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.

Shopping for Buddhas – Jeff Greenwald

The book starts in October 1987 with Jeff and his girlfriend caught out by a violent snowstorm in the mountains at Gosainkund in the Langtang national park about 30 miles north of Kathmandu. They eventually make their way down through the deep snow that obscured all the paths along with a German couple and their guides and Jeff decides that to mark the escape he wants a Buddha statue, but not just any Buddha statue it must be the best he can get for a budget of up to $300. Kathmandu and the neighbouring city of Patan are covered in small shops selling Buddhas along with a vast range of Hindu and Buddhist gods of which there are thousands to choose from but the quality varies dramatically and the very best pieces are rarely on the shelves but secreted away for collectors in back rooms.

Ostensibly the book is about Jeff’s search for the perfect Buddha and his frustration with minor, and sometimes major, errors in the proportions or features. To positively identify a figure as Buddha it needs to pass the thirty two significant traits along with eighty less significant ones and he lists seventeen of these to give some idea as to the level of detail he was looking for, such as the wheels marked on the feet and the lotus blossom and conch shell trumpet on the palms. There should be a mole like mark between his eyes known as the urna and the eyes themselves should be centred and slightly downcast. The list goes on and made finding his perfect Buddha extremely difficult. I say ostensibly though because the book is a lot more than an extended shopping expedition over a period of about seven months, we also learn something about the lives of the Nepalese and the corruption, narcotic abuse and police brutality that they are subjected to.

A lot of the narcotic smuggling into the country and artwork and antique smuggling out is blamed on members of the royal family by Greenwald who at the time were untouchable as rulers of the only Hindu kingdom which they ran like medieval monarchs not subject to any aspect of the laws of the country. He speaks to many people to confirm this and is duly warned off by others including a smuggling boss. He also refers to an Amnesty International report of human rights abuses in the country where anyone can be locked up for months at a time without recourse to any legal process and when they are released can be arrested again the next day to be subject to more beatings and torture at the hands of the police and prison authorities. To the outsider Nepal is a paradise, to the locals it could often be a prison and a particularly awful prison at that.

The final chapter in the Lonely Planet edition was written six years after the book had first been published in America in 1990 and deals with the change of the political situation after the king was forced to move towards a more constitutional rather than absolute monarchy in 1990 but even then the power of the monarchy was still overbearing. This would be illustrated by the royal massacre of 2001 when Prince Dipendra used an automatic rifle to murder the King, Queen and seven other members of the royal family at a party before apparently shooting himself. During the three days he survived he was declared King and therefore immune from prosecution before dying and the monarchy passing to his brother Gyanendra. Dipendra and Gyanendra are named in Greenwald’s book as the heads of the smuggling operations in the country. In 2008 the monarchy was deposed and the worlds only Hindu kingdom became a federal republic.

Ten years after Greenwald’s marathon shopping trip, which did result in him buying a Buddha although for considerably more that his original $300 I was also in Kathmandu and whilst I didn’t have the budget that Jeff Greenwald had, after all I was there to go trekking in the Everest region and that cost enough, I was also captivated by the metal casting craftsmanship displayed all over the city. Although like Jeff I also found that there was a lot of dross to pick through before finding the perfect figures made of brass and bronze which are now on the mantelpiece in my bedroom.

The Buddhist gods and goddesses I purchased during my visit to Nepal in April 1997, from left to right;
Kharachheri – A form of Bodhisatwa Avalokiteswara, known as the six syllabled Lokeswara “Om Mani Padme Hum’ which is carved on rock faces and chanted all over Nepal.
Mayadevi – The mother of Siddhartha Gautam
Green Tara – The spiritual consort of the Dhyani Buddha and is incarnated in all good women

Maverick in Madagascar – Mark Eveleigh

This is not my own lie. This is a lie that the ancestors told me

Mark Eveleigh opens his book with this traditional start to any story being told in Madagascar as he describes his plan to walk from north to south along the western coastline of the fourth largest island in the world and before you even get to that original plan you know that he doesn’t succeed because the maps at the very beginning of the book only show less than a quarter to that route. Instead there is a second map relating to Part II of the book where he heads across the middle of the country in a search for the Vazimba tribe who are a group of white pygmies not seen for decades or even centuries and this may be because the various tales relating to them describe them as alternately not short and not white. This is going to be a difficult hunt.

That his original plan was doomed almost from the start was due in part to the late rainy season which made the going even more difficult that it should have been and the fact that, despite his intention to purchase a horse as a pack animal for his equipment, all the horses in the north of the country appeared to have succumbed to a mysterious disease and died in the few months before he got there. Instead he decides to buy Jobi the bull zebu (a local breed of humped cattle) and despite warnings that nobody could drive a zebu that far decides to set off in the company, at least initially, of a couple of locals who were taking two cows for slaughter part way down the route he would have to follow,

Mark is an entertaining writer, particularly when describing his own discomforts, and there are plenty of those especially in Part II where he gets poisoned by various plants that he is walking through and has recurrences of the malaria he first caught in Indonesia whilst trying to avoid being shot by bandits. He is also an excellent photographer so it is somewhat disappointing that despite frequent references to taking photographs the format of the Lonely Planet Journey’s books doesn’t allow for pictures apart from on the cover as you so want a few pages of images especially when he describes a breathtaking view. He also clearly bonded with Jobi during his aborted trek and is genuinely upset when the walk has to be abandoned partly due to Jobi getting unwell so he sells him for a significant loss to a family that will take care of him rather than the higher offers from others where his lifespan is likely to be considerably shorter.

What stands out through the whole book is the welcoming and friendly nature of almost all the Malagasy people he meets, apart from the bandits, and their determination to share what little they have despite Madagascar being one of the poorest countries on Earth. Their astonishment that a Vazaha (literally outsider) has made it to their isolated village, quite probably the first white man that the children at least have ever seen, is an ongoing theme. Madagascar does have its tourist traps but they are few and far between and due to the danger of travelling especially in the zone rouge in the middle of the country tourists tend to be restricted to these small areas and mainly to an island off the west coast which Mark visits in order to complete paperwork and send letters but gets away from as quickly as possible. It’s a really good read and I definitely recommend it.

Lonely Planet Journeys was a relatively short lived series of travellers tales published by Lonely Planet between 1996 and 2002, I really enjoyed the eclectic selection and when it became clear the series was coming to an end I bought up as many different ones as I could find in my local bookshop and in all have twenty five titles. There doesn’t appear to be a definitive list of all the book published under this imprint, the LibraryThing list has forty seven titles but includes several books that were not actually part of the series so I’m guessing that I’m missing no more than ten actual books from the set, probably quite a bit fewer than that. This one has been sitting unread on my shelves for twenty years so it was about time I finally got round to picking it up. I have read most of the ones I have now but whilst checking the shelves for the date range and the tally of books there are at least two that I have no memory of reading so they will probably appear sometime in the next few months.