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Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard: A Journey Through the Inside-Out Worlds of Iran and Afghanistan Paperback – May 4, 2010


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306818841
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306818844
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,087,149 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his travelogue-cum-history, Jubber (The Prester Quest) recounts his journey into the heart of contemporary Persian culture with the 11th-century poetic epic, Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), as his Rosetta stone. Traveling through Iran, Central Asia, and Afghanistan, the author finds that the book is a living, breathing entity; the most accurate account available of the psyche of the Persian-speaking people; its myths, heroes, and villains are daily cultural touch points, from dinnertime conversation to pop song lyrics, in village butcher shops and on city stages. As Jubber becomes better acquainted with the Shahnameh, he comes to see that the best way of getting to grips with this strange, secretive [region] might be through the unlikely binoculars of a thousand-year-old epic, and he uses the epic to scaffold his own discoveries. By book's end, having moved from North Tehran villas to rickety Afghan buses, and having encountered kindness and brutality, technological savvy and vestiges of medievalism, Jubber's account offers a full and satisfying panorama of the region with its rich paradoxes and complexities intact. (May)
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From Booklist

The mythical Christian king Prester John was the concern of Jubber's first book (The Prester Quest, 2006); here, Jubber's occupied by the tenth-century Persian poet Ferdowsi and his epic Shahnameh. Translating as “The Book of Kings,” the title enthralls Iranians, though not their despotic theocrats, who are averse to Ferdowsi's pre-Islamic themes. In this literary travelogue of a recent sojourn in Iran and Afghanistan, Jubber discovers sundry aspects of popular admiration for Ferdowsi. Holding a copy of Shahnameh invariably provokes a conversation about or a recitation of its verses, which serve Jubber as his open-sesame to social interaction on his journey. That, like Shahnameh itself, has a destination: the city of Ghazni, in Afghanistan. There, Jubber recounts, Ferdowsi was humiliated by the sultan to whom he presented his life's work. Recounting Ferdowsi's tribulations amid amusing self-deprecation about his own bungling, Jubber renders a lively portrait of the Iranians and Afghanis whom he meets and befriends. Those interested in founts of Iranian cultural pride will be entertainingly informed by the eminently readable and adventuresome Jubber. --Gilbert Taylor

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Customer Reviews

I can't say whether he's right or wrong.
JAK
Being an Iranian and having read many parts of the Shahnameh in Persian, I doubt if Mr. Jubber's Persian is as good as he claims it is.
Shervin Shambayati
If you are interested in reading a book about this region that draws on its shared cultural history, then this book may interest you.
Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By WingsandRings on July 2, 2010
Format: Paperback
This is a memoir of a British man in his mid-twenties living in Iran (and visiting Afghanistan) and discovering a culture he never expected. The contradictory nature of Iran is explored with Ferdowsi's Shahnameh (an epic poem about Persia's ancient shahs written about 1000 years ago) as its axis -- through his understanding of the Shahnameh, and its importance to Persians, he comes to better understand Iran itself as well as Iran's place in the Middle East. That is, how it is similar, but also how it is set apart, and especially in how the Persians themselves view themselves as apart from many of the cultures surrounding them.

I won't say you get a complete, unbiased representation of Iranian thinking -- most of the people he encounters are the intellectual elite -- but it certainly taught me more about the Persian way of thinking than many of the other books I've read on the country and culture.

If, ultimately, Jubber comes off as having a somewhat sentimental view of Iran, it is only because he is reflecting how the Persians themselves view their country, their culture, and their history.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Shervin Shambayati on December 12, 2010
Format: Paperback
Although I agree with the general thrust of this book (understanding Shahnameh goes a long ways towards understanding Iran and Afghanistan) at times I doubt the veracity of the story that Mr. Jubber is saying. Being an Iranian and having read many parts of the Shahnameh in Persian, I doubt if Mr. Jubber's Persian is as good as he claims it is. Some of the names and words that he quotes are misspelled (i.e., the English spellings of them do not sound like the name). Also, he makes some basic errors (Darius the Great was the son-in-law not the grandson of Cyrus the Great as claimed in the book). Nevertheless, the picture that he paints of the Iranian youth is rather accurate: those who are not drunk on religion get drunk on alcohol and they substitute a nihilistic hedonism for active resistance against the regime. Also, I think Mr. Jubber gets the depth of the influence of Shahnameh in the Iranian culture right. Shahnameh is a great book and perhaps the only reason that the modern Persian has survived as a language after conquest, successively, by the Arabs, several Turkish tribes, Chengiz Khan and Tamerlane. I don't know about the Afghanistan and the Central Asia portions of this book as I have not been there and cannot comment on what Mr. Jubber claims to have observed. This is a good book with a good narrative style, although the reader should take some of the material with a grain of salt.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer Cameron-Smith on January 27, 2011
Format: Paperback
This is an interesting combination of travelogue and history. Armed with an 11th century epic poem, Nicholas Jubber travels to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia. Written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi around 1000 CE, the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) consists of some 60,0000 couplets - about four times the length of the combined Odyssey and Iliad. The Shahnameh is both mythical and historical: it contains the stories of the shahs from the prehistoric Gayomart to the fateful reign of Yazdegerd III which saw the Arab invasion of 637 CE. Although the Shahnameh is considered heresy by Islamic mullahs because of its celebration of Iran's pre-Islamic past, it is revered by many Iranians.

The stories and verses, harking back to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian beliefs, pop up in paintings, puppet shows, everyday proverbs, contemporary thrash metal lyrics, and even lurk behind religious festivals. The tale of the legendary hero Rostam was recited by soldiers to bolster their courage during the Iran/Iraq war.

The Shahnameh becomes Nicholas Jubber's passport into households in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia: the epic is a unifying factor from a past when this part of the world was part of the same empire and shared the same Persian culture.

After a brief visit to Central Asia (including backgammon in a brothel), and after earning to walk like an Afghan (in a straight line, and taking bigger steps) Nicholas Jubber heads off to Afghanistan. He wants to trace the steps of Ferdowsi, who took his epic to Sultan Mahmud. Alas, Nicholas Jubber's journey took him through Helmand Province and into Taliban country, where he had to pretend to be mute to try to hide his foreignness.

In Afghanistan, too, the Shahnameh sheds light.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Paul Lawrence on February 18, 2011
Format: Paperback
Written by Nicholas Jubber and subtitled A Journey Through the Inside-Out Worlds of Iran and Afghanistan this work follows the author on his travels through these two nations (with a quick detour to a couple of other `stans) this work is centred on his explorations of the cultures of these nations via the link of the 11th century poem/epic entitled Shahnameh (Book of Kings).

The book is mainly centred on the authors time in Iran where he spent most of his time living with a local family in Tehran who, seemingly, are upper middle class types and certainly educated. He travels to other parts of the country as with Tehran as his base and much of the book involves tales of his observations and interactions and adventures with this family. Now admittedly if this book was set in the UK, New Zealand or the US I wouldn't give a tinkers cuss about their daily life, but given the book is set in Iran it is interesting.

As the author works his way around the country and thence into the `stans for a brief foray in and finally to Afghanistan he is able to impart an on the ground tale of the situation in these nations at the time of his writing. It's not terribly given to creating a mood of optimism it has to be said but at least the authors lack of any rose coloured glasses means his highs are more genuine. And without spoiling it there is definitely a bevy of high points contained herein.

Beyond his interactions with locals and his travels to what are, admittedly, pretty exotic locales, the main crux of this work is the aforementioned Shahnameh - a work within which we are led to believe contains not only a great history but also many stirring tales and, indeed, much of the philosophy of Persian culture in the way the stories are told.
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