With two of his friends, my father and I spent a week in the laid back city of Shiraz, in southern Iran. In search of the famous Shirazi wine, I was left completely intoxicated with a warm belly, dry teeth and a total lack of the right combination of words.
One afternoon, we escaped from the heavy sun by chewing on thick and yellow ice cream at an open-air teahouse, when one of them asked about the book I was reading. I looked up from its pages at the fountain ahead and I told him it was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and was surprised that he had never heard of it.
We went to see if the little bookstore opposite from us had it and the girl behind the counter quickly handed me a Farsi version with the binding on the right. I offered it to him as a gift, and even with the help of the beautiful, hazel-eyed salesgirl, I was left disappointed when he declined.“I don’t read these types of books. I have no use for them!” he said dismissively as he indicated to the tapes of Rumi verses in his bag “…I read poetry.”
‘Unbelievable’ I muttered as I shook my head at the girl. I started to dislike him after that. I mean, what kind of close-minded old man turns down a book?
During dinner as he peeled the burnt skin of his barbecued tomatoes, I watched the way his droopy eyes slowly blinked, while his quaint mouth argued with his pea-brain about whether to breathe air or complain. ‘Everything has to be just so, yes? You eat the tomato meat, but leave the skin? And FOR WHO?’ I thought to myself, ‘if it were my restaurant I’d give you a damn plate of potato peels!’ Luckily, I was distracted by one of my father’s stories about how he got a haircut from a prostitute in Cuba last spring break. After the credits rolled and father smiled from the satisfaction of his audience, I calmly asked him if he had ever left Iran. Without looking up from his neat plate and through his narrow teeth he replied, “Only Dubai”. I took a long sip from my non-alcoholic beer and said, “You’re afraid of new things! Foreign things scare you. And we both know this is not good!” The three Iranian men smiled at my youthful clairvoyance: Yes…’ I thought. Achievement. Eat that you Unranian Islamic Republican!
You see one of the main differences I noticed between westerners and their demographic equivalents in Iran, is that the former are much more vocal with their opinions regardless of the seniority of those within earshot.
For me, horizontal hierarchy allows for a more efficient exchange of ideas. Only through open communication, can we hear a newer version of a story we thought we already knew well. Asking directions to your own street from a stranger, can introduce you to a shortcut or a scenic route you never knew! Different versions of the same story-this is what the true traveler reads. You met a beautiful girl. Don’t stare, pretend you’re blind and she will hold your hand in hers to your door!
For better or worse, I found my Iranian youth to be much more obedient than I would be in their shoes. I guess the Canadian Board of Education programmed it into my head that my point of view actually counts for something. Or maybe my constitutional rights forced them to bite their tongues when I used mine. Though, if you continue to choose to read my words, you’ll see that it was I who spoke a bit too soon this time.
Days after my dinner table triumph, my momentary self-love turned into a soggy cup of melted cream as I read the last pages of my book. In The Alchemist, a young shepherd from Southern Spain follows a vivid dream he had all the way to the pyramids of Egypt, only to find that his treasure was under the very same church steeple in his Andalusian hometown. The principal elements of this novel were taken from a Rumi poem written hundreds of years ago, in which a man from Baghdad follows a reoccurring dream of finding a hidden treasure in Cairo. He gives everything up, and after being mistaken for a thief while begging on the streets for food in Cairo, he tells of his story to the cop, who had the same dream; only his treasure was buried under a street in Baghdad.
Sometimes a journey may lead you through a go-cart maze, only to find that the finish line starts where the starting line ends. The message that shouldn’t be lost here is that if the highs make you feel like you’ll never come back down, and the lows leave you with a feeling of utter desperation, then the voyage could never be in vain. Whether it’s written in one of the 25,000 verses of Rumi’s Mathanawi, or in the English folklore story, The Pedlar of Swaffham the message is same: we all need to escape from our cozy comfort zone to truly see what we had, and hopefully still have.
‘How ironic…’ I thought. I was trying to sell this man on a book that was a mere novelized version of something he already had growing in his backyard; like Botox to a Brazilian, or contraband to the Taliban. I literally went from one end of the intellectual spectrum to the other, which was a great lesson in the importance of opposites. At one corner, stood a 120-pound, instant denouncement of a classic case of cultural fascism with a mouth full of inventive insight instead of a mouth-guard. And in the other corner stood, the ugly, heavyweight of truth, knocking me to the floor, by the legacy of Iran’s oceanic, philosophical gravity. Each side like two beautifully feathered wings hoisted me over temporal, arbitrary fences, which held nothing in and kept nothing out.
To the true listener, a remix, or adaptation never takes anything away from the original. How could it? If Rumi found a traditionalist and a modernist caught up in a primitive fashion show, he would strip both naked, lock them in a room and put a loud speaker up against the door and watch their blood turn into a flowing Shirazi wine!
The novel, the poem it was adapted from and the countless derived works in between are all about The Search. Searching so long only to realize that your search ends where your fingertips begin.
Wisdom comes with age and not always in the pages of a mainstream bestseller. As in the words of Richard Pyror, ‘you don’t get old being a fool, see…lotta young wise men that’s dead than a motherfucker ain’t it?’
Within a day or two I went from being a clever mouth to an infant, recoiled into a modest fetal ball, to a bewildered watcher. The true tragedy is the actor under the spotlight, merely waiting for applause, forgetting that his stage ends where another one begins.
Now that I have poured out my water onto our garden, my old friend, Rumi, will shatter the glass that I thought was my private property:
If I had known the real way it was,
I would have stopped all the looking around.
But that knowing depends
on the time spent looking!
You fear losing a certain eminent position.
You hope to gain something from that, but it comes
from elsewhere. Existence does this switching trick,
giving you hope from one source, then satisfaction
It keeps you bewildered
and wondering, and lets your trust in the Unseen grow.
I wait and fidget and flop about
as a decapitated chicken does, knowing that
the vital spirit has to escape this body
This desire will find an opening.
There was once a man
who inherited a lot of money and land.
But he squandered it all too quickly. Those who inherit
wealth don’t know what work it took to get it.
In the same way, we don’t know the value of our souls,
which were given to us for nothing!