Posts Tagged ‘Mirrors of the Unseen’

I finished Jason Elliot’s book about Iran, Mirrors of the Unseen. It was hard work but rewarding.

I bought the book because I really liked Elliot’s An Unexpected Light about the history, culture, and daily life of Afghanistan back when the mujahideen were still fighting the Soviets. (I’m reasonably sure that Tony Kushner’s prophetic play Homebody/Kabul was partially based on that book.)

Mirrors of the Unseen is a challenging read at times because it is very intellectual. It has lots of words and history and concepts that were new to me, but it also has wonderful stories about the ordinary people Elliot met. Even though he wrote it a few years before the the June 20, 2009, Green Revolution, you can get a sense of the attitudes of normal Iranians and what might have led to the unsuccessful revolt.

Elliot does not focus on politics, but rather on Persian art and architecture, which inspired him at a deep level.

I was reading a passage to my friend Claire on the train, and she said, “No wonder it has taken so long to read! It’s poetry!”

So for my last post on the book, I will give a few examples of Elliot’s style. He describes some English tourists as looking “very sad, and it seemed quite likely they had arrived in Iran by accident, like fish that are said to be swept up in hailstones and deposited hundreds of miles away.”

As he travels toward the southern part of Tehran toward the train station, “the surroundings grew steadily more decrepit, as if an old witch was being shed of her make-up.” And the train itself “had the air of a dragon straining at its leash.”

Here’s my favorite, from a discussion of whether the fascination that all religions seem to have with flame is passed from ancient cultures to modern or is something innate in humans: “Had the sanctity of flame erupted irresistibly into human consciousness as mysteriously as the hexagon into the intelligence of the bee?”

My other posts on the book are here, here, and here.

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Huck Gutman, the chief of staff for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, is a man who knows the value of putting your head into a poem once in a while and leaving the chaos behind. And according to the Boston Globe, an increasing number of people are signing up for his poetry listserv.

“The chief of staff for the Senate’s liberal firebrand has created an unlikely patch of common ground. That place lies in the power of the poetry that longtime University of Vermont professor Huck Gutman … distributes by e-mail to 1,700 readers who include all the Senate chiefs of staff, several White House staffers, university presidents, academics, journalists, and former students.” Read more.

Wallace Stegner has written, “No place is a place until it has a poet.” In fact, there are countries where poetry, ancient and modern, is core to national identity. Perhaps surprising to Americans, one such country is Iran.

I have blogged about Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran before. It’s taking me a while to finish it because, for a travel book, it is seriously intellectual. (Here is a post in which author Jason Elliot describes the earliest known electric battery. And here is my post called “Horse Agrees Not To Be Extinct.”)

One of the most intriguing aspects of Elliot’s book is how many ordinary people he meets who have interests that would seem quite high brow to the average Westerner. Workmen who know all about ancient architecture. Postal employees who are still angry that the Greeks twisted the facts about Persia hundreds of years ago. And people who love poetry.

In one anecdote, Elliot makes a vague poetic reference to a seatmate on an airplane who encourages him to go on and read from the blind poet Rudaqi. “I read the first couplet in Persian,” writes Elliot, “but before I could reach the second [my seatmate] said, ‘No, no, it’s like this.’ ” He reads the rest with deep feeling, adding, “Poetry … makes us very emotional.”

Similarly, at a private home, Elliot watches a man rapt and gently swaying to a musical recitation of classical poetry. The man turns out to be the Foreign Minister.

And when Elliot goes to see the chief of immigration police in Isfahan on a routine matter, he interrupts him reading a poetry book and observes that “the final syllables as he stood up, with an unmistakably distant look on his face, were still fading visibly from his lips.”

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A couple weeks ago, I wrote that I was reading Jason Elliot’s book on Iran. That was my post about the rediscovery of the “extinct” Caspian horse.

Elliot slams through millenia of history in that part of the world kind of like the comedy troupe that purports to perform “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” in 90 minutes. He is very good at it, I think. But maybe that’s because I know so little about the endlessly shifting borders of Central Asia and the Middle East.

Among other interesting tidbits in the book is this one on the Baghdad Battery. In Mirrors of the Unseen, Elliot writes that this ancient form of battery was “constructed of an earthenware shell containing an iron rod insulated by an asphalt plug from an outer copper sleeve. A modest electric current is produced when the housing is filled with an electrolytic solution such as lemon juice.”

Wikipedia has more. “The Baghdad Battery, sometimes referred to as the Parthian Battery, is the common name for a number of artifacts created in Mesopotamia, during the dynasties of Parthian or Sassanid period (the early centuries AD), and probably discovered in 1936 in the village of Khuyut Rabbou’a, near Baghdad, Iraq. These artifacts came to wider attention in 1938 when Wilhelm  König, the German director of the National Museum of Iraq, found the
objects in the museum’s collections. In 1940, König published a paper speculating that they may have been galvanic cells, perhaps used for electroplating gold and silver objects … This interpretation continues to be considered as at least a hypothetical possibility. If correct, the artifacts would predate Alessandro Volta’s 1800 invention of the electrochemical cell by more than a millennium.”

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I’ve been reading Jason Elliot’s book Mirrors of the Unseen, which is about time he spent in Iran (not long before the green revolution of June 20, 2009, was trampled).

He’s a lovely writer if a bit overwhelming with his ability to compress centuries of history. I liked his earlier book, too, on Afghanistan, An Unexpected Light.

In the car on Sunday I read aloud a section of Mirrors that describes Elliot’s extended stay with Louise Firouz, an American who married an Iranian in the 1960s and has lived in Iran ever since — despite stints in prison and twice having all her family’s property confiscated.

The part I read aloud was about how she had researched, rediscovered, and bred a small horse thought to be extinct, one that turned out to have an ancestor going farther back than the Arabian horse. It’s the little Caspian, which was finally found, in pitiful shape, near the Caspian Sea and in Turkmenistan.

Nowadays you can find lots of videos of these horses on YouTube. I thought I would include this video, which is from a Caspian stud farm in Sweden.

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