I no longer remember where I even heard of Roger Housden’s Saved by Beauty: Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran, just that I requested it from the library. I have enjoyed reading about Iran for years, and the title instantly grabbed my attention; before I was halfway through, I knew I would order my own copy and re-read. It is impossible to speak of Iran without including poetry, and Housden does a marvelous job of talking (not just “telling”) about Rumi, Hafez, and poetic message, weaving it within and without the people and places he visits, his, and perhaps your, understanding of the world, and those understandings of the Iranian people’s. He meets with artists, writers, filmmakers, religious scholars, whirling dervishes, explores beauty, truth, evil, and comes up close to history as well as current events.
Apart from his encounters, one thing I also appreciated about the narrative is its willingness to praise where praise is due, but be critical, questioning, or skeptical as well. He also details the closing episode of his trip, several days of captivity (cold comfort, but in a hotel, at least, not Evin) and interrogation, and his feelings of raw and utter loneliness in the world in a manner that it brutal in its poetic truthfulness. I say “poetic” not because he translates the experience into a flow of poetry, but rather because his words are neither harsh nor softly new age-y. He does not display open anger (though it was there) or bravado, and his words translate to us perhaps in a dual manner as well: we feel a sense of muted horror and peaceful acceptance. But he leaves us with overwhelmingly positive feelings about the people of Iran, the real focus. The horrible government apparatus forces its way into the story because it is impossible to talk about Iran without bringing up the government they currently live under. Poetry and tyranny.
At a later date I hope this changes, as, I’m sure, does Housden. He mourns that he cannot go back to Iran, and in my small way I can appreciate this. I would love to visit this land and come close to the history, the places, the people who grew up breathing in poets such as Rumi and Hafez, the average one of whom could recite a few lines of either one, or perhaps Ferdowsi, were you to stop them on the street to ask the time. I’m sure there are some not inclined to poetry, but there is a very strong current of survival amongst the Iranian people. They are not, after all, Arabs, and Islam is a foreign religion, even though it has conquered the nation and, centuries ago, made their own Zoroastrianism religion a minority one. But they don’t forget their culture and in this manner remind me a little bit of Americans, who consistently thwart attempts to make them like Europeans. The pathway traveled to get to this point isn’t, for Americans, the same as that of Iranians, but it does have its similarities. It is also interesting to note that Rumi is the most widely read poet in America.
It also happens that I’ve admired Rumi for years, though only recently began to look into his life a bit more deeply. I’m not very far along, but reading Housden’s account deepened my desire, what with its – well, I might say philosophical –discussions or summations, but his do not alienate the reader in the manner philosophy often does people. The reality is, indeed, very real, but he immerses us into his observations in a manner graceful and beautiful, the end result being not only that we want more, but we also wish to be a part of it.
This is not an alien concept to me: as a teenager I wanted to live in a Welsh forest and, not unlike Housden’s own ambition in his twenties, “live a contemplative life of reflection.” Well, I also wanted to write poetry and practice healing, both of which come from my mother, I suppose, who was a nurse by profession and, throughout my childhood, recited Poe continuously. I wasn’t a big fan, but for years after recalled “Annabel Lee” and, naturally, “The Raven,” in their entirety. Also, my father had a history bent and I was often tasked with writing essays about events he’d discussed with me. It was from him I garnered my initial knowledge of and perhaps affinity for Iran, and surely the inclination to discuss, dig deeper.
You must be set on fire the inner sun.
You have to live your Love or else
You’ll only end in words.
For better or worse, I never made it to that forest. I know it’s unquestionably better, for I cannot imagine life without my wonderful son, who in many ways has also brought poetry and contemplation to my life and still does. Teenagers have naturally poetic souls, and Turtle has listened patiently and compassionately as I talked about Saved by Beauty, Iran, Rumi. Even more magnificently, he doesn’t just listen, as I am blessed to have a child who thrives on engagement. Asperger’s drives a bit of the nitpickiness, but it too has a dual nature, and his digging helps keep me connected to the lower layers in a world of paying bills, dentist appointments and being on time for work.
Now, before my re-read (when I can mark up the book, a practice I picked up by necessity in university and one Turtle loathes), I cannot exactly place my favorite passage or chapter, but I do recall a few dripping tears. As I recall, this portion was not necessarily one of great sorrow (or was it?), because I remember a sort of detached wonder at my emotion. Perhaps I will recognize it next time and be able to understand more of why I responded in the manner I did.
Reading not unlike a memoir, Saved by Beauty also weaves Rumi (and other poets) throughout, undoubtedly one of the work’s best elements, though by far not the only. Housden unapologetically invites us into his world, as well as one he yearned for since childhood, a culture of more than three thousand years. His perspective is truthful and sober, though not without levity, and both he and Rumi invite all into his journey. As Housden writes of Rumi’s funeral, “no one is turned away.”
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.