Anyone planning a trip to Iran would do well to pop award-winning Lebanese journalist and writer Amin Maalouf’s remarkable novel Samarkand into their bag.
We are the pawns, and Heaven is the player;
This is plain truth, and not a mode of speech.
We move about the chessboard of the world.
Then Drop into the casket of the void
The novel is inspired by the true story of ‘The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám’ and is split into two distinct halves. It opens in Samarkand in the summer of 1072 when the poet and sage Omar Khayyám was 24. From the first page, we are immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the city, with its bazaars and taverns, a place which when Omar first saw it, evoked a vision of paradise. Omar was already well known when he is accused of mocking the codes of Islam and brought before the chief judge or Qadi, Abu Taher. Unexpectedly, he finds in Abu Taher a kindred spirit, who advises him to have two faces, one for the crowd and one for himself and his Creator. To this end he gives him a blank book in which to write his verses.
“Did the Qadi know that with that gesture and those words he was giving birth to one of the best-kept secrets in the history of literature, and that the world would have to wait for eight centuries to discover the sublime poetry of Omar Khayyám?”
These words are spoken by the novel’s narrator Benjamin Lesage, who in the late nineteenth century becomes obsessed with finding Khayyám’s original manuscript. To this end, he travels to Persia, and in the second half of the book he recounts his adventures.
I found this novel addictive and instructive in equal measure, lapping up the romance of Omar Khayyám’s original story, and then Benjamin’s extraordinary adventures during Persia’s constitutional revolution nine hundred years later. Maalouf binds together fact and fiction with great skill and his thoughts are as relevant now in 2015 as they were when the book was written twenty-five years ago.
Maalouf’s fiction offers both a model for the future and a caution, a way towards cultural understanding, and an appalling measure of the consequences of failure. His is a voice which Europe cannot afford to ignore.”
Claire Messud, The Guardian
If you, like me, are inspired to learn more about the flavours of Persia after reading Samarkand, I urge you to look out for ‘Persiana: Recipes from the Middle East and Beyond‘ by Sabrina Ghayour:
“A lovingly-written homage to the enchanting dishes of the Middle East. Sabrina Ghayour takes the reader on her magic carpet to the ancient and beautiful lands of rose-scented sherbets… and to a table of abundant feasts, and of honeyed and spiced delights. What a fantastic treasure trove of good food! Within these pages, the cook will find recipes for tagines, soups, stews, salads and plenty of sweet treats. Through the pages of Persiana, Sabrina delivers the Eastern promise in its delicious, gastronomic form. If you want to eat like an Arabian Knight, then start here… but be sure to stock up on cinnamon, cumin and coriander…”
I couldn’t say it better myself!