Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard: A Journey Through the Inside-Out Worlds of Iran and Afghanistan
ReadHowYouWant.com, Oct 8, 2010 - 496 pages
An engrossing blend of travel writing and history, Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah's Beard traces one man's adventure-filled journey through today's Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, and describes his remarkable attempt to make sense of the present by delving into the past. Setting out to gain insight into the lives of Iranians and Afghans today, Nicholas Jubber is surprised to uncover the legacy of a vibrant pre-Islamic Persian culture that has endured even in times of the most fanatic religious fundamentalism. Everywhere-from underground dance parties to religious shrines to opium dens-he finds powerful and unbreakable connections to a time when both Iran and Afghanistan were part of the same mighty empire, when the flame of Persian culture lit up the world. Whether through his encounters with poets and cab drivers or run-ins with ''pleasure daughters'' and mujahideen, again and again Jubber is drawn back to the eleventh-century Persian epic, the Shahnameh (''Book of Kings''). The poem becomes not only his window into the region's past, but also his link to its tumultuous present, and through it Jubber gains access to an Iran and Afghanistan seldom revealed or depicted: inside-out worlds in which he has tea with a warlord, is taught how to walk like an Afghan, and even discovers, on a night full of bootleg alcohol and dancing, what it means to drink arak off an Ayatollah's beard.
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LibraryThing ReviewUser Review - LibraryThing
I loved the premise of this book -- Nicholas Jubber explores ethnic, national, and religious identity in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia through the lens of the Shahnameh, or the Book of Kings. The Shahnameh is an 11th-century Persian epic poem written by Ferdowsi, a poet who is still much revered in Iran and parts of Afghanistan. Throughout his travels, Jubber traces the modern-day influence of Ferdowsi and his epic, as he leads his readers to Zoroastrian celebrations, underground religious ceremonies, performances of the epic by puppet troupes, and meetings with Iranian rappers, artists, and students. Jubber also devotes some time to describing his dangerous journeys through Afghanistan as he sought to retrace Ferdowsi's steps many centuries earlier. However, Jubber's execution of the book does not live up to its promise. He intersperses a soap opera-esque story about the family he stayed with in Iran throughout much of the book, which I found jarring and not very engaging. The history he provides, although interesting, lacks a strong foundation in Jubber's deeper understanding of the cultural history of the region. As a result, his analysis is limited to surface-level observations about the apparent ubiquity of the Shahnameh in the region. Similarly, he could have benefited from a deeper understanding of the role of myth and narrative in human culture and belief. In addition, he chose to forego a chronological organization for the book, and while I usually like to see writers experiment with structure, in Jubber's case the book's organization seemed haphazard. His writing also often seemed quite pedestrian, which brought me crashing back down to earth after the glorious heights of some of the passages he quoted. Finally, one scene towards the end of the book, which was supposed to be a climactic showdown between Jubber and the sultan who cheated Ferdowsi out of his promised reward for composing the Shahnameh, struck me as rather silly. I appreciate the book for what I learned about Ferdowsi, and I now plan to read the Shahnameh in translation, and on that basis I am rating the book at a weak three stars. I just wish that Jubber had written a book that lived up to the importance of its subject.
Review: Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah's BeardUser Review - Colleen Clark - Goodreads
A rich account of learning Farsi in Tehran and reading the Shahnameh ("The Book of Kings" written in the 10th century) while staying in the home of a literature professor at Tehran University and then ... Read full review