Patricia's Reviews > Saved by Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran

Saved by Beauty by Roger Housden
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Aug 14, 12

Read from June 01 to August 14, 2012

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Patricia I love to travel, I love to meet people and hear their stories, and I love to appreciate the beauty inherent in each place. This book is the story of Roger Housden's dream-fulfilling journey to Iran at the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009.

Roger Housden was born in England, but now lives in San Francisco. He is a writer, writing mostly about poetry. This book is filled with Iranian spiritual/romantic poetry.

Roger went to Iran with the names of some Iranian artists, and religious and political leaders' names to meet. From them he was introduced to many other Iranians doing interesting work there and abroad. It is no surprise, then, at the end of the book, when Roger is leaving the country to return home that he is detained by national security agents and interrogated for 36 hours about who he is and what he was doing in Iran. In the end, he is saved by Beauty, by God.

It's a very good story, putting much of the world's religions in the context of an ancient civilization. These were my favorite passages from the book:

"The function of the imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange." --G. K. Chesterton, p. 13

"As I would do almost every day, I both marveled and shuddered at the way Iranian drivers regularly reduced traffic lanes to irrelevance. Like everyone else, my driver would straddle two lanes, waiting for the nearest and best opening to move one car ahead in the mass of traffic. The road was one great racetrack with no rules, which accounts for the fact that a day never went by without my witnessing an accident." p. 28

"None of their films are shown publicly in Iran. Nor are any of [Abbas] Kiarostami's, but he continues to insist on living here, for the same reason that most artists give. His soul is Persian, and his subjects grow from the soil of Iran. He once said, "I feel pain when I see that my country is considered evil. So in all my films, my wish is to give a kinder and warmer image of human beings and my country."
"Art's only mission," he has said elsewhere, "is to make people feel closer." p. 30

"Don't be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, without complicated explanation,
so everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you." --Rumi, p. 31

""At night you can only see one stone at a time," his grandfather's voice had said. "Your life will be like that. Trust it." p. 33

"The restrictions created an edge, a resistance that could actually serve the artistic process. Constraint forced you to think creatively." p. 39

"Art was a huge devil, she (Mania Akbari) said: dark, sexy, alluring. That devil had grabbed hold of her hand as soon as she was born. From that moment on, her fate was sealed. The Ugly Duckling, her father would call her, not because she was ugly, but because she was so different from the other children. And still now, when she was alone, this being called Art, this man-devil, would always be there with her. She and Art were like Jonah and the whale. It was so all-consuming it had swallowed up the whole of her life. Its presence was so vast she couldn't allow anything else into her world, and that was painful. Art would attack her, seize her, rape her. Art was her violent lover who took her by storm. They would make love, she would get pregnant, and give birth. When she finally cut the cord, she would feel relaxed. Like a baby. And when she had given birth to it, she would feel grateful and happy. She would bathe for hours in exhausted bliss.
Often as she talked, the great devil Art would shift shape and become the great devil Iran. She belonged to Iran, she said; Iran was her husband. That was why she couldn't imagine living anywhere else. Iran was her abusive husband and she had twenty-two children by him--all her art--and she could not leave her husband because of them. Every time she got off a plane in Tehran from abroad she would shout, "You ugly brute of a husband! Husband that I love!"" p. 45

"Your thousand limbs rend my body.
This is the way to die:
Beauty keeps laying
Its sharp knife
Me." --Hafez (translated by Daniel Ladinsky), p. 51

"Maybe I just liked to get drunk on amother man's words, whipping up a sentimental storm to mask my own poverty of feeling." p. 79

"Remember the proverb, Eat the grapes.
Do not keep talking about the garden.
Eat the grapes." --Rumi, p. 79

"We tremble like leaves about to let go,
There is no avoiding pain,
Or feeling exiled, or the taste of dust.
But also we have a green-winged longing
For the sweetness of the friend." --Rumi, p. 79

"His works aren't invariably beautiful, by they all bespeak beauty as an operating principle: the catch in consciousness when mind and body merge in a state of praise for existence, just as it is." --Peter Scheldahl, on the work of the artist Gabriel Orozco, New Yorker, Decebmber 21, 2009, p. 86

"[I]t dawned on me that I was on a pilgrimage of sorts. A pilgrimage serves to stitch time and eternity back into one piece again, one step at a time. And so it was that, there in Persepolis, I could feel the thread of my life weaving in and out, in and out--for even now, in the afternoon of my life, I am still making my coat as I go." p. 91

"The merchant, as Upham Pope made clear, was living in a culture that made beauty a sovereign value. It was a religious as well as an asthetic sentiment: a form of praise. Far from being a mere display of wealth or culture, a house like this seems designed to induce a state of mind, to conjure a feeling that takes one below appearances to the primal experience of Beauty. Both Judaism and Islam extol Beauty's virtues and value. In Islam, Beauty is one of the names for God. This merchant's house had the name of God written all over it." p. 96-97

"It was she who told me that Zoroastrianism was far from merely a quaint relic of the past. If you believe in any of the following, she said, then Zarathustra lives on in you: good and evil, angels, the devil, heaven and hell, the coming of a Messiah, the Day of Judgment at the end of the world, and resurrection. It was a humbling thought, that some of our deepest cultural beliefs led back down through the millennia to a single man--a true revolutionary, the very first prophet living somewhere out on the Iranian plateau, who was inspired to write down in songs the wisdom of a voice he called God." p. 98

"Come, come, whoever you are.
Wonderer, worshipper, lover of leaving.
It doesn't matter.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come, even if you have broken your vow
a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come." --Rumi, p. 103

"Inside, framed paintings of Zoroaster hung on the walls, along with the three principles of his religion: think good thoughts, use good speech, do good deeds. Principles like that know no boundaries." p. 104

"I did not want to rush straight to the mosque whose image had captivated me so long ago. I preferred to inhale it all in small gasps." p. 113

"I sat under the great dome for half an hour, and during that time just a trickle of visitors came by, all of the Iranian except for a French couple. Mostly young, they would stand for a moment under the center of the dome and clap their hands or whistle to hear the legendary echoes--twelve are audible to the human ear--just one more testimony to the mastery of the arthitect and builders. One young man with a neatly trimmed beard stood at the black spot marking the center and sang the call to prayer in perfect pitch. He set the whole building ringing, a resonating chamber, and my body shivered with a rare form of pleasure." p. 117

"Wayfarer, indulge me in a sober moment.
Please set down your glass.
I can help you write a letter of resignation
To all your fears and sadness." --Hafez, p. 128

"I have a friend who grew up in Isfahan and only left it two years ago to marry a man in San Francisco. She dreams of Isfahan every day, and not just because it was her home, where her mother still lives. She thinks of the women leaning their heads in to share confidences in the street, she says. What simple and intimate friendship they share with one another; they know they can call on each other any time of the day or night. She thinks of how close to the earth the living is there; how the senses are fed with the smell of roasting pistachios and spices, the billowing call to prayer, the bustle of bodies in the narrow lanes of the bazaar. She thinks of the simple warmth and courtesy of daily life. It's just not the same, she says, in her life by the Bay." p. 129

"There is an old Persian saying: When it is dark enough, you can see the stars." p. 129

"I had heard about the Sufi sheikh from a friend who had been traveling in the area a few years earlier when he was robbed and beaten in his hotel room--a rare occurrence in Iran. All his money, his passport, his credit cards, and his driver's license were stolen. Later he suspected it to be the work of the Iranian Intelligence Services. It was a warning, he thought, not to continue with his cultural research in the area.
He had been given the number of this Sufi sheikh by a friend in Tehran, and he called him, the only person he had any connection with in Kurdistan, to see if he could help. The sheikh responded by saying he would send someone to fetch him in an hour. On the hour, a young man appeared in the lobby of his hotel and drove him to another town, a few hours away. He stopped outside an enclosed building in a residential part of the city, and motioned my friend to follow him inside.
A couple of hundred people were crammed in the building. The sheikh had assembled them in the space of an afternoon for the benefit of the American. When my friend walked in, they all began singing and swaying, and holding their arms out toward him. It was a gigantic celebration designed solely to fill him with the compassion and loving attention of the community. It continued for an hour, by the end of which my acquaintance felt fortunate for having been robbed. The sheikh had also phoned the authorities to rearrange his visa and deal with his passport troubles." p. 132

"It was like life really, the one great pilgrimage all of us make, round and round, often not knowing where we are going until we get there, with a few watering stations along the way. It followed the wind, rather than a schedule, this Turkish caravan of dreams, this pilgrimage in honor of the saintly dead. And in doing so it unsettled the usual solidity of my frames of reference." p. 135

"Then he described what he meant by the practice of love; that for the Sufis it is known not as a good idea or ideal to live up to, but as an experience. It emerges when the noise of the habitual mind--our judgments, opinions, and expectations--gives way to the silent heart that unites everyone. Their spiritual practices are designed to facilitate this, and their community is the practical means and vehicle through which they express that love. Because real love, he said, looking first at me and then at Faisal, was active, not just a feeling." p. 145

Patricia "We sat there in the light as it turned by degrees to gold. The odor of orange curled and drifted away from the kalyan, and our small talk went the same way. The soothing voice of the reader of Omar's Rubaiyat lifted my feelings on its melody of minor key.
"You know what he's singing?" Ali said. "He's telling you, "In life devote yourself to joy and love...Live as if you are already in heaven above.'"
"What do you think he means," I asked, "By 'Live as if you are in heaven above'?"
"I think we are in heaven here," Ali said. What more can one ask? Conversation, good tea, the scent of orange...
"He's saying that joy and love are timeless," our neighbor added. "And when we are beyond time we are in heaven. Mind you, easy to say, sitting here in the sun."
We laughted, and thanked our good fortune. After another round of saffron tea, we were ready to stroll over to the resting place of Omar Khayyam." p. 181

"A cleric would speak for twenty minutes, and if he was not getting the desired result, he would break out into song. Everyone knows that a song can pierce the heart more quickly than a lecture." p. 191

"Amir spoke about how it was our responsibility to wear the best clothes we could afford, because we owed it to others to satisfy their right to beauty." p. 196

""The ingredients of a meal matter, of course. But the most important aspect is the intention of the cook. And I know well what it is in my mother's case: to spread love and well-being." p. 199

"Let's engage in love before we completely dissolve." --Hafez, p. 200

"Early in Islamic literature the major enemy was always seen as the self. That was the true jihad. Appreciate others and examine the self--that was the core of the religion. In fact, appreciation for others and apology for one's own shortcomings, in terms of a self-accounting, was at the heart of every faith, Amir said, taking a last draw on the kalyan and passing it to me. The only divide was not between religions, but between moderates and radicals, in all traditions." p. 205

""There is a natural tendency for laughing and crying in everyone, but specifically in countries where people are oppressed. Their first need is to find someone with whom they can share their deeper feelings."" --Kiarostami, p. 207

"I come weeping to these waters
to rise free of passion and belief.
Look at my face. These tears
are traces of you." --Rumi, p. 207

"I looked at the sheikh. Surrounded by his piles of papers and books, he seemed so small in stature, so self-effacing somehow, that he almost disappeared amid the surrounding chaos. Not what you might imagine the head of a large mystical and social order to look like. I asked him what it meant for him to be a sheikh.
He looked up at me with unexpected directness. What it did not mean, he said, was the freedom to exercise power over others. The sheikh was not a policeman. He served as a witness that you had entered the path of repentance and were dedicated to the wish to grow in spirituality. The Sufi feeling for the sheikh was higher than anything. That's why the death of his father was so traumatic for him. He had lost his father, but he had also lost his sheikh.
Sufi relationships are built on love. People came to the sheikh who were Shia as well as Sunni. Military and political leaders came to him, too, because Sufism transcended sectarian as well as social divides. He had no organizational infrastructure. He kept no membership records. This was part of the Sufi's strength; people were unable to estimate their numbers. Spirituality, after all, was above any form of political ideology. The point of spiritual practice was to know our connetion with the Divine.
He paused, and smiled for a moment, as if thinking of something.
"But I'm not a very good sheikh, you know. I'm not a sheikh at all, really. I'm just the servant of these people. They give me more love than I can possibly be worthy of. I do what I can to prepare people to live in an honset way, meaning at peace with themselves and with others. Then God will make peace with you. Human beings are restless. Sufism says, 'Relax--what is it that you really want? What is your relationship with others built on? Restlessness is a symptom of greed. We want stability of mind. Peace of mind.
"That is why the heart of our practice is the zikr, remembering the name of God. God says every beautiful word flies to heaven. Zikr is the most beautiful word, and we are sending that word to a place where everyone is equal. Through zikr, people unerstand there are more important things than the harshness of life. Even if people have a disability, for example, I say, "Look, you have an eye to see. Thank of what you do have and be grateful for that.'" p. 218-219

""One thing about last night--why do some of the men not cut their hair?"
"Because the body is part of our prayer," Mukhtar answered,holding his daughter in his arms. "Your bodily parts are witness to your actions. My hand is a witness that I have prayed. So is my hair. The longer the hair, the more living cells can be witness to your devotions. There is a verse in the Koran that says all living things--plants, trees, vegetable life--are contantly praying to God, and they are witness to the prayers you make. So, when we pray, every cell of our body prays also, down to the tip of a single hair. Most of the prophets had long hair, including Jesus, so we say it is in the tradition of the prophets." p. 221-222

"The roses open their shirts.
It is not right to stay closed
When the time of divulging comes.

No more holding back. Be reckless.
Tell your love to everybody." --Rumi, p. 240

"[P]olitics was not just an Iranian preoccupation. It touched everyone, everywhere, all the time. It was a consequence of living in society, and was implicit in everything we did and did not do.
Art itself was a political act. This book I was writing, whether I saw it that way or not, was necessarily a political act. It expressed a point of view that was intended as a contribution to the community of ideas. Any point of view has political implications, in the same way that any form of art does. "Capturing the slightest emotions of people's lives is always a political act," Kiarostami had said." p. 241

"Be grateful for whatever comes
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond." --Rumi, p. 268

"I realized as he was speaking that I had learned something else. Something obvious, but that I had never had to confront so directly in my life before. There was a darkness in this world that was probably in all people, but that was certainly active in some. Zoroaster may have been right. Perhaps we are all involved, knowingly or not, in an eternal struggle between the light and the dark.
The darkness was a fact in my life now, and not just an item on the daily news. I had encountered it; it had clipped my wings, shown me that my freedom had limits like anyone else. I had lived all my life in a liberal democracy. I had traversed through the events and circumstances of my life with a large degree of good fortune. I had tended to assume that most things were possible, given the right motive and opportunity. But now I knew for a certaintly that I had no special pass--that everything could be taken away from me at any moment. That knowledge gave me a weight, a humility and a gravity that I had not possessed before." p. 280

"Only when the plane lifed off the ground did I feel I was finally free.. Until that moment I was half expecting to be apprehended again. But now an immense relief washed over me. Yet I still felt compromised, even unclean in some way. I had told them I would work for them. I had lied my way to freedom--though I couldn't help thinking they knew that would be the case all along. Perhaps their offer to me was a way for them to let me go without losing face. I would never know. I pushed back my seat and took the warm towel the flight attendant handed me. Then I remembered what the baggy black suit had said about my passport. I took it out, and there indeed was a piece of paper folded in the back. On it was scrawled "" p. 281

I wonder what would happen if I emailed that address...

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