Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Poets & Pahlavan by Marcello Di Cintio

“Elegant and tasteful” may not fit the language of wrestling and wrestlers, even if the wrestler is a poet; however, the cover design of the book disabused me of this. And this travelogue was indeed as tasteful and elegant as its cover page.

I was not surprised either when I found the author did not like Tehran. The first chapter on Tehran was a tale of the author’s disappointment with our capital, which I think is one of the prettiest cities in the world only because of all my loved ones who live there. Besides, we know how ugly it was before Karbaschi became its mayor. The author did not like the noise, pollution, and traffic. Well, what else is left if one doesn’t like that? Luckily, he did not need to stay in the city, and he soon moved out.

The author visited only few standard tourist attraction cities, Shiraz, Isfahan, Mashhad, and Tabriz; the rest were humble, dusty villages in the middle of nowhere, where he was looking for some Zoorkhanehs (sport centers) to see the demonstration of some local wrestling techniques. Wherever he goes, whether a village in Kerman or one near Ardebil, in Mahalat or Sari, in Khorramabad or Tous, he not only finds someone to demonstrate his wrestling, but he finds a dead poet under a tombstone which most of the time, though not so officially, serves as a mausoleum for the local people and the visitors. We find the author either wrestling on a wrestling mat or kneeling next to a tombstone of a poet. It is in the evening that we find him with local people, whose names he remembers very well, having supper followed by a flavored hookah, and sometimes drinking homemade vodka! (Oh yes, there is such a thing!) Actually, this is one of the few Iranian artifacts I detest—the hookah, as well as vodka. I did not even know it comes in variety of flavors, such as strawberry or orange or cherry.
To be honest, I do not like wrestling either, though it is a national sport. It was my understanding that our national sport was horseback riding or a game called chogan, very similar to polo, and another horse related sport, saber. Though, our epic hero, Rostam, apparently was a wrestler too, I do not recall seeing any wrestling matches in our miniature paintings, while there is always a horse or swords. In any case, somewhere between Herodotus and Ferdowsi, I was misinformed. Now I know better!

I learned a lot about this sport through the Poets and Pahlavans, and I have found its significance and its function in our history. I would not have bothered to think about it if were not because of this book. Though this sport was the primary reason that Di Cintio went to Iran, what he came back with is something greater. If I learned one thing about wrestling, it is that two people compete with each other to show who will put the other off balance while maintaining his own. It is a game of balance, which is symbolically so central to the Iranian life. It is this underlying idea which makes it such a ritual in Iran which, compensating for its lack of glamour.

While traveling from village to village in search of a method which those local people use to test their ability to maintain their balance, the author comes to another central issue in Iranian life, and that is the poetry. From Mashhad to Tous to Kashan to Isfahan to Shiraz and Kerman and Yazd or even tribal Luristan, our author finds the tomb of a poet. He is astounded to see that he is not the only visitor to those graves. Some of them are elaborate monuments and are shrines for the Iranian people. Hafez, Saadi, Khayyam, and Ferdowsi, are among the most popular and the most visited graves, while others, less famous, still receive their own share of attention. Once he asks two women why Iranians visit the grave of these poets as if they are shrines of saints. One of the women says that it is because “Iranians love their poets.” “Well,” the author replies, “We all love our poets too, but it would never occur to us to visit their graves as pilgrimage.” The woman, not having an answer, says, “Or maybe because we do not have anything else to do.”

I do not think that if Di Cintio would have stayed in Iran for another four years, or for that matter another forty years, he would have found the answer to that question, just as I still do not know why in the case of domestic hardship and family dispute, or when I am confused about something important, I run  to Attar or Hafez,  or press my mind to come up with a similar situation in a novel or a short story and use it as a guide. But I know that when for months I woke up every two hours to take my sick dog back and forth to the street to relieve himself, it was the poem “It is a rare fortune to serve the elder of the wine house,” and its command of “love and servitude” which made me do so without knowing “its why.” As the author noted, these poets’ poetry is not valued just for its rhythm and beauty, but as a consultant and a companion for us all. The solutions we seek are not in their answer to us, but the virtue of our “seeking” the answer in their poetry. In almost every case, no matter what the question is, the answer is “love,” which is supposed to keep the balance.

The book, indeed, was a balanced report of its author’s findings in Iranian life, among the poor and humble, among the strong and the weak, among the generous and the not so generous, among the love and sometimes the hate, among those who are greedy and those who are not, he is able to see with balanced eyes, and not get carried away. Whatever he tells us comes from a good dear place, the heart and mind of a poet and athlete with no exaggeration.

I have no idea what facility the author has with the Persian language, but I was amazed at how accurately he grasped and relayed his observations and his experiences in Iran. I could not find even one single narrative in which his unfamiliarity with the culture or language would have caused misunderstanding. Indeed, he demonstrated his deep understanding of the Persian language through the poetry he cited, and his choice of diction gave the impression that he had become a native Iranian in such a short period of time.

Missing are photographs, though. I wished he had printed some of those pictures he took from those remote places in Kurdistan, Luristan, and Kerman or Yazd, which are off the beaten path. I think that, being a poet, he felt rightly confident that his words would draw the picture, but still I wish he had indulged us to a little more of real visual pleasure and not to relied so much on our imagination, which is sometimes poor.

The author has a notebook to jot down his findings. Even in remote villages he comes across people who have never seen a foreigner before, and someone, usually a young fellow, would ask him, “Would you write something in English?” “Of courses,” he says, and writes “My name is Marcello Di Cintio. I am Canadian and I speak English.” He adds his address and his telephone number. In exchange, they would write something in Persian for him. Without fail, they wrote some verses of poetry. The author quoted several of them in his book.

If there is any thing I would like to recommend him next time he goes to Iran and someone asks him to write something, I would say, Please Di Cintio, there are other things you can write beside your name and address, such as:

“Like kneeling in a chapel,
a bridge, too, offers
safe passage.

Wooden beams on stone piers
were an answered prayer,
a way to manage the horse,
as well as the swarming

Perhaps those blessed with
dry feet planted firmly
on the other side thought:
And God too must
have fastened bridges.”

By: Suzanne Hancock, Another Name For Bridge

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