Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mirrors of the Unseen

Mirrors of the UnseenJourneys in Iran
© 2006 Jason Elliot
432 pages

Readers uninterested in the origins and history of Islamic art, metaphysics, or pigeons, should skip to the next chapter, here.

In the late nineties, before Afghanistan was rendered more chaotic and dangerous than usual, Jason Elliot visited the country and was moved by it. Building on the success of that trip,  he looked over the border to Iran, a nation derided by the Afganis as full of sandwich-eating women, and decided to travel throughout it, as well. Mirrors of the Unseen collects the experiences of several trips made by Elliot throughout Iran, visiting it again and again as the seasons changed. What did not change was the ready willingness of Iranians to receive him  -- and ply him a surprising amount of spirits.    Elliot's interest in Iran is more cultural and historical than political, and as time passes he transforms from interviewing tourist to a man on pilgrimage, one with Iran's architectural wonders as its goal, working in historical recaps along the way, telling of the rise and fall of empires as he gazes at their ruins and proud reminders. He is particularly struck by the  predominant role of gardens in Persian culture and art, one that predates views of Heaven as a paradisaical garden. (Not by accident is the German title of this book Persia: God's Forgotten Garden.)   Elliot is sensitive about architecture in that it seems to affect him deeply, taking over his mind. Discussions with friends and discourses on Sassanian history fade into the background when Elliot takes in the fullness of a bazaar or mosque and begins to wax lyrical about plazas and windows.  He is self-conscious about some of his obsessions -- several chapters see him poring over historic maps and making measurements to figure out why a particular building isn't lined up the way symmetry  suggests it should -- to the point that he includes at least one disclaimer.    Of more general interest are Elliot's many conversations with Iranians of various ethnic groups; he never fails to find a friendly host wherever he travels, and those who do not have concealed stocks of ardent spirits have opium pipes.  (Similarly,  no one Elliot meets observes the laws against foreign television stations, but it's possible that the people most eager to host an Englishman were the most dubious about the currently-reigning politics.)   The Iranians featured here range from poor cab drivers to horse ranchers,   and unless they're selling something  they're extremely generous with their time and resources. 

Although the aesthetic tangents might throw some readers off, I personally enjoyed this curious mix of travel memoir, history, and architectural commentary. 


  1. i t does sound like an enjoyable book and, who knows, Iranians may be more like Americans than we might suspect... maybe that country is ripe for bicycle entrepreneurship: Flying Pigeon or Schwinn, are you listening?

  2. According to a website I encountered recently, Iran ranks #1 for hospitality to (foreign) cyclists, so who knows? (The "ranking" is personal to the website's authors.)


  3. Just saw your review for this on Goodreads. Looks like an interesting read.

    1. Yes, a bit of change from the usual Iran travel memoir, which is mostly political.


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