Book Review: Saved By Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran
Saved By Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran, by Roger Housden
From the moment this suspenseful book began, I was hooked into a tale of good and evil with Roger Housden and his journey to the present and the ancient past, laced with his poetic recitations of Rumi and Hafez. Never having been exposed to the treasures locked in the country, my curiosity had been piqued after watching a Rick Steves special on Iran. Now, after reading this book - even with its tumultuous journey -I am ready to go!
As Housden travels, he remembers the Cyrus Cylinder, which is now in a British museum but “…is inscribed with a decree known as the first charter of human rights…(which) abolished forced labor among the Jews in Babylon, restored the temple in Jerusalem, banned the seizing of property by force, and gave member states the right to subject themselves to the rule of Cyrus or not. (Cyrus said): ‘I will impose my monarchy on no nation. Each is free to accept it, and if any of them rejects it, I never resolve on war to reign.’ ” I found this startling, given the current state of Iran and the information mainly given by American media about the supposed desires of the Iranian government and, by extension, those of its people.
Imagine that this nation, which has been given a certain negative stance in the United States, had the “world’s first enlightened despot; perhaps the first in all of history to recognize that ordinary human beings, as distinct from the rich and powerful, had rights—simply by virtue of being human. This was the Persia that Iranians like Somayeh were still nostalgic for today, however far it may be from their present reality: a benevolent, humane, and fair-minded superpower.” I can understand that desire; we want our countries and our lives to be filled with kindness, connection and understanding -and this ruler gave that to his people. Of course, that was in 550 B.C, after “he defeated his own grandfather, King Astyages of the Medes.”
During his trip, Housden discusses beauty but after visiting Persepolis he states that “Beauty (is)….recognized as sovereign value…it made me wonder what the sovereign value of our own culture might be.” I also wonder what our most important American value might be. The author talks of freedom, dollar, love, truth and goodness. I am not sure we have a collective agreement on what characterizes our principal value here at home. Of course, Housden does hold American and British passports and did travel to Iran on his British passport, as Americans must travel in a group in Iran.
Housden discusses his pilgrimage often through the poets, but he describes it as “A pilgrimage serves to stitch time and eternity back into one piece again, one step at a time. …I could feel the thread of my life weaving in and out—for even now, in the afternoon of my life, I am still making my coat as I go.” Many people assume that when you travel, you go to learn about the place you are visiting. This is true for me personally. Housden was able to meet incredible people including artists, writers, filmmakers, and religious leaders and he was able to travel to a wide range of fascinating places. He later relates this pilgrimage to life in general when he says, “the one great pilgrimage all of us make, round and round, often not knowing where we are going until we get there, with a few watering stations along the way.” Housden’s pilgrimage to Iran, with its special ancient cities and religions that connect past to present, is filled with his personal moments but also illuminates how much we can all learn even from places we have been long taught are empty.
I would love to go to “Yazd, one of the oldest cities on earth…” where he met Jews and Zoroastrians in this city that “has been in existence for at least five thousand years.” In the United States, we think something that is two or three hundred years old is very old, but it is just a blink in the eye of time of Mesopotamia and cities where Marco Polo, Genghis, and Rumi wandered along the Silk Road. Housden saw Zoroastrianism in action. This religion with its prophet Zarathustra (“Judaism, Christianity and Islam—inherited their foundational beliefs from this, the first prophet of them all”), “received the teachings as a direct transmission from Zend Avesta, the One God, some 1,200 to 1,500 years before Christ.” The principles of Zoroaster are ones that many of us could agree on, whether we agree that this religion was the forefather of all the others or not: “…think good thoughts, use good speech, do good deeds.”
While delighting in the beauty and architecture of Isfahan with its square full of picnicking families, Housden leaves Zizou behind and discusses “the strange feeling, everyone in a family or walking in couples, except, it seemed for me. For all the beauty around me, for all the gentleness of the scene, I realized how alone I was, and, in that moment, lonely.” Finding himself and his situation of being alone are themes that he returns to again and again, especially at the close of the story.
He is invited to join a family to participate in Yalda, the Zoroastrian festival for the longest night of the year. And as Haleh tells him, “You will enjoy it, I think. Not many traditions still exist that go back over three thousand years.” Even though Housden is traveling alone, he is often included in family celebrations and states, “No one is a stranger for long in Iran.” You might have made the connection between this holiday “signifying the birth of Mithra, the son god…whose birthday was later moved to December 25…the Church ... proclaimed December 25 as Christ’s birthday, too.” All religions and nations have been built on the strengths of the earlier ones, but sometimes our history books do not have a long enough timespan to allow us to find the connections.
We find another example of being left out of current Western histories: Omar Khayyam from Nishapure (1048 – 1123), a scholar of math, astronomy, and a poet. “Four hundred years before Copernicus, Omar demonstrated that the earth rotated on its axis and revolved around the sun.” It may be that there are many more scholars to discover and thank. “Our world today—our achievements, our civilizations—rest on the bones of men and women like him, whether we know their names or not.”
He uses his freedom to travel unmolested as a central theme of this tale. Mixing with artists whose creations cannot be viewed at home, and religious leaders who gather in secret, sometimes he brings an almost cloak-and-dagger feeling to the story, especially given the intensity of the prologue. “There is an old Persian saying: When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” While I am interested in travel in Iran, I am certainly going to wait until the dark time of the current leadership has moved on.
Several of the people he met with live on two continents, and Housden asked many questions about these double lives and living under different rulers and regimes - passages in the book that have deep meaning, given the scary conclusion of his trip.
The blue dome of the Imam Mosque of Isfahan had drawn the author to Iran as well as the poetry. After traveling in Yazd, Mashhad, Tehran, Kurdistan, and of course Isfahan, he says, “A traveler is always leaving.”
Lisa Niver Rajna is the Geography Awareness Editor for Wandering Educators. You can find her at http://www.WeSaidGoTravel.com