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MIRRORS OF THE UNSEEN Journeys in Iran by Jason Elliot

I have never travelled in Iran, though I have long wished to. Exploring Persia through the pages of Jason Elliot's ŒMirrors of the Unseen' has only intensified this desire but it is not a journey you should undertake lightly. Not only is the book four hundred pages long, but beneath the surface of this seemingly conventional travelogue there is a questing spiritual inquiry. Immersing yourself in it is like placing your trust in a charming, highly literate scholar as your travelling companion only to discover some little way through the journey that from time to time he is transformed into a mischievous dervish. But then of course the road to knowledge should include somersaults in the dust, a fair amount of opium, much café chatter, drinking iced whisky, cursing hotel-keepers, dream sequences and the gradual transformation of the ritual of bargaining into abusive blank verse. The warning signs that you have entered unusual territory come early. A three-page-long catalogue of Persian gifts to world civilization is both a salute and an answer to Paddy Leigh-Fermor's famous listing of Greeks - itself a conscious echo of Homer. It is also a sign that although this may be an account of the author's first few visits to modern Iran, it is also an extremely well-informed quest.

The contradictions of modern Iran provide plenty of speculative material for a contemporary quest. Why has the 1979 Islamic revolution, which removed 2,500 years of dynastic history from the street names of Iranian cities, so lovingly preserved its poetry and poets despite their questionable religious orthodoxy. How is a nation so obsessed by the sentimental cult of martyrdom yet so murderously aggressive on the roads ­ to the tune of a quarter of a million accidents a year? How come the taxi drivers combine the most wonderful self-abasing generosity of spirit and language with the tightest of purse-strings? How has the abundant wealth flowing from the oilfields helped to betray indigenous democracy not only in the infamous incident of Operation Ajax (the British and American coup against Prime Minister Mossadeq), but also right back in 1906 when the Constitutional Movement was betrayed by the discovery of the first oil fields in southern Persia? While exploring these issues Elliot also dispels many of our own ill-informed prejudices, which are gently blown away as we experience the extraordinary diversity and extent of modern Iran through his travels. Here we find a country that freely numbers Sunni Turks, coastal Arabs, Christian Armenians, mountain Kurds and elegant horse-loving expatriate Americans amongst its more traditional turban-wearing Mullahs from Qum. It contains the same climatic variation that you would find if you were to explore the region that stretched between London and Athens. And it is fascinating to find how the whole complex mythology surrounding Western Christianity - the blood sacrifice, the twelve followers, the final feast of bread and wine, the ascent into heaven, not to mention Christmas fir trees hung with lights and grail legends - can be directly traced back to Persian Mithraism. And Mithraism is also present in the imagery of the beloved masters of Persian poetry and seems to have flavoured the ideology of the modern masters of revolutionary Iran, the Shiite Mullahs, who follow a line of 12 imams, revere the sacrificial courage of Imam Husayn, who knew the certainty of defeat but the rightness of his cause, and who is acknowledged everywhere to be the heroic Iranian role model - "He died to save his people."

What is more unexpected is how a people who yearned for a genuinely religious government through some thirty royal dynasties are already beginning to look back upon the Shah's regime with the rosy coloured spectacles of nostalgia. How, in conversation, a modern Iranian can confess, "now that we actually have an Islamic government nobody wants anything to do with religion. This government has killed Islam. There is no religious feeling among the young". He paused, then added: "This is the saddest thing of all."

And it is somehow deeply comforting to realise, in Elliot's company, that the mischievous prejudices of western Orientalism are echoed by ŒWestruckness' or ŒOccidentosis' within Iran, with young men Œhungry for knowledge of the society to which I belonged, especially with regard to money, immigration and relations between the sexes; on these they were as ill-informed as most westerners are about the Islamic world.'

This attempt to understand the spirit of modern Iran is an extremely timely and important mission for any travel writer especially given the violence and ignorance of our own Western leaders. But beneath the contemporary insights, Jason Elliot is constantly exploring the persistent Iranian notion of the ŒUnseen'. For within all the civilizations of Iran there is a deep-seated belief in an unseen world of perfection from which the spirit of humankind receives its nourishment and encouragement. Everything that exists in the visible world is but an imperfect mirror of this hidden reality. The passionate relationship that many Iranians have with poetry - revealed in their elegant intellectual game of answering each other with quatrains - is fuelled by this sustaining belief, and it helps preserve a personal idealism amongst all the zealous failures and hidden corruptions of our times. Jason Elliot uses this knowledge to look once again at the acclaimed architecture of Persian Islam. Having dazzled and bemused the reader with his inquiry into the sacred geometry of the city plan of Isfahan, he then casually drops into the text, on page 319, a sliver of a warning that reads like Hilaire Belloc: "CAVEAT LECTOR, Readers uninterested in the origins and history of Islamic art, metaphysics, or pigeons, should skip to the next chapter, on page 337". You would be mad to take this signpost at face value, for in the following pages Jason Elliot offers us one of the most fluent, original and sublime appreciations of Islamic culture. Stepping, as it were, on the shoulders of Robert Byron's passionate advocacy of Islamic architecture, he at last sees the underlying purpose where others have hitherto only seen decoration. Indeed, once you have read Jason Elliot, the whole traditional repertoire of western architectural perception of Islamic architecture needs to be re-framed. He shows that although the Koran has no overt doctrine on art that underpins a universal Muslim aesthetic - yet there is one. For sura after sura of the Koran are filled with the twin images of catastrophe and bliss. Particularly important is the day of ŒSorting Out', when the sun will fold up, when the stars will fall and when the seas will boil. Only then will paradise be unfolded for the righteous, when "a Garden is yet brought near." The skill of a Muslim artist is in their ability to offer the onlooker glimpses of this perfect garden the paradise beyond - to offer up a ŒMirror to the Unseen', glimpsed through the archway of a mosque or a prayer mat, the begging bowl of a dervish, through a flower, a phrase or in the way light falls upon a vault. Nothing is greater, says the Koran, than the remembrance of God. A Muslim artist achieves this by creating visible reminders of the divine presence "in poetry by meter, in music by mode, in calligraphy by proportion, and in architecture by geometry."

Having taken us in an ecstatic flight some way on the path towards the heavens, Jason Elliot then plunges us straight back to earth with the first line of the next chapter, "It was time to think about money. I had run out of cash again." Such is the fate of writers. It is a pleasure to have learned from such a scholar and a dervish without having to accompany him on his travels.

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