Hugh S. Galford is director of the AET Book Club.
WW Norton, 2002, 315 pp. List: $25.95; AET: $18.25.
"Tell me your story." A simple introduction, but one used to great effect by Afshin Molavi in Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran. Journalist Molavi, who was born in Iran but whose family moved to the U.S. before the revolution, covered the pro-reform movement in Iran from its inception in 1997 on hurried trips to his homeland. In 1999, he again left for Iran, this time to spend a year and a half in the country. "Tell me your story" was his single request of those he met. The resulting interviews, both with his friends and those who called him with their stories, form the heart of this insightful book.
While Molavi has reported on Iranian politics, his approach here is more cultural. As any student of the country knows, Iran has a long, rich history of which its people are proud. By focusing on Iranian culture, both as it was and in its contemporary manifestation, Molavi provides the reader with a deeper, more nuanced understanding of a country often vilified in the West.
Molavi takes as his point of departure the idea of pilgrimage, a common reason for travel in Iran. These journeys allow him to introduce his readers to the luminaries of Iranian culture, the issues that such figures still embody, and the views on these issues held by his travel companions. From Persepolis and Cyrus' tomb at Pasargad, to the tombs of Omar Khayyam and Hafez, to the war martyrs' shrine at Shalamcheh, even to Damascus, Molavi covers a great deal of ground, both physically and figuratively.
Through these trips, Molavi is able to show how divided a country Iran is. The revolution of 1979 was a defining moment in Iranian history, a sharp break with its past. No longer was Iran's pre-Islamic history taught in schools, no longer were boys named Cyrus and Darius. Everything royal was converted for the Islamic Republic's use, or, like the tent city for the shah's 2,500-year celebration of Iranian kingship, allowed to stand and decay as a reminder. In some ways, the break has been complete the lack of knowledge of Iran's ancient past among most young people being one example--but in others less so. As many Iranians are too young to remember the shah, the Republic's invective against the Pahlavis has no resonance. Those who are old enough to remember see many of the same problems with the current system that existed in the old--and long for the social freedoms they enjoyed in the past. Even the cult of the king has survived, with the crown traded for the turban.
Still, some aspects of Iranian culture have survived the revolution. The reverence and deep love and appreciation felt for their poets still exist among Iranians. One of Molavi's friends in Tehran, Mr. Ghassemi, could quote Ferdowsi's "Shahnameh" at length--and from memory. Iran's mystics also hold strong sway--a point easily overlooked by those who study the current system. …