Colleen Clark's Reviews > Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah's Beard

Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah's Beard by Nicholas Jubber
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Apr 25, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, travel, memoir, middle-east
Read in April, 2012

A rich account of learning Farsi in Tehran and reading the Shahnameh ("The Book of Kings" written in the 10th century) while staying in the home of a literature professor at Tehran University and then traveling to the birthplace of the poet and later to Afghanistan.

The book is fascinating on many levels. First, the poem is known to all literate and many illiterate speakers of Persian (Farsi) which includes Tajik (Tajikistan) and Dari spoken in much of Afghanistan. There's no equivalent in English at all starting with the fact that even Shakespearean English is difficult for many of us. Persian, perhaps uniquely, is little changed over the centuries and over the wide area in which it is spoken, so the Shahnameh can be read and understood today. Further, many people have memorized it or large parts of it even though it is literally of epic length - 60,000 verses according to Wikipedia.

Second, Jubber's experience staying with the professor in his home, which includes his wife - not secluded inside the home - and two 20 something children - one man and one woman. So there's much about the difference between the inside - which is freewheeling - and the outside where behavior is restricted.

Jubber travels to Afghanistan because he wants to go to Ghazni - in eastern Afghanistan - to see where Shah Mahmud, then the major political figure between Iran and India and who dismissed Ferdowsi's magnum opus after he especially travelled to present the Shahnameh to Shah Mahmud - had his court.

Jubber's travel across Afghanistan was after 9/11/2001 so it was extremely hazardous, not to say even foolhardy. He was escorted by a multi-lingual guide from Herat (western Afghanistan.) Jubber had to pretend to be mute so that it wouldn't be obvious that he was not an Afghan.

And there's more. Altogether a gripping story for anyone with an interest in Iran, Afghanistan, Persian history etc etc etc.
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