Thursday, 13 December 2012

Lives of every-day Iranians detailed in Alison Wearing's Honeymoon in Purda

From The Week of December 3, 2012

As much as the connections between humanity's various societies have been deepened by the Internet, in both its capacity to expose and unite, life beyond our customary borders is still foreign to us. For there is no land like the one that reared us. We know its rhythms and its eccentricities, the beauty of its trees and the sweetness of its air. We speak its language with a fluidity that we shall never lose. And so everything we encounter outside that bubble is filtered through the lens of our native land. It is not simply accepted as is, or how it should be. It is compared and contrasted by minds seeking always to find the right way of things when there is no such way. There is only what is. And the sooner we understand that, the easier it will be for us to accept the unknown and the foreign. This is a lesson wonderfully illustrated in Ms. Wearing's travel log which is no less relevant for its age.

For most of us in the West, Iran is a fascinating enigma, a proud nation about which very little is concretely known. We hear about its faiths and its leaders, its oil and its revolution, but we know next to nothing about its ordinary citizens, their lives, their customs, their pasttimes. To those uninterested in politics, this is incomprehensible. After all, as one of the oldest inhabited territories in the world, Iran occupies a unique place in human history, one that has not only captivated scholars but engrossed anthropologists attempting to trace the history of our species. But to those who do wrap themselves in current events, the answer to this dearth of knowledge is all-too-depressingly obvious. For as a consequence of western colonialism and general interference in its government and its resources, Iran is an intensely closed society, commanded by a government highly suspicious of Greeks bearing gifts.

Heedless of this impediment and eager to see the world, two youthful Canadians set out to explore this mysterious nation. Masquerading as husband and wife in order to smooth their passage through a more rigid culture, Ms. Wearing and Ian, her gay companion devote five months of the year 2000 to traveling through Iran's cities and villages, its mountains and its deserts, its snows and its sweltering heat. And even though Ms. Wearing spends much of the journey enshrouded in conservative, Islamic garb, in deference to the sensitivities of the people they encounter, she is able to experience this distant country with the intensity of an artist, and through the eyes of a woman for whom everything she sees is foreign. Her experiences are unforgettable.

Writing with the passion of a painter and the literary flair of a diarist, Ms. Wearing's Honeymoon in Purda is an oddly affecting work of non-fiction that touches on the philosophical as much as it does the practical. Unapologetic of her open, western sensibilities, the author is simultaneously respectful of the traditions of the land she's chosen to explore, immersing herself, for better or worse, in the habits and the rituals of a very foreign place. This cultural awareness not only prevents her work here from drifting into smugness or self-involvement, it exposes her to people who, despite holding very different political and cultural views, are ready and willing to engage with her. Honeymoon in Purda makes it clear that we are imbibing the thoughts of a rare mind, unencumbered by the narrowness of age and or prejudice.

Naturally, there are moments when Alison and Ian grate upon the reader. However, this is as much a credit to them as a curse to the work. For it is a consequence of their willingness to be seen at their worst, not a result of a failing of character. And in any event, the extent to which they expose us to Christians and Mexicans, to drug-dealers and beleaguered wives, to eager shopkeepers and hospitable soldiers, more than makes up for any frustrations one might have for the pair's foibles. This is Iran as it has rarely been seen, Iran as it may not be seen again for some time, more's the pity.

Honeymoon in Purda is a lovely chronicle of a life-altering journey that is elevated above the fray by its characters, both exhilarating and depressing. Some literary license has to have been taken, to have so accurately transcribed so many of the conversations that take place here, but this is a flaw that does nothing to reduce my appreciation. (4/5 Stars)

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