On a Thursday  a couple weeks ago, Roger Housden launched his new book at the Marin bookstore  Book Passage. He shared the stage with Peter Coyote who asked him good questions. About 100 people turned out. Roger told the audience: “When I went to Iran I wanted to meet the creative people. Iran is 3,000 years old! Human rights, Sufi traditions of love and wisdom. I wanted to see how these were carried on in present day Iran.”

Roger Housden

Roger Housden has written a fine book.

Saved by Beauty, Adventures of an American Romantic in Iran is an elegant bridge between cultures. I read this slowly, tasting the literary flavors – not my habit, since I read quickly – even with poetry. I’m not into sappy “romantic” stuff. But this book is fresh and compelling. Unexpected. He is detained by Iranian Security. I mean really detained and questioned over and over. Scary.

There are gardens. “Paradise derives from the old Persian word for “garden,” pardis,” Roger writes. “So important was the garden in old Persia that when a new city was planned, the gardens would be planted before any foundations were laid.” You will want to read this chapter. He sketches the garden of Naranjastan in Shiraz with words that seem to be colored with artist’s pastels. Back in the hotel he checks in with the poet Rumi, whose book he carries on his journey. He opens to these words: Remember the proverb, Eat the grapes. /Do not keep talking about the garden./ Eat the grapes.

Some chapters are spicy. He is welcomed by Toufan, highly placed in the sophisticated Iranian film world. She is a woman who lived in L.A. for years, then moved back to Iran after her thirteen-year-old daughter suggested it. When Roger said he’d like to meet a Sufi Sheikh, she told him, “Sufism is all the rage here now… it has become fashionable with the upper classes the way Kabbalah has in the West because of Madonna.”
A friend in America gave Roger a jar of marmalade to take to her as an introduction. Toufan began the chain of connections that would bring him to the door of many creative and interesting Iranians.

She introduces Roger to the artist Haleh, who says: “Women in Iran today are breaking the hijab of expression, both politically and artistically. Women are expressing themselves now in every art form in a culture where they have been taught not to reveal themselves… And you know what gave them permission? The Revolution. The Revolution created a new form of language for foreign relations that was unapologetic, angry, and direct. That had never been known in Iran before…”

He travels around the country by himself and discovers Iranian Judaism, the Zoroastrians, and the Sufis. He savors the visual elixir of the heart of Isfahan – the Royal Mosque. He writes, “Isfahan is the Florence of the Orient, without the tourists.”

People, places, and a stunning experience that is life changing. He takes us along through the police interrogation. He emerges a changed man. “And yet, the very absence of my well-worn identity felt like a sudden breath of freedom: like taking off a tight fitting suit I had not even realized I was wearing.”

Saved by Beauty by Roger Housden, Broadway Books, Crown Publishing, 2011.