Pico Iyer Journeys

A Place I've Never Been

You come in over a grey, flat desert that looks like lunar emptiness: the great shrine of the Ayatollah Khomeini as you pull out of the southern suburbs of Tehran, a mosque here and there along the road, and then, for hours on end, nothing but the no-color, arid vacancy. Your mind grows almost numb from the spaces extending all around you, nothing leading on to nothing, and then, without warning, suddenly you see a blaze of blue across the horizon, and you are in the middle of the imperial city, the blue from the central domes of the mosque so strong in the desert sun it hurts.

Boys are walking along the riverbank together, children are running this way and that in the dusty medieval streets. The eyes of an old woman meet yours, sharp and olive-black. From the teahouses comes the sound of backgammon tiles being slapped down, while the Peykans judder along the wide boulevards.

Once you’ve put your things in your hotel and returned to the central mosque, at one end of the largest square you’ve ever seen–all of Persia’s history laid out before you, and the goal-posts of a former shah’s polo fields still visible at another end–you enter a world of swirled devotions. You could be entering a believer’s mind, so rapt and intense are the lines from the Quran rising up, and up, to the blue dome till your eyes give out and you just surrender to the patterns; some of the holy lines are written out with such passion that even a learned sheikh could not make out the words. The point of the place is simple surrender. There, in the secret heart of the old culture, which has withstood shah and ayatollah and revolution and then stillness, you are close to the beating center of what links Persia to Iran, in a city that combines shimmering beauty with a kind of melancholy, as in a woman who once commanded the world but is aware now that her time has gone, and others are coming in to wreak havoc on her handiwork.

Isfahan is without question one of the great cultural treasures of the world, the jewel of one of history’s most elegant and cultured societies. And unlike the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids, unlike the temples of Kyoto, it has been preserved in recent years through the whims of politicians, and protected from the flashbulbs of too many cameras by the unfriendly policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Yet to come in to the great city over the desert, the bus laboring as it turns the corner towards the town’s great sqaure, is to feel that you have stumbled upon one of the secret corners of the imagination.

Isfahan may be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Yet really I should call it, in the strictest sense, one of the most beautiful places I’ve never seen, for when I offered a palpitating, vivid description of the old city in my recent novel Abandon, I’d never been threre. I haven’t been there to this day. I haven’t been to the Tehran I described so pungently, I haven’t seen the tomb of Hafez in Shiraz, I haven’t been to Qom, or anywhere round Iran. (I haven’t been to the Palm Springs that plays a part in my novel, either). I have seen them all quite distinctly, but only with the inner eye that is a writer’s secret instrument. In the flesh, they remain quite unknown to me.

I should hasten to point out now, to the anxious or skeptical reader, that I spent the better part of nine years reading and rereading Sufi poems, steeping myself in the travel records and novels and memoirs and guidebooks of Iran that describe every courtyard, how dinner is eaten among the family, when the seasons change in the north and how people respond to an invitation of tea. I talked to friends who had been fortunate enough to visit Shiraz and Isfahan, either before the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution or after, I consulted the films that come out with increasing regularity from contemporary Iran and lived in libraries (as any writer does who’s composing a piece of historical fiction, about a time, if not a place, he’s never seen). One friend even showed me her snapshots from a recent trip, so I could savor the exact yellow of the pillars around the mosque, and see how the holy lines were slashed across the walls in white, asking the mind at some point to give over.

But Isfahan still belongs to the special part of my mind that is reserved for all the many, many places I’ve never seen. Almost a decade of research gave me a clear sense of how it might sound and smell and feel, but it still has something of the unreality of sharp bracing mornings in Darjeeling, when I step out from my guesthouse, the winter cold a slap on my face, as I walk to where the snowcaps are clearest early on December days, or the teemed intensity of Jerusalem. It is as real as the mud mosques of Mali, oddly silent on a high blue morning in early January, as real as the Varanasi and Goa and Kerala of my ancestral homeland that every tourist has seen but me. These places have the parallel reality of longed-for sites that I have seen with every sense except my eyes.

The places I’ve never been: they could fill an atlas, or a heavy album made for photographs. I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world almost constantly since I first took myself alone to school in England, on a plane, from my parents’ home in California, at the age of nine. I traveled through almost every country in South and Central America while I was in my teens, and have been to Tibet again and again. I’ve had the chance to visit Thailand more than forty times, and to go to Easter Island and North Korea and Bhutan. I’ve traveled to places that no one in his right mind would want to go to (Paraguay, south Yemen), I’ve been to places, from Angkor in the dead of night to Damascus at dawn, in the Umayyad Mosque when it’s closed, that are for many people at least the equal in mystery and wonder of Isfahan. But the places I’ve never seen still have a pull on me (of course), and still exert a hold on my imagination, that gives them an intensity that other places cannot match.

When I sat down, at my desk in rural Japan, to write a story of the dialogue (the conflict and the romance) between the Islamic world and the far West, in the spring of 2000, I could easily have taken myself to Iran, to get some details for the section set in that intriguing country. But a part of me was interested in the Persia that has fascinated people for centuries rather than in the modern-day Iran that would confront me with very differernt kinds of details. My sense was that the meaning of the cultural Iran that has withstood all political changes lies as much in the poems of Rumi and Hafez, in the miniatures visible at the nearest museum (even in Japan), in the memories and stories of the Iranians who are now such a presence in California, as in the streets and squares that I might take in through my viewfinder. Besides–and this was a large part of the point of the book–if you were looking for a treasure from old Iran today, a missing manuscript or a family heirloom or a forgotten miniature, you would be much more likely to find it in Santa Monica than in Tehran: half a million Iranians left the country almost overnight as the Iranian Revolution began to gain momentum in the late ‘70s, and they brought their pasts, their treasures and their stories to Los Angeles and Paris and Vancouver. Part of the beauty of the modern global order is that you don’t have to go across the world to see and meet the customs, people and traditions of Vietnam, Ethiopia or Tibet.

In the book that followed I deliberately tried to set this place I haven’t seen against the places I had seen and the places I had seen almost too much of. The book begins in Damascus, which I visited twice in the space of eight months while writing the novel. It has central scenes in Andalusia (which I’d visited once, eight years before) and Delhi (which I visit quite often now, though without taking very much in). Certain critical revelations are set in parts of the American desert and New Mexico–a counter-Iran–that I haven’t really seen either. If I were going to make up characters I’d never met, Sufi dances I’d never witnessed and a world of academic politicking that I could only guess at, it didn’t seem such a liberty to visit Iran only in my head.

A reader is, perhaps, a little shocked to hear that a novelist may have the chutzpah to offer detailed, documentary-like descriptions of a place he’s never seen. But that is the nature of Shakespeare’s Illyria and Arthur Golden’s Kyoto teahouses and Michael Ondaatje’s evocations of North Africa in the ‘30s: the purpose of fiction is to dream yourself into the Other, into all the places and people and dramas you’ve never seen except through the lens made by imagination and borrowed memory. The places we have seen, the thoughts and feelings we entertain, keep us company almost every waking moment; to travel, on the page or in life, is to go into the places you’ve never seen, but only intuited.

I had a sobering reminder of this when I wrote the novel that preceded Abandon, called Cuba and the Night. At the time I wrote it (again at my little desk in a non-descript suburb in Japan), I’d been to Cuba five times in the previous six years. I’d celebrated Carnival there and heard Castro speak and gone to baseball games and deserted islands and prisons. I’d been offered jobs as a spy, received more proposals of marriage than I could count, been thrown off beaches (on grounds of resembling a Cuban) and been taken into many lives and homes as if I were a newly discovered relative. I knew the streets of Vedado so well I could visit them in my sleep (as well as in my memory).

So I sat down in Japan and described a place I had seen so vividly that I knew it better than my hometown. I retraced my night-time walks among the broken buildings of Central Havana, and the trailing mornings I had spent along the seawall below the Hotel Nacional, the spray from the sea crashing all over me as a single ancient car drove along the tropi-colored houses. I described the place as carefully as if I were writing non-fiction.

When the manuscript was complete, I decided to take one more trip to the island to double-check all my details: even in fiction, the trust of the reader shouldn’t be taken advantage of, I believe. I wanted just to make sure that the walls of the Hotel Capri were blue and not green, and that the Coppelia ice-cream park could be entered from the south as well as the west, I wanted to be certain that a santeria-parlor could be found within sight of the Capitol downtown. I returned to Cuba, walked all along the streets I knew by heart and found–of course–that the island stubbornly refused to look the way I had remembered it. The trees were in the wrong place, the view from the cannons on the lawn wasn’t quite the one I had recalled in Japan; Belascoain was at least three minutes farther from Virtudes than I had thought. I made all the necessary changes, though I’m not sure if the Cuba I imagined gained anything in the process.

Three years before that novel, I had been sitting in my home in California, surrounded by all the notes and outlines and verbal snapshots I had accumulated over fifteen years–my savings account, effectively, for a life of writing–when I’d looked out the window to see 70-foot flames all around: one of the year’s forest fires, which destroyed my home, as well as more than 600 others, and stripped me of every possession, plan and memory I’d ever had. When I called my editor in London the next day to tell him that all the books I’d been promising him were no longer–every note and detail was reduced to ash–he told me, “Excellent! I think that’s a good thing.” Writing isn’t made only from observation, he was saying; some writers–and I was probably one of them–remain too hostage to their notes, and not responsive enough to other parts of themselves that may tap a deeper source. Close your eyes, and you can see certain things much more clearly than when you’re hovering over your papers.

I must assure the worried reader here that, in the case of my descriptions of Iran in Abandon, I took pains to make sure that every detail I had dreamed up had some substance in fact, and that I wasn’t taking too many liberties. After I had finished my next-to-final draft (this was after nine years of working on the project, and thirty drafts of many of  the passages), I sent my typescript to two friends who’d grown up in Iran, one of whom lives in London, and the other of whom lives in Los Angeles. Tell me exactly what I’ve got wrong, I said, and all the faux pas I’ve committed that anyone who’d spent even a day in these cities could see through in a moment.

One wrote back saying that it was all as she remembered it, but that one Iranian character I’d made up was more rude than was likely (she was right, but in fact he was a Spaniard, and I’d given him reasons for his brusqueness). The other said that I must have secretly gone to Isfahan; the only glaring mistake she found was that a young man in today’s Iran would be very unlikely to have a room of his own, as in a scene I’d written (I quickly made the appropriate change). When the book came out, I heard many more complaints about the scenes I’d set in my hometown, of Santa Barbara, than the ones I’d written of the places I’d never seen (this isn’t at all the Santa Barbara I know, many of my neighbors might have said, with justice, while others eagerly said, “I know just the house, or person, you mean” in referring to locations or characters I’d completely made up). I knew the imagination was working well when someone told me she recognized the translator I’d placed in a hut in Santa Cruz; he was just like that. In fact, the whole character came out of a dust-jacket author’s photo I’d seen on a bus on my way to the airport.

The modern world is more generous than any society in history in offering us glimpses into the places we’ve never seen.  Anyone with a computer today can walk around the Louvre without leaving her study, or see Tibet and Rio de Janeiro even in a dusty Internet cafe in southern Yemen. Isfahan comes to us on our screens, large and small, and when I drive down the road from Santa Barbara to Westwood, I can see many of the shops and cafes of Iran meticulously reconstructed by that country’s exiles, their calendars and bookshops and cups of tea a poignant monument to nostalgia, and recreation of home through memory as much as imagination. The places we’ve never seen in the flesh with our own eyes are everywhere around us now, where our grandparents would most likely have had to content themselves with written pictures in books or newspapers.

And yet not seeing them gives them a special potency. I was much more alert, more engaged and punctilious, in describing Iran in my book than in describing California; I was much more moved to steep myself in details and school myself in what the place really looked and felt like. When, the day that I proofread my manuscript to send to my editor, terrorist planes flew into New York and Washington, and a new chapter of the world’s history began–a chapter in which nothing was more important, arguably, than for people in the West to have a keener sense of what the Islamic world might look like (and vice versa)–I felt that the imagination had a wisdom to it that the rest of me certainly did not. I still write frequently about the places I’ve seen. I walk around them from dawn to midnight, I transcribe their details in my notebook, I recreate them back at my desk in Japan. But I’m tempted to believe that all the many places I’ve never seen have much more life and substance in the end. They have come not just from my always fallible memory, but from something beyond me that I can’t claim to understand.

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