Travel literature review: Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard

Drinking ArakDrinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard by Nicholas Jubber

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3.5 star

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Louise McGregor

Louise McGregor lives in Amsterdam, works on websites, and spends her spare time reading and planning her next trip. She is an avid Thorn Tree user.

Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah’s Beard: A Journey Through the Inside-Out Worlds of Iran and Afghanistan is a dizzying trip through the complex and conflicted worlds of modern Iran and Afghanistan. The book is part history, part travelogue and part literature review. Nicholas Jubber is on the trail of Ferdowsi, a 10th century poet, retracing his steps through Iran and Afghanistan, including visiting Taliban-controlled Ghazni.

Although predating Islam, Ferdowsi’s stories are performed and recited across the Persian-speaking world to this day. He drew on stories from the Zoroastrians to create his greatest work the Shahnameh, for which the Sultan of the day did not pay him fairly.

Jubber develops a crazy idea to avenge Ferdowsi for this affront, leading him into Afghanistan where the Taliban are offering a motorbike to anyone who helps them kill a foreigner, so he must travel in disguise behind a story that he has lost his voice.

For most of the book however the author is in Tehran staying with a local family, which gives the reader a glimpse of life in Iran as Iranians live it, including the complex dating rituals of young people. It’s from this experience that Jubber sees the “inside out worlds” mentioned in the subtitle, where private and public worlds collide.

To me the book’s real strength is in the descriptions of place and, as the book progresses, conveying something of the Persian culture, generosity, and code of politeness.

I got a little tired of Ferdowsi, and the author’s astonishment that something so old should still be read today. He points out that we don’t quote Chaucer (who wrote three centuries later) and admires the Persians for keeping Ferdowsi alive. However perhaps we don’t feel the need to quote Chaucer because western writers are free to write and to publish, so there is a modern canon of literature to draw on.

Apart from this quibble I’d recommend the book; it’s a fascinating trip into the worlds of Iran and Afghanistan and its combination of history and modern life left me wanting to read more – and to travel in Jubber’s footsteps.

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