Saved by Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran by Roger Housden
Housden carries with him a long cherished, admittedly romantic notion of Iran, which he wants to experience firsthand, and then share with the rest of us. He travels to Iran shortly before Obama's inauguration, choosing his British passport over his newly acquired American one. He has a few contacts there, which inevitably lead to a few more, and a list of must-see places to visit. He states that he "wanted to look beyond the political wrangling altogether, to the truth and beauty of an ancient and sophisticated culture; to know something of life as it is lived there, beyond the slogans and the headlines; to touch the creative spirit of Iran and to be touched by it in turn."
It was that last part, "the creative spirit," which made it difficult for me, the reader, to feel that I had seen the truth. Most of the people we meet are gracious, beautiful, successful, and western educated. Many maintain residences in both Iran and Europe or America. While Housden marvels at their ability to switch between two such different cultures, I find myself wondering how people live who do not have the option of spending half the year in America, people who could not afford to send their child to Oxford, people who are not among the elite. Is life in Iran as beautiful and sophisticated for a housemaid as it is for a filmmaker? These questions distract me, but this is not the book for them. This is a book to charm us, and it does. The descriptions of the beauty of the gardens, the domes, the people, the food - everything (except the hookas) sounds lovely in Housden's beautifully descriptive words.
A spiritual window shopper in his youth and now a secular humanist, Housden is especially interested in Sufism, the mystical side of Islam. Visiting shrines, watching whirling dervishes and swallowers of rocks and razors, Housden sees not "blind faith," but "an imaginative leap," which he says is in short supply in the West. It is remarks like these that made me sad for Housden. He sees so much beauty in a place to which he knows he will never belong. He can believe in miracles, but only in a land unlike his own. It feels like so much misplaced longing, and, for me, it obscured Iran. I never felt like I was seeing life in Iran; I was seeing Housden, as he experienced Iran.