and not insignificantly, in the taxis -- on a national identity that includes all of Iran’s past, not merely those portions acknowledged by its ruling clerics. The refrain echoes throughout -- along with the complaint of a devastated economy.  For readers clever enough to take a cue from Molavi’s experience and slow their own pace, however, the conversations build steadily in meaning. Asking informed questions about politics, freedom, religion, everyday life – even poetry, Molavi elicits stories which add layers of understanding; whose repetition, when it occurs, tends to be incrementally dazzling.

Immediately following the visit to the royal tomb, he sets out on a second pilgrimage to its apparent antithesis:  the shrine of Imam Reza, in the northeastern city of Mashad.  The tomb of an eighth century Shi’a Muslim leader, for Molavi’s purposes it provides the occasion to reflect on the arrival of Islam in Iran a century earlier.  Not surprisingly, getting to the shrine from accommodations in the city involves the usual litany. (“These mullahs are killing us!  I have to work eighteen hours a day driving this damn car just to make ends meet… .”)  This time there is an added twist:  a natural piety on the part of the  pilgrims that coexists with distaste for the clerical regime and pride in a royalist past.  The views of a working man, Haji Agha, express the conundrum best.  “Khomeini was a great man,” he says, but his successors were thieves.  “Their religion is different than mine.”  Then, entirely without irony, “I go to Khomeini’s tomb on pilgrimage every year in Tehran… . I would also like to visit the Shah’s tomb [in Cairo] one day and say a fateheh for him.”

A side trip to a shrine in nearby Tous helps to clarify.  Home of the nationalist poet, Ferdowsi, author of the beloved Shahnameh, or “Book of Kings,” Tous attracts Iranians of all types. Musing over the popularity of the tenth- and eleventh-century writer who preserved Iran’s language and history in the aftermath of Arab invasion, Molavi recalls the words of a Tehran intellectual, Mr. Ghassemi:  “[Ferdowsi] rescued our Iranian identity when the Arabs tried to swallow us.”  Perhaps the poet’s greatest achievement was his ability to synthesize – to reclaim the past without sacrificing the present.  His lament was over invasion, Molavi points out, more so than Islam.  In Tous, the appeal of such an approach is apparent when a  taxi driver newly returned from Mecca proves able to recite at length from one of the epic’s heroic scenes.

Thinking the man may be pleased,  Molavi tells him of Ferdowsi’s inspiring the British Victorian Matthew Arnold to produce an English version of the same story.  The response is one of annoyance:  “Those English steal even our poetry.”  Iranians, Molavi shows, resent incursion upon cultural identity by external power or authoritarian regime. (“Whether the Arabs or the Turks or the Mongols or the British, someone was always trying to control Iran,” Mr. Ghassemi says.) The sentiment resonates through numerous conversations touching on relations with the West. Weaving his own knowledge of historical fact with the memories of people he meets, Molavi highlights the chain of events that continues to generate indignation today:  British control of Iranian oil in the early twentieth century, the British-led embargo of Iranian crude in response to Prime Minister Mossadegh’s nationalizing the oil industry, the resulting devastation of the Iranian economy, and the rise of the Communist Tudeh party.  Then, the final icing on the cake: America’s role in toppling Mossadeq and reinstalling  Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Leaving the northeast, Molavi doubles back again to Shiraz.  The centerpiece of a chapter on present-day

 incursions by the regime is a visit to the tomb of the fourteenth-century poet Hafez. Even today, the country’s

 top cultural icon may be this elusive figure who is confined to neither side of the ruling equations, but moves

 enigmatically between.  “I am a reciter of the Quran in one gathering, and a drinker of wine in another,” he

 outrageously proclaims.  Through conversations about Hafez in widely-varied areas of the society (authors

 who have learned to “write between the lines,” a psychologist, a literary scholar, his friend Davoud, a female

 fan of Milan Kundera, a taxi driver, and businessmen drinking bootlegged whiskey), Molavi provides insight

 into contemporary identification with the poet whose different faces match complex situations, and outwit the

 authorities. Embodying paradox and the thinking person’s sense of ambiguity, Hafez insists upon “shades of

 gray in a world where authority figures constantly demand black or white.”

A new breed of reformers pushes for open discussion of the shades of gray.  Journalists, such as Akbar Ganji, and student activists -- even war veterans and dissident  clerics -- insist that Iran must adopt the democratic principles of the rule of law, a free press, and a civil society.  Many, including Ganji, assert their religious faith. (“I consider myself a devout Muslim,” one student says, “but I do not fear the effects on our religion of a minor student play.”)  The central question of religion’s relationship to the state remains; Molavi believes that it must withdraw to the private space.  His greatest concern, however, is the need for the voices of dissent to engage in dialog to discover what it is they are for.  (“It seemed, at times, as if Western journalists were the only ones talking to all sides.”)  Even so, he is betting on the culture to prevail, and finds hopeful indications in the conversations about protests and politics in partially sheltered transitional places – around samovars, and in taxis.

This is significant, lively work, not to be casually dismissed over a case or two of minor details repeated between pilgrimages -- seven, to be frank.  (The value of a topical approach in bringing Persian history to life:  Priceless!)  Molavi often writes with the wit of the miniaturist, with the miniaturist’s shading and nuance:  An attendant sprays the air near the shoe rack at the Imam Reza shrine.  And even the “basijis” – the infamous “morals police” – are not uniformly fanatics.  He provides an incisive account of events that led to revolution in 1979, though, with a slight error in fact.  (Per the Harvard Oral History Project on Iran, Khomeini was spared in 1963 because General Hassan Pakravan, then head of SAVAK, persuaded the Shah to exile the cleric, not the other way around.  Khomeini did not return the General’s favor, years later.)  Above all, he has the humility to listen:  “You will go home and make your conclusions,” a conservative cleric and former prisoner of war tells him.  “That is fine.  But most of all, you listened.”