June 10, 2008

A Cool Place Americans Can't Go

The Wife and I had dinner tonight at a new restaurant in town, called "Pars: Fine Persian Cuisine." Leaving aside the annoying subtitle (restaurants should not have subtitles), I'd never had a lot of experience with Persian food and was very curious to try it out.

The food was fantastic. Perfectly-grilled chicken in a mild lemon-garlic marinade, served with basmati rice cooked with saffron and pomegranate seed. Tender, moist falafel and garlicky hummus. A roasted eggplant, tomato, and bell pepper dip -- normally I like none of these things but it had a wonderful, hearty flavor and was a nice spread on the soft flatbread. The Wife had a wonderful fire-grilled salmon served on a bed of dilled basmati rice; the perfume coming off the rice was like nothing I've ever eaten in the States before. Dessert was a really interesting lemon-sugar ice with these tender, starchy noodles frozen into it. The Wife didn't care for it but I liked it quite a bit.

The restaurant had a large video monitor with a looped DVD of a variety of photographs and videos taken from within Iran. A great many were from Perseopolis (which is within the province of Pars, the part of modern-day Iran that lends its name to the word "Persian" and the name of the dominant language, "Farsi"), and a great many more showed places of astonishing natural beauty. What a glorious place Persia must be. So many ancient buildings, monuments, castles, sculpture, jewelry! It's obvious that Persia has a tremendous amount of history, a collection of diverse peoples, and it would be exquisitely interesting to spend time exploring there. We Americans are so ignorant of what's over there, what the people there are like, of the tremendous history and beauty of the place.

If you're like me, the word "Persia" conjures up irresistably romantic mental images of luxurious palaces, filled with beautiful women dressed in shimmery silks, flirting with fierce-looking medieval warriors in poofy pants and turbans with scary-looking scimitars; crowded, joyfully commercial souks were carpets and spices and bronze are sold after prolonged sessions of haggling; soaring snow-capped mountains mountains with beautiful forest streams running through them, tracing their way through meadows and farms into forbidding deserts before tumbling into the sea; beautiful carpets; ancient statues of great warriors and lions and horses and chariots; and the smell of saffron, cinnamon, pepper, garlic, and lamb roasting on a spit. But even more than this, there is a five-thousand year old civilization that has never collapsed into anarchy or a dark age; there is also a sophisticated, modern urban culture existing side by side with the glories of the past. What a glorious place Persia must be. Could be.

Sadly, geopolitics being what they are, this is unlikely to ever happen for the vast majority of Americans. Even now, our President is touring Europe trying to drum up support for isolating and containing Iran because of its nuclear ambitions and the decades-old tensions between Iran and the U.S.A. Along with the glories of the past that can be seen in some of the most amazing archeology imaginable, and along with the heartbreakingly beautiful natural environment, and along with the modern cities, there is also a theocratic autocracy capable of acts of astonishing evil and led by religious fanatics and ideologues who openly admire the historical example of Adolf Hitler. The uneasy, sporadically violent rivalry between Tehran and Washington that has persisted since 1979 doesn't look like it's getting better any time soon; it looks like we're getting in to a new Cold War with Iran instead. It will likely be a long time until diplomatic relations between Iran, which fancies itself the equal of the mighty empires and kingdoms that once held sway in this part of the world, and the United States. It will likely be a long time until someone like me can seriously contemplate tourism in Persia.

Which all very bad, because it seems that this part of the world probably has a lot to offer. Including some really good food, as it turns out.

All photos by Asana Mashouf, distributed under a Creative Commons license or released into the public domain.

No comments: