Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Persian Lions, Persian Lambs

There has been a long succession of books by Western visitors to Iran, stretching back two hundred years. A few have achieved 'classic' status, but those written during the latter half of the 20th century have largely slipped into obscurity (The Garden of the Brave in War is the only one I've heard people mention). Persian Lions, Persian Lambs (1965) deserves something better. It's written by novelist Curtis Harnack.

Harnack went to Iran on a teaching fellowship. After a bit of a slow start, the book recounts with perception, Harnack's adventures in Iran and his impressions of the people he got to know. He does so with humor and sensitivity.

In one chapter he's confronted with the wastefulness of his culture when compared to the Iranian need to make the most of everything. He discovered that the things he considered disposable were being scooped from his garbage by his housekeeper, Hassan. Harnack writes, "Hassan was always absorbed by what he found in my garbage pail...

I would watch him from the window as he shambled along slowly, poring over the treasure trove for the day. His wife, swathed in veils, would fly from the house to help him, like a carrion bird whose mate had found a choice morsel. Hassan would shoulder her aside angrily and make his way alone past the little chicken coop and dog house to a spot almost out of sight. Then he would begin his excited perusal, lifting out the burnished Tuborg beer cans as if he had found miniature bronze samovars...the malleable metal strip from a coffee can lid could be twisted and looped. Hassan would sell this to a droshky driver for one and a half rials; it would be an admirable device for holding together a broken harness.

In some ways a squirrel tendency began to develop in me, and I hesitated over everything before attempting to discard it. All kinds of string were wrapped into balls; my closets began to fill with empty boxes and odds and ends...the empty Hollandia butter tin became my nail container and the cardboard wedges in a shipment of phonograph records from Sam Goody's became mats for some drawings I tacked up on the wall. for a while, I saved used razor blades and one or twice caught myself long-pondering their possible usefulness.

One day in spring when Hassan's little treasure room near the chicken coop happened to be open, I peered inside, and there in an enormous heap was what he had collected from me - at least what he had not yet sold or disposed of. It seemed indecent that I had consumed enough canned food to have left this tremendous pile. And most disturbing of all, I saw many little things that I had not been conscious of discarding: bottle caps, empty folders of matches, underwear buttons, and a used kerosene wick. Next to all of this was a round, somewhat dusty red ball; had this, too, once been mine? I found that it was made of wax and for a moment I could not imagine what connection it had with me. And then suddenly, as if it were a waif to whom much had happened, I recognized it despite its changed form: this was the red wax outer layer of a few Dutch gouda cheeses I had eaten.

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