My rating: 9.5/10
In 1995, a decade and a half after the revolution which resulted in the deposition of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamist fundamentalist government led by Ayatollah Khomeini, a young Canadian woman and her male partner entered Iran on tourist visas. Their official reason: a honeymoon journey. The not so official reason: for Alison Wearing, the chance to explore a country and culture vilified in the Western world as impossibly backwards and more than slightly dangerous for touristing. For her partner Ian, Iran is a second-choice destination. He really wanted to go to Bulgaria, but a fear of travelling alone and, one suspects, Alison’s more focussed drive and tenacious personality, have resulted in this joint trip.
Before taking this trip together … we would spend hours poring over maps, planning long, arduous treks through desolate corners of the earth or road trips across continents.
The only problem was my strong belief in travel as a solitary pursuit. And Ian’s fear of travelling alone… We settled on Iran because it was the only place I couldn’t imagine going on my own. And for a whole stack of other reasons that had nothing to do with our relationship.
The year before we met, I had made my fifth trip to Yugoslavia. I went, in part, to visit friends trapped in the middle of war, but also because the media’s portrait of the place – full of barbarians and void of humanity – made the world seem unlivable. I refused to believe that such a place of unalloyed evil truly existed, that that was the end of the story. I went because I believed that there had to be more. And because I like to look for saints where there are said to be demons.
Iran became our destination for the same reason.
I’m going to share a major spoiler here, one that comes part way through the book. (I don’t feel particularly bound to keep this a secret; it is something of a “first line” in many of the internet reviews I’ve read.)
I have a confession to make. Ian isn’t my husband. We aren’t even lovers, just friends. We forged a marriage certificate just before leaving Montreal using photocopies of his brother and sister-in-laws document, and that is what we are using to get ourselves into hotels. Most proprietors don’t ask and of those that do, two have scrutinized the paper very seriously while holding it upside down, so we needn’t have worried so much about its appearance of authenticity. The thing we should have worried about, perhaps, is the effect that photocopying and whiting out of names on a marriage certificate might have had. By the time Ian and I had reached Iran, his brother’s marriage had collapsed.
So Ian, my fussy, gay roommate and I are romping around Iran quite illegally. And not altogether happily, if only because our interests are not as parallel as we had grown to believe. He is primarily concerned with dead things (history, buildings, wars), and I primarily with living things. Sometimes I find myself wishing he would evaporate, which isn’t to say I don’t still find him endearing. It’s just that our differences have become painfully obvious under this desert light…
So that is the explanation of the double entendre title of this exceedingly revealing (yet not quite forthcoming) travel memoir. The author has been rattling around the world quite independently for some time already, a seasoned traveller indeed. But this trip called out for a partnership, because of the difficulties inherent in a woman attempting to move about unchaperoned by a male relative in a very strictly policed, Islamic fundamentalist country. It is doubtful that, alone, Alison would ever have been permitted to cross the border, with only “tourist” as her declared motivation. A honeymoon journey, while raising some eyebrows, is accepted as a valid excuse, especially when Alison, whenever necessary, willingly dons full traditional garb: manteau, headscarf, and all-enveloping chaador.
First of all, there is no such thing as “wearing” a chaador. There is only “managing to keep one on.” And I don’t say this as a frustrated novice, but as an observer of scores of women who have been dressing with it most of their lives.
The chaador is a living, wriggling entity, whose preferred habitat is the floor. Any woman trying to cover herself is not only fighting the true nature of the fabric, but also gravity, which has been in cahoots with the chaador since the beginning of time. The moment the chaador is on, wrapped in just the right way, covering all the right things, it begins its dogged descent, squirming along the sleek surface of the hair, hoping to make a clean leap to the neck, where it can secure a foothold for its plummet off the shoulders. An astonishing portion of the wearer’s energy and concentration goes into minimizing the creature’s progress, herding it back into position around her face, leashing it to her fingers and fists, or clamping its skin between her teeth. It doesn’t enjoy being corralled in this way. Thus the constant wrestling. The creature prefers damp, humid surroundings and feeds on sweat.
The literal translation of chaador is “tent”, but from my own camping experience this seems a poor translation. The sack-shaped coat and scarf I have on right now are the tent. The chaador thrown overtop feels more like the fly.
Alison Wearing fully embraces the experience of going – literally – undercover in Iran. Though she is deliciously sarcastic and witty throughout, she is also good-spirited and gracefully positive, describing her impressions on every aspect of her travels from the clothes to the food to the various characters she encounters to her long-suffering travelling companion Ian, whom, incidentally, we don’t really get to know, aside from a few brief vignettes here and there. It is rather as if Alison has chosen to shield Ian from examination, focussing instead on her own emotional and physical journey. It would be most interesting to read a parallel account of the Iranian episode from Ian’s point of view; one suspects his inner voice would consist predominantly of one long, high-pitched scream, triggered by Alison’s continuous flittings off and nonchalant eventual returns: Ian seems to (understandably) spend much of his Iranian time in a state of high anxiety. Alison must have been an utterly exhausting partner for their five months “honeymoon” in Iran.
All criticism aside of the self-indulgence of relatively well-heeled Western travellers sightseeing in troubled Eastern countries – and Alison addresses this dichotomy in her narrative numerous times – this book is an excellent example of a modern travel memoir. It opens a window into a very different culture, and it educates and informs as much as it amuses. And it is very amusing. And poignant, and heart-rending, and – this goes without saying – thought provoking. Well done, Alison Wearing.
Many years have passed since Alison took her Iranian journey and wrote about it so wonderfully well. In the meantime she has married, had a son, and pursued numerous other interests, including the successful production and performance of a one-person stage show based on her childhood, adolescence and young womanhood, much of it centered around the situation of her father’s “coming out” as a gay man – albeit one with a wife and three children - in the 1970s, in conservative Peterborough, Ontario. Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter is Alison’s second memoir, published just this year, some thirteen years after her first book. I am looking forward to reading it with anticipation; I had thought to add it to my Christmas wish list, but I suspect I will acquire it long before then.