Book Review: Saving by Beauty in Iran

I’ve wanted to go to Iran for nearly as long as I’ve been traveling. There is no other country that I have heard travelers so universally praise — the people, the culture, the food; it’s rare to meet anyone with something bad to say about Iran. Unless of course you’re talking politics.

British-American author and poet Roger Housden has a new book out that’s only further fueled my desire to see Iran. Housden’s Saved By Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran weaves a tale through Iranian people, culture and poetry in an attempt to unlock the secrets of a complex land, which, for most westerners, is largely known through negative headlines.

“The image of Iran as a dark and scary place,” writes Housden, “remains a difficult one to dislodge from the collective imagination.” But Housden does an admirable job, and does it without ignoring the political, religious and cultural realities of Iran. Indeed, thanks to an opening chapter cut short — in which Housden is detained, questioned and threatened with prison — the threat of Iran’s political realities hangs over the rest of the book. It works on two levels, constantly in the back of the reader’s mind, making the book something of a page turner as you wait to find out what will happen, and also, I imagine, not unlike the subtle threat that hangs over Iran more generally — traveling in the midst of beauty while never forgetting the harshness of the government that currently presides over that beauty.

Thanks to Housden’s skill as a writer, Saved By Beauty is indeed a beautiful read. Housden’s previous books include one on the famous Iranian poet Rumi, and the poetry of Iran threads through this new book, creating a tapestry that helps pull together some of Housden’s rather disparate experiences in the country.

The title comes from a line in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, where Prince Myshkin says, “I believe the world will be saved by beauty.” Housden makes a similar claim in the pages of Saved By Beauty, though more with a sense of hope than with the sense of conviction Dostoyevsky’s Myshkin has.

Of course between the time when Housden left Iran and the publication of Saved By Beauty reformers in Iranian rose up in protest and were brutally put down by the government.

But lest you get the idea that Saved By Beauty is about Iranian politics, it’s decidedly not. It’s about beauty–the beauty to be found in the land and architecture of Iran, as well as the people. As Housden points out in the book, despite Iran’s current political situation, it is a nation that builds monuments not to generals, but to poets and Sufis (Muslim mystics). And it’s not just Sufi monuments Housden encounters, but the everyday world of Iran as well:

Sufism is a gateway to the miraculous… For Iranians, even for those of a secular bent –of whom there are many– another dimension is always felt to be near at hand. They even have a word for it, al ghayb, the unseen world that can move mountains in this one. Rather than blind faith, the existence of al ghayb requires a an imaginative leap, a leap that is willing to conceive that the world itself might run at any moment on a different axis.

As any traveler knows, it takes very little to suddenly find your world and the world around you turning on an unexpected axis, and Housden’s book is full of experiences vagabonds can relate to — both positive and negative.

Saved By Beauty also delves into common western misconceptions–like the idea that all Iranian women wear black chadors, they don’t–and untangles the reality from the images found in popular media. While he doesn’t try to sugarcoat the reality of women’s lives in Iran, Housden does cut through stereotypes to reveal something much more complex and nuanced.

If, like most of us, your perception of Iran is based on what filters into our lives through western camera lenses and pens, Housden’s book is a kind of revelation. Not that Iran is somehow much freer than you imagined (though it may well be), but that, as with anything, there is always much more to the story than fits in the brevity of soundbites.

Saved By Beauty is above all else a kind of love poem to Iran, one well worth reading even if you have no interest in visiting. I highly recommend picking up a copy. Saved By Beauty is currently on sale at Amazon ($15) or pick up a copy at your favorite bookstore.

Posted by | Comments (4)  | May 18, 2011
Category: General

4 Responses to “Book Review: Saving by Beauty in Iran”

  1. T Roach Says:

    Thanks for an informative review! I’d pick up a copy. Iran is mos def ‘on the list’.

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