Jason Elliot's "Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran"

A Missed Opportunity

The British travel writer and reporter Jason Elliot won a prize for his first travelogue on Afghanistan. With his latest book "Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran" he sets himself ambitious goals, but succeeds only in boring the reader. By Susan Javad

Iran is on everyone's lips again these days. With a president who enjoys provocation and an atomic program that has the international community looking askance, the media is focusing on Iran more intensively than at any time since 1979.

This only whets readers' curiosity about books claiming to offer insight into the current inner life of a country that looks so very inscrutable from outside.

Jason Elliot's book initially sounds promising. The author, who wrote a much-discussed travelogue on war-torn Afghanistan in the late 1990s, certainly has the best of intentions: His personal travelogue aims to inform "generations of readers about the richness and diversity of Iranian culture".

Hindsight instead of insight

So far, so good. The reader looks forward to being shown Iran from a different perspective.

But unfortunately Jason Elliot takes the wrong tack. The title of the German edition, "Persia – God's Forgotten Garden", makes it clear that the subject is not Iran, but Persia, the old, now-abandoned name for the country.

Elliot attempts to show us the cultural achievements which the world owes to old Persia, and which now happen to lie in the past. Politics, he tells us, don't really interest him anyway.

So he covers quite a bit of ground. The very first chapter of this 445-page long account touches on 4500 years of history. In the process, it should be noted, some mistakes slip in, as they do in the further course of the book.

Just two examples: Ktesiphon, the capital of the Parthian dynasty, lies in present-day Iraq, not Iran, and the sixth Shiite Imam did not found the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty – at the time he was long dead.

An exhausting wealth of details

These slips are all the more irritating given that Elliot has little more to offer than excursions into the country's history. Of course he dutifully visits nearly all the cities in the country and reports on that in seven chapters eloquently headed with epigraphs from the poet Hafez.

​​But his account remains anemic, bland and fragmentary. According to the cover copy, Elliot speaks Persian and traveled the country between 2002 and 2005. It gradually becomes clear that these journeys consisted of several excursions undertaken at different points in time, which could explain the book’s awkward narrative rhythm.

His favorite subject is the history of the country's art and architecture. Thus he describes every building he visits – and in actually fact this is all he does – down to the last detail, integrating his observations into philosophical theories of art which at some point even a lenient reader is no longer willing to follow.

At the same time, Elliot claims to grasp Persian art in all its complexity – unlike mainstream art history scholarship – even solving the architectural riddle of the royal palace in Isfahan.

Just scratching the surface

In his travels he does occasionally meet people. Mainly taxi-drivers, who infuriate him with their constant attempts to rip him off; European tourists, whom he describes with condescension and malice as if he had a monopoly on traveling in Iran; a few Iranian women who are almost all "very beautiful" and a few other traveling acquaintances who almost always have a fortuitous bottle of whiskey on hand and all agree that everything was better in the old days, that is, under the Shah.

Unfortunately, these encounters never go beyond the superficial. After a few sentences the conversation is over and Elliot returns to page-long descriptions of historical events or architectural treasures.

After at most the first ponderous quarter of the book one asks oneself whom Elliot is addressing. Who is supposed to read this book? Who wants to read it?

Travelogues live from their authors' originality, their ability to connect with people and places, to develop a narrative rhythm and to captivate the readers with their impressions. An enthralling, entertaining travelogue about Iran, focusing less on major politics than on personal impressions, would be sure to find interested readers today.

But "Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran" has none of this. Is it a book for art and architecture lovers, then, or perhaps historians? Not even that – for many better and less long-winded books have already been written about the country's rich artistic and historical tradition. Unfortunately, Elliot's forgotten garden is eminently forgettable.

Susan Javad

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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