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Iran and Afghanistan: countries that dominate the international headlines. It's hardly surprising that we should think we know them well even if we've never been there. In "Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard", Nicholas Jubber attempts to reveal the Afghanistan and Iran that's hidden from view, what he refers to in the book's subtitle as the 'Inside-Out Worlds'.
Part travelogue, part cultural history, the book is a fascinating look at what goes on behind closed doors and how people really think, challenging the idea that both countries are defined only by a religious fervour and fundamentalism that is the accepted way of life. At the heart of Jubber's quest is the epic poem of Persian culture, the Shahnameh which he soon learns all Iranians know and love and in doing so he unearths a vibrant culture that preceded the conversion of Persia to Islam and with it the transformation of Persia into Iran.
In the first half of the book, Jubber recounts his early experiences of Iran as a language student, allowed access to the private world of Iran through his friendship with an Iranian family. I found it enthralling to read what goes on inside the walls of the family home, and felt rather privileged to have shared in what must have been a wonderful experience. With his student friend Sina, Jubber is led into the underground world of dance parties where young women wear perilously short skirts and the kids are as high on the risk of getting caught as they are any illicit substances that might be available. The arak of the title is a homemade spirit that is secretly drunk within the home (or carefully concealed in hipflasks), often verging on the dangerous, dispelling the myth that Iranians do not partake in alcohol - indeed, Sina's father does a grand job of refuting this notion!
The second part focuses on a later trip to Afghanistan and it's equally as revealing, showing how the differences between the clans continues to divide the people of Afghanistan in spite of the common religion that media sources and the government of the country would try to tell you is a great force for unity.
Using the poem to show how Iranians and Afghans quietly celebrate this link to a past before enforced Islam is a brilliant way of linking the events he writes about but I did feel that sometimes the sections that retold episodes of the Shahnameh were too long and as a result I found it difficult to return to the travelogue part of the story. I also thought that the footnotes often became too lengthy: sometimes I had to read for too long before I hit a point when it became the right time to backtrack to the footnote but I also found that the footnote was so long that it really spoilt the flow of the narrative. On the other hand some photographs in a separate section just before the (very useful) glossary might have been better placed at relevant points in the main body of the book: when I discovered this section, I felt compelled to go back and track down where they fitted into the text.
The issue, I feel, is that Jubber is an academic who has set out to demonstrate how this great work of literature connects many aspects of Iranian and Afghan culture and I was really hoping for a greater focus on his experiences of travelling through those countries. I have to confess that after a while one tale from the poem became blurred with the last and I did have to stop myself looking for the next section of travelogue. I felt that he proved his point early on but proceeded to labour it.
In spite of its frequent lapses into 'over-worthiness' this is a really enlightening read. In particular, I was fascinated to learn about the large numbers of Zoroastrians in Iran who quietly follow their faith in an environment where deviation from the norm is not welcomed or tolerated.
"Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard" is a challenging but worthwhile read for anyone interested in the culture of these countries. However, it is slightly too scholarly to be of broad appeal and it's heavy handed use of footnotes has a disruptive effect on the rhythm of a fine piece of writing that would otherwise be a very enjoyable read.
This is an edited version of my review which first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk