Excerpted from Poets and Pahlevans by Marcello Di Cintio. Copyright © 2006 by Marcello Di Cintio. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Can you tell us how you became a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I remember, but I didn’t pursue writing until I was in my twenties. I never thought I had anything really to write about. I was a science guy, and ended up getting a degree in microbiology. I thought I would work in a lab somewhere. It was only after my first trip to Africa in 1997 — I spent a year there — that I figured I had stories to write. Those stories turned into my first book, Harmattan: Wind across West Africa. I guess you could say travelling gave birth to my writing.
How did the idea for Poets & Pahlevans begin?
I’d wanted to travel to Iran for a long time. Something about Islamic culture, and deserts, fascinates me. I read a tiny entry in a guidebook about zurkhanes (wrestling halls) and started researching this phenomenon in Iran. As a former wrestler, I was very interested in pahlevans. When I discovered the links to poetry, I was hooked and knew the book I wanted to write.
You chose a very unusual path into Iranian culture — researching traditions of wrestling and poetry and the relationship between them. Do you think that such a tight focus reveals more than an attempted overview?
First of all, I am not qualified for an overview of Iranian culture. I am not a historian or an anthropologist, so I wouldn’t even attempt some sort of overarching treatment. The tight focus turned out to be the perfect engine to run my travels. Seeking out poets’ tombs and old wrestling styles led to some pretty fabulous places in Iran, such as the Turkmani wedding, for example. It gave me an “in” with the locals. When I mentioned to Iranians my interests in poetry and wrestling, many told me about the poets they loved or, say, their grandfather who was a pahlevan. It gave people a reason to talk to me. I think the connections I made with people were greater than if I said I was writing a book “about Iran.”
This is the first time I travelled with such a specific quest. Often it made the travelling feel more like work. I couldn’t just wander aimlessly around like I did for my first book; I had things to find. Still, like I said, if it were not for the focus, I would not have found such places and such people. I want all my travels to be this focussed from now on.
Can you tell us about your working method? Do you take copious notes while you are travelling? And how soon after returning do you begin writing?
I take piles of handwritten notes while I am travelling. (The tea houses in Iran were the perfect offices for this.) I start turning those journal notes into some sort of coherent narrative as soon as I return home. I am always excited to get started. I could never write a book on the road. I need time away from the place to reflect on my experiences, to distill them into something meaningful for myself and, hopefully, for readers.
Why do travel writers write so much about food?
Sharing a meal with someone is one of the best windows into their culture. Every place I have travelled is proud of the local cuisine and excited to show it off to visitors. These meals invariably make their way into my writing. Personally, though, I am a food fanatic. My wife and I travelled to Turkey for our honeymoon, and my obsession with finding, say, the best Turkish cheese or most authentic anchovy pilaf drove her crazy.
In your acknowledgements you thank certain people for enabling you to make Poets & Pahlevans “a much better book.” Could you give us any insight into this?
My editor, Michael Schellenburg, did a great job with the text. He had a keen eye for what was missing in early drafts. The editing process for this book was more about adding material than trimming it. Maryam Nabavi is not a writer but an Iranian friend of mine. She helped me make sure I wasn’t making any incorrect assumptions about Iran — something I always worry about when I write about another place. Richard Harrison is a fine poet who helped me make the wrestling passages in the book more visceral and real. He taught me how to unfold a scene bit by bit. He has a poet’s touch for using only the exact number of words necessary. I cut more text following his advice than I did with my actual editor.
Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
Most of the reviews for this book have been positive. There have been a couple of reviewers who have said, basically, that this is not the book they would have written. That is somewhat frustrating, but it doesn’t change how I feel about my own writing. Most importantly, though, is that Iranians like the book. People have said to me that the book makes them feel homesick for Iran. I find that tremendously gratifying. It makes me feel that I got it right.
Which authors have had most influence on your own writing?
I greatly admire the travel writing of Ryszard Kapuscinski and Graham Greene. They were my constant companions as I wrote this book. Kapuscinski, especially, showed me how important, and beautiful, it is to engage with locals in a strange place. The work of Michael Ondaatje is one of the reasons I am a writer. Reading a couple of pages of any of his books is enough to unblock me. I strive to achieve his lush descriptive style, but I know I am not there yet.
When you are writing a book, does the urge to go travelling again grow stronger?
When I am writing, I feel I am already travelling — or, I suppose, re-travelling — so the urge does not come then. This is probably the only time I don’t feel that urge. The rest of my day I wish I was elsewhere.
Do you think Poets & Pahlevans has any kind of message or mission?
Not a mission, but I hope that my readers see a side to Iran that gets little play in the regular media. Iranians are not hateful, backward fundamentalists. They are intelligent, hospitable and the stewards of a rich and beautiful culture. I want my readers to see that Iran is not dangerous and that its people are kind. This book started out as a travelogue about poets and wrestlers. It turned out as a love letter to the Iranian people. I hope readers see this side of things.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Di Cintio tells us that Tehran did not look like his “dream of Iran.” What do you imagine his dream of Iran was? To what extent did he find it?
2. Di Cintio looks for the spirit of the country mostly in rural areas and in what remains of Iran’s ancient past. What are the advantages and disadvantages of such an approach?
3. What effect does the author’s concentration on poetry and wrestling have on your engagement with the book and your understanding of Iranian society?
4. The culture of the pahlevan promotes the idea of “perfect men” who combine strength with gentleness. Do you see cultural equivalents in, for example, mythology, chivalric legend or Hollywood movies?
5. The author expresses “surprise” at finding IKEA furniture, black bras and Chris de Burgh CDs in Iran. Can you offer a fuller analysis of his reaction?
6. When the author sees a farmer sleeping among grapevines, he writes, “I wanted his life.” Why does travel make him desire less rather than more? Do you think he would be content as an Iranian farmer?
7. If Di Cintio had been able to speak with Iranian women, what do you think they would have told him?
8. Though not a Muslim, Di Cintio observes the tradition of passing under the Quran in a gateway in Shiraz, and later attempts to fast during Ramazan. As the Iranians do not expect this of him, why does he do it?
9. Di Cintio writes of Jeremy, his wrestling partner, “Like me, he wanted to reconcile his creativity with combat.” What do you understand from this, and what does it tell you about the book?
10. Iranians are extraordinarily welcoming to a stranger, yet suspicious and disparaging of their countrymen in the next town or village. Do you think a visitor to your own country would encounter the same reception?
11. What examples of permanence does Di Cintio discover in a place of revolution and upheaval?
12. Di Cintio reports hearing many opposing attitudes to the West and to recent Iranian history. He does not attempt to choose between them or to reconcile them. How do you feel about this as a reader?
13. Which incidents or conversations in the book remain vivid in your mind after reading it? Can you explain why?
14. How has reading Poets & Pahlevans changed your view of Iran, wrestling, or poetry?