Black on Black: Iran Revisited – Ana M Briongos

Ana Maria Briongos is a Catalan writer from Barcelona who first went to Iran for the academic year of 1973-74 to study Persian but this book is mainly about a month long return journey she made in April 1994 where she catches up with old friends from twenty years ago. The book is interesting because of the contrast she is able to provide between life in the last days of the Shah against post revolutionary Iran and importantly it also gives a female perspective of the restrictions and some benefits of the strict Islamic life that she encounters on this revisiting. I chose to read the book as a modern follow up to ‘The Road to Oxiana‘ which I enjoyed so much last month and it gives a view that is much more familiar to me as it is set just four years before I was to visit Iran.

A woman travelling on her own has to know how to look after herself and be respected, which means dressing appropriately and using common sense. Travelling on her own a woman has access to places where a man could never go.

This is particularly true in the Middle East, especially Iran, and Briongos takes us to some of those places but particularly we visit friends and their families especially Bahman who hosted Briongos in Tehran and drove her to various places outside the capital during the thirteen day festival that coincided with her arrival, so getting to know Iranian family life, the jealously guarded recipes for specific foods which each Iranian housewife puts out to impress visitors and the tight knitted relationships across generations. In particular we are introduced to Rave and her grand-daughter with Down’s Syndrome Bubu, these two would be constant characters whenever Briongos was in Tehran during April 1994. Rave was one of the wives of Bahman’s father and had become a sort of mother hen for lots of his children regardless of which wife was actually their mother. She was very unwell and trying to get treatment in Europe which at the end of the book we find that she does succeed in doing before ultimately emigrating to Australia with Babu and Babu’s mother, whom we never actually meet because she was living in Hamburg. It is good that things worked out for Rave and Babu you really feel for both of them as the narrative progresses.

Interspersed with the account of the trip in 1994 are lots of memories of her first visit to the country both retelling of stories from then and also trips such as going back to the university where she studied two decades earlier only to find that she couldn’t go to the building where she lived then as it was now male only whereas before it was strictly a female domain, wanting to at least go somewhere familiar from that time she ventures into the library only to encounter a professor who had taught her all those years ago and who promptly whisks her off to the park over the road where they can chat and catch up more freely. It’s the personal touches that really make this book so enjoyable to read, you really feel as though you are with her on this trip back into her past.

This was Briongos’s first book, published in 1996, although she has written ten more since then about her times in Afghanistan, India and further trips to Iran. My copy is the first English translation published in 2000 as part of the Lonely Planet Journeys series, a now defunct series of travel books which I really enjoyed whilst they existed due to their eclectic range and focus on personal stories. When I discovered the series was being killed off I bought as many of the titles I didn’t already have as I could find and this book was one of them. Twenty years later I have finally opened it after it sat on the shelves waiting for me to get to it and I know there are still a couple of that batch of books I bought all in one go that are still waiting. I enjoyed this book so much that I suspect they will not have much longer before I finally get to read them.

Persian Poets

In 1997 I was in Iran and in the Tehran museum saw fabulous hand painted pages from the great classics of Persian literature some of which were 1000 years old, so were contemporary with the great early medieval illuminated manuscripts produced by the monks in Western Europe that I was already familiar with. However these pages were on a different level being more miniature paintings surrounded by text rather than marginal images, a complete book would be a wonder of any age but few have survived intact.

The great epic poem Shahnameh by Ferdosi (also Ferdowsi, Firdusi etc. Persian to English isn’t a precise transliteration) was one of the stars of the exhibition with several wonderful pages on display and at over 100,000 lines it is the longest poem ever written by one author. Written and revised between 997 and 1010AD the 1000 year old poem tells the tale of Persia from a mythological start and the creation of the world, through a time of legendary heroes to historical accounts up to around 750AD and the fall of the Sassanid rulers of Persia. Despite the age of the text it is still perfectly readable to modern Iranians whereas Geoffrey Chaucer (who lived roughly 400 years later) is about as far back in English that you can go and  have a reasonable chance of being able to understand the meaning. Regrettably I don’t read Persian so the text is beyond me but the illustrations made me yearn for a copy for myself. So along with a couple of rugs my souvenirs of Iran included a book in tribute to this great work and the ancient illustrations that so fascinated me on first seeing them.

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The book was printed in 1991 and describes itself as a commemoration of the millennium of composing Shahnameh by Ferdosi. It was a few years early but the 1000 years have now passed and I’m glad it was early or I may not have been able to obtain this lovely, if somewhat large (42cm x 30cm), volume. The basic premise of the book is that 22 paintings by Mahmoud Farshchian done in the old style of Persian miniature art that I so admired would be used to illustrate sections from the heroic phase of the poem, it is written mainly in Persian with some English to explain the paintings.  The introductory pages are truly beautiful

and then we get into the main work which is the 22 modern interpretations of pages from the ancient works, I love the way that the pictures reach out beyond the frame. Click on the pictures to access full screen versions.

I have chosen 5 pages from the book to illustrate it and these are:

  • In his third labour, Rostam slays the dragon
  • Sohrab launches an offensive against Persia
  • Siavosh undergoes the ordeal by fire which Keykavus has arranged
  • Rostam sets Bijan free from the well where he has been imprisoned by order of the Turanian ruler
  • View of the Hunting Ground, with Bahram Gur talking to the harpist maiden

Ferdosi is not by any means the most famous of the Persian poets, that honour probably goes to Hafez and the annual Hafez festival was on when I arrived in his birthplace of Shiraz. He lived from 1315 to 1390 and like Ferdosi his name is more of an honorific, the difference is that we don’t know the real name of Ferdosi but Hafez was Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad. Being called Hafez indicates somebody who has memorised the Koran, which apparently he did at a remarkably early age and that is the name with which he has gone down in posterity. Also on my bookshelves is the programme for the event.

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and I took several photographs at his mausoleum which is where recitals and singing of his poems were taking place. He is a much loved poet in Iran which is odd when you consider that most of his poems involve wine, love or the beauty of women; hardly the subjects that are approved of in conservative Iran.

There are fortunately several good English translations including Penguin paperbacks of Hafez’s works, and now Ferdosi has also been included in Penguin Classics so let us leave this blog post with some words by Hafez from The Penguin Little Black Classic “The nightingales are drunk”

With wine beside a gently flowing brook – this is best;

Withdrawn from sorrow in some quiet nook – this is best;

Our life is like a flower’s that blooms for ten short days

Bright laughing lips, a friendly fresh-faced look – this is best.