Travelogue of Empress Farah Reviewed by Amir Taheri

Writing travelogue has always been a highly valued genre in Persian literature, fulfilling several functions at the same time. The typical Persian travelogue is a picaresque romance, and ethnological study, and an account of philosophical introspection all blended into one captivating narrative of the encounter between an individual and the world.


Mansoure Pirnia 's “ Safarnameh Shahbanou ” (The Travelogue of Empress Farah) is faithful to that rich literary tradition. At the same time Pirnia introduces significant technical innovation. In this “Safarnameh” the experience of travel is related by two voices.


One voice is that of Empress Farah herself. The other is the voice of Pirnia, the faithful but always independent minded companion. Because Pirnia was present at virtually all of the travels narrated in this book, she is able, wherever necessary, to inject her own insight and sensibility into every episode in this fascinating account of royal visits to the four corners of Iran . Her voice may, at times, contradict that of the Empress. In the end, however, its function is always one of complementing the account offered, suggesting an additional angle, and drawing attention to one more shade on a rich spectrum. Empress Farah 's voice is measured and majestic, though at time nostalgic, even melancholy, and yet never sentimental. It is clear that she had developed a deep, almost mystical, relationship with her native land and its people. She was the young bride of the Shah and the mother of his four children. But this travelogue reveals that she also felt, in an almost physical sense, married to the idea of Iran . This is no ego-trip for the now exiled Empress. She manifests a genuine humility in the face of the majesty of Iran 's beauty and the immensity of its sufferings throughout the ages. This is neither a political statement not deposition at the court of history. All she is trying to do is to share with us some of the joys and tribulations she experienced during some 25 years of travel to virtually every last bit of her motherland.


The travelogue reveals her as a keen observer, and, perhaps more importantly, a patient listener. We see her among nomadic tribes chatting about daily life, visiting ultramodern industrial centers to discuss technology with high-flying engineers, and almost breaking into tears in front of the sheer beauty of the architecture of some Kevir villages. It is clear that she was more comfortable in the remote villages of the desert than in a metropolis like Tehran .


Pirnia's voice adds not only the factual elements that might have been omitted at times, but also a note of gaiety and humor. There is also something of a chorus which intervenes every now and then. This consists of the voices of the people encountered during the travels as well works by more than 100 Iranian and European travelers that Pirnia consulted before writing the book. The function of the chorus is to advance the narrative, to provide additional information, to evoke what is coming next, and to confirm the account offered by the two travelers.


Iran is a vast land, covering an area equal to the distance between Scandinavia and Sicily. It is also a varied one. From the snow-capped mountains of the Alburz and Zagross, among the highest in the world, to the lunar landscape of the deserts, and from the subtropical forests of the Caspian littoral to the monsoon-washed shores of the Gulf of Oman , one encounters an astonishing diversity of topography and climate.


Iran is the world's fifteenth largest country, and its second biggest exporter of petroleum. It is the guardian of the Persian Gulf , the strategic waterway through which passes more than 50 per cent of the world's oil exports. But it is also the land of the Persian carpet, of pistachio, the Persian cat and caviar.


The travelogue introduces us all of that plus some of the fascinating historic sites that have always made Iran a traveler's dream destination: Persepolise, the mosques of Isfahan and Yazd, Shiraz and its fabulous gardens, the temple of Anahita at Hamadan, the Illamites and Anshanite monuments of Khuzestan. But it is the rich diversity of its population that this travelogue especially reveals. For this is basically a story of human contact rather than the modern style tourism of picture postcards, instant camera, and quick group calls on “merits- a- detour” sights.


With Empress Farah as guide we meet the Turcomans in their Central Asian plains, we have tea with the Baluch close to the Indian Ocean, listen to songs of war and love by warlike Kurdish and Lur tribes, exchange pleasantries with sharp-witted Gilaks, and discuss the world of movement with nomadic Qashqai and Mamassani tribes.


The “Safarnameh” could be read for a variety of purposes. It offers the joy of divertissement to the casual reader. But to the reader more interested in knowing the land and peoples of Iran , the book presents a wealth of historic, ethnological, architectural, geographical and archeological information all seasoned with anecdotes and incidental tidbits that make for an easy and pleasant read. All in all, the book offers the most complete list of all that is worth visiting in Iran . More than 200 full-color photographs by the renowned Iran photographer Peter Karapetian and others who have captured the beauty and mystery of Persia with their cameras, help put the reader further in the picture, so to speak. There are also numerous sketches, many by Hushang Seyhun , one of Iran 's foremost artists and architects and by Empress Farah herself.


This is a beautiful book, written with calm grace, and designed and produced with aesthetic refinement. Mrs. Mansore Pirnia is a pioneering Iranian journalist. She was one of the very first women to break out of the ghetto of women's journalism in Iran to cover a wide variety of beats, from cultural events to political and diplomatic ones. One of their longest assignments was to cover the Empress. This led to an association, may be even a friendship that spanned more than two decades. The present book is the fruit of those years.


Amir Taheri - London