Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys across Iran

By Samii, A. William | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys across Iran


Samii, A. William, The Middle East Journal


Persian Pilgrimages: Journeys Across Iran, by Afshin Molavi. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. xx + 308 pages. Index to p. 315. $25.95.

Reviewed by A. William Samii

Readability is the main advantage of books authored by journalists over those written by scholars and policy analysts. Afshin Molavi's Persian Pilgrimages is no exception to this rule. When he is describing his encounters with local residents during his 1999-2000 trips to Abadan, Ahvaz, Isfahan, Mashhad, Shiraz, Tabriz, Tehran, and other cities - the eponymous pilgrimages - one wants to keep reading and learning more.

The disadvantage of some journalists' books is that they are little more than a piecing together of the author's news articles. That is not the case in Persian Pilgrimages. Molavi has researched Iranian history and interviewed notable scholars of Iran, thereby putting current events into a historical context. Molavi's Persian-language ability gives him a significant advantage over Westerners who must depend on interpreters and fixers. He has casual encounters with regular Iranians, from the local fruit vendor to the inevitably loquacious taxi driver, rather than just interviews with government officials, academics, and political figures. Persian Pilgrimages reveals two seemingly contradictory themes.

One of those themes is young Iranians' desire to emigrate and to have better economic opportunities and greater social freedom. The book's first chapter describes an encounter with a man who wants to move to the United States. "He wanted a job, a decent wage, a life, a chance to reclaim his dignity" (p. 35). During a typically anti-American Friday Prayer sermon in Mashhad, a young woman asks Molavi to help her complete a form for the Green Card lottery (pp. 81-82). The book's final chapter describes a pilgrimage to Damascus. Older Iranians go there to visit Zeinabieh, the shrine of Imam Husayn's sister, while younger Iranians go there to get Canadian visas.

"I don't want to leave Iran, but I have no choice," a young computer software specialist tells the author (p. …

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