Vladimir Bartol: Alamut

August 25, 2021

From what I gather, Alamut is a literary anomaly.

It is also here that great writing intersects with my fascination for Iran.

But first, the trivia:
— This novel became an inspiration for Assassin’s Creed, although it was published long before the era of video games.
— It was written in 1938, after Slovenian Vladimir Bartol spent ten years of extensive research on the Assassins, as a response to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe.
— Bartol intended to dedicate the first edition to Benito Mussolini, but it goes without saying that no publisher would have allowed that.
— The nature of the book is frightening that it led a recent reviewer from L’Express in France to write, “If Osama bin Laden did not exist, Vladimir Bartol would have invented him.”

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While there are many myths surrounding the Order of the Assassins who inspired terror from 1090 to 1275, it is agreed among historians that no enemy of theirs ever managed to evade their daggers. The fanaticism of their followers readily willing to die for their cause became legendary. They felled viziers, emirs, and caliphs, shaped the entire political landscape in the region according to their conceits, and held the reins of power for almost two hundred years. Their most mighty fortress stood in Iran, the “Eagle’s Nest,” the impregnable Alamut. 

_ _ _

Engrossing, tragic, and rife with philosophy, Bartol also plays on the myths, but this novel is essentially a chilling warning against charismatic leaders who test the limits of human blindness, against ideologies that have the ability to manipulate minds and emotions and subsequently annihilate logical thought. 

“…𝘪𝘵 𝘴𝘦𝘦𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘱𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘵𝘰 𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘥 𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘰𝘭𝘪𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘯 𝘵𝘰 𝘨𝘳𝘰𝘱𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 𝘸𝘢𝘺 𝘵𝘰 𝘦𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘶𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘺 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘨𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯. 𝘕𝘰𝘵 𝘫𝘶𝘴𝘵 𝘴𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘭𝘬 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘢𝘴𝘴𝘦𝘴, 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘦𝘹𝘢𝘭𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘧𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘦𝘥 𝘢 𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘪𝘣𝘭𝘦 𝘭𝘪𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘢𝘯 𝘶𝘯𝘨𝘳𝘢𝘴𝘱𝘢𝘣𝘭𝘦 𝘵𝘳𝘶𝘵𝘩.”

It is both unsettling and incredible how a novel set in the 11th century, written in 1938, reads like a warning written specifically for our generation.

Amin Maalouf: Samarkand

November 20, 2021

It is almost impossible to tell a story of Omar Khayyam without involving his contemporaries: Hassan-i Sabbah, founder of the Order of Assassins, and Nizam Al-Mulk, Persian history’s most famous vizier — the very first victim of the Assassins. Their destinies and of Persia’s are so entwined that it would also be impossible to discuss Persian history without touching on this legendary trio. Amin Maalouf takes these characters and animates history with his seamless blending of fact and imagination, making Samarkand an entertaining read for any Persophile.

Chapter one wrests the reader from the present to vibrant 11th century Samarkand where a qadi tells Omar Khayyam, after the latter is nabbed in the marketplace and recognized as a failasuf (a philosopher or a person associated with the sciences widely considered profane at such a time and place), “The Almighty has granted you the most valuable things that a son of Adam can have — intelligence, eloquence, health, beauty, the desire for knowledge and a lust for life… I hope that He has not deprived you of the wisdom of silence, without which all of the foregoing can neither be appreciated nor preserved.”

The wise judge proceeds to present the young Omar a blank book wherein he could write his thoughts instead of speaking them out loud to a populace unprepared for his unconventional views. The pages would then be filled and would persevere through time to become what we know as The Rubaiyat.

The Rubaiyat is a collection of ruba’i or quatrains that would establish Khayyam’s name as a poet centuries later in the West, but the work of poetry would ironically make readers oblivious to the complete man — a polymath: mathematician, astronomer, scientist, philosopher, among many other things. Born eleven years after the death of the great Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Khayyam is considered his intellectual successor.

Although Samarkand is mainly about the imagined fate of The Rubaiyat’s original manuscript, in my mind these all took a backseat to a man whose genius was irrespective of the mode of expression. It made me feel wistful when the novel’s timeline left Omar Khayyam and the 11th century. It feels as if something of myself, sitting in a Persian garden while listening to him speak, remained in Samarkand.

“I am old now and need to know that I have a trusty man at my side — because of the manuscript. That is the most precious thing I possess. In order to take on the world, Hassan-i Sabbah has built Alamut (the Assassins’ fortress), whereas I have only constructed this minuscule paper castle, but I choose to believe that it will outlive Alamut.”

It did. It continues to…

Iran’s Trees

Iran’s trees. The arboreal titles led me to read this as a pair.

The cypress and the greengage now adorn landscapes and orchards around the world, but it was in Persia that they originated; and although these books are not about the history of trees, these sing of the Iranian soul — finding enlightenment through a greengage, or ever-bending like the cypress. 

The Cypress Tree can stand as a refresher or introduction to Iran’s history. Kamin Mohammadi does not make it seem like she is merely listing events chronologically. The melody in her language is retained despite summarizing a civilization and sharply criticizing its rulers.

Of Khomeini, “Hadn’t he dug up the earth in which we thrived and condemned the nutrients that fed our beings as unhealthy, corrupt and un-Islamic?” Of its culture she accurately expresses how, throughout history, it “infiltrates the dominant culture of the invader, transforming it to glory.” Of its food, their day shapes itself around it. Of its language “made so absolutely for amusement and love.”

As cliche as it may sound, this is truly a love letter to Iran — the Iran “not one of mullahs and fundamentalism, but a place of kindness and love, an abundant paradise of mountains and deserts and turquoise seas… not populated by implacable priests and unshaven blood-hungry young men… but where the language even of strangers was affectionate and poetic.”

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree is written by none other than the first Iranian woman to hitchhike the entire length of the Silk Road, Shokoofeh Azar. 

When it comes to Magic Realism, our favorite Latin American writers come to mind. But this work reminds us that as far as recorded literature goes, this region goes way back to the Arabian Nights and further.

For readers who are not fans of the genre, this can be overwhelming and chaotic. Having read mostly non-fiction in November, it took me a few chapters to adjust and warm up to it. But for those who have the patience for Magical Realism suffused with Persian mythology and superstition, this can be an exceptional experience. It was shortlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize, after all.

By chapter 5, you will begin to understand that a dead person is narrating the story. There will be indelible scenes of Khomeini’s death reimagined, of musical instruments and books being burned, of a mother’s heart becoming a graveyard… but the political, the poetic, the evocative, the profound figures of speech, crescendo toward the end, and by then, you will realize that you have a forceful piece of literature in your hands. 

“Write. Write all you remember. The characters in novels, their loves, war, peace; their adventures, hates, betrayals… write down anything you remember from the books.”

I will.

Dalia Sofer: Man of My Time

June 15, 2021


The clues appear unhurriedly through sardonic remarks and thoughts, a twisted streak here and there, and then it suddenly registers. You are inside the mind of an antihero — someone you are not meant to like, but a character necessary for probing into an individual and a nation’s psyche beyond the conventional point of view.

 
Hamid Mozaffarian carries the cracks of his dysfunctional childhood into adulthood as a broken man and hurts those closest to him.  He becomes an idealistic revolutionary and lands a position as an interrogator for the new regime.  And in what he describes as the germinal act of his downfall, he betrays his own father.


But didn’t his father, under the corrupt regime of the Shah, also betray his closest friend to the dreaded secret police? So we see how the same vein of treachery and weakness course through history, albeit under different regimes.


Yet this is a man who is aware of his brokenness and his faults. Hamid wrestles with himself as he begins to become disillusioned with the Revolution: “How can we become the very beast we combatted? How do we reconcile… what we could have been with what we are becoming?”


“Homemade alcohol, black-market gasoline, glassy-eyed addicts, smugglers, pushers, sweaty men passing the hours in downtown teahouses amid the clatter of saucers and cups, people blindfolded and spirited away only to be distilled later into names on execution lists in newspapers—these things, which I, like others, had been witnessing, flashed in my mind.  These were the makings of an underground parallel city shadowing the so-called pious city above, the scaffolding of a professed republic that like the monarchy preceding it did not dare to look at its own reflection save in a draped mirror. So our revolution had been accomplished, but what of it? And what of us?”


Through the darkness, we see slivers of hope as he attempts to become a better man, but the consequences of his past sins continue to engulf him, and he often allows it to drown him.

Written with the command of a great 20th century existentialist, the clarity with which Dalia Sofer navigates the absurdities of human contradiction and the perplexing intricacies of the Iranian Revolution is astounding. This book, although published in 2020, can make the reader believe that it came from that golden era of novelists who also identified as philosophers and psychologists.



It is a series of painful events, but one passage reduced me to tears. It is when his father dies and leaves him an old edition of The Epic of Gilgamesh with the inscription: “To my son, Hamid, this was my first copy of this timeless tale, which I studied in school, in 1948.  I hope you will one day receive from it all the beauty that I failed to teach you. With love, Sadegh Mozaffarian.”


This is where we grasp Dalia Sofer’s genius in subtleties by alluding to the region’s literary treasures. The Babylonian society in The Epic of Gilgamesh was an Eastern society where community was also most likely upheld over the individual; and where, despite the ephemerality of the individual, his actions are believed to affect not only himself but his community and their collective destiny and history.


Hamid also ponders on the Persian classic, Attar’s The Conference of the Birds — the story where a flock of birds go in search of the mythical bird, the Simorgh. At the end of the life-changing journey, it is only then that they discover that in the Persian language “si” means thirty, and “morgh” means bird. Thirty birds. Together, they find, and together they are, the Simorgh. 


In Sofer’s words, “There is no such thing as a solitary act in family life or in history.” 

For isn’t the dissolution of the individual the downfall of a nation, the same way the betterment of the individual is to a nation’s advantage?