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Poets & Pahlevans: a Journey Into the Heart of Iran    by Marcello Di Cintio order for
Poets & Pahlevans
by Marcello Di Cintio
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2007 (2006)
Hardcover, Softcover
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The best of travel literature combines exploration of another culture with a theme - in Poets & Pahlevans, Marcello Di Cintio shares with readers his journeys in Iran with two interrelated themes in mind: the country's revered poets and their poetry, and the historical Persian passion for wrestling (poetry often being recited for inspiration before bouts). Di Cintio brings to his journey a love of poetry and cauliflower ears - a legacy of his own varsity wrestling experience. He also had the advantage of learning some Farsi in advance of the trip.

In modern Tehran he's told that 'people think that poetry is old-fashioned'. He hears very mixed messages on Ayatollah Khomeini and the West, but is everywhere received 'with generosity and warmth', a trend that continues throughout the country. After the death of Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi (which happens during his travels) locals commiserate, telling the author that 'Bad things happen here.' He watches Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 with Iranians, commenting that after Iran's long war with Iraq, 'surely no Iranian wept when the Americans wrenched Saddam Hussein from his pedestal.'

Di Cintio seeks the birthplaces of great Iranian poets - including Ferdosi, Omar Khayyam, Farad al-Din Attar, and Hafez - as well as demonstrations of different wrestling styles. His knowledge of the language and obvious enjoyment in smoking the qalyun (Persian water pipes) open doors for him. He meets many pahlevans (master wrestlers) and participates in bouts. In the zurkhane (wrestling studio), he's told that 'To be a pahlevan, you had to have a pure heart, pure words and pure actions.'

An Iranian in Tabriz shares an appropriate verse from Sa'adi with the author, ending: 'I've never seen anything clearer than water, / But even water must move lest it grow stale. / Go and see the world before the world goes from you.' Marcello Di Cintio goes and sees Iran - its poetry, its pahlevans, but especially its people, telling us that 'ancient verses direct them towards kindness.' He shares his fascinating and focused journey with us in Poets & Pahlevans.

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