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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Travel writer Christiane Bird sought to learn more about Iranian culture, Islam, and the real lives of the Iranian people, and the result of her inquiries is Neither East nor West, a rich, captivating portrait of Iran. Donning the hejab, the full-length covering required of all women in Iran, Bird travels extensively throughout the country over a period of three months. She explores the holy cities of Qom and Masshad, the bustling metropolises of Tehran and Tabriz, the ancient Isma'ili fortresses of Alamut in the Alborz Mountains, the desert city of Kerman, and many other Iranian cities, and in the process illuminates the opinions and ideas of the people she meets.
Complexity is a major theme throughout Neither East nor West, allowing Bird to blend the political, the religious, and the artistic into one extraordinary narrative. From the Iranians themselves, who are lovers of poetry and philosophy, to the country's tangled political and social climate, Iran is shrouded in mystery. There is a beautiful passage in the book in which Bird describes Iran as a "box within a box." Bird's lyrical vision of Iran as a secret that reveals itself layer by layer is most poignantly embodied in the hejab. Like the thick walls that obscure most of Iran's buildings from view, the hejab hides Iranian women. Their faces shine out "like jewels," according to Bird, who returns again and again to the idea that it is impossible to guess what is hidden beneath the hejab. The covering conceals physical appearance, and to an extent, financial status and personal style. After spending months in Iran, Bird is more adept at interpreting the subtle signals that a woman's choice of shoes or stockings can communicate. Even the way a woman wears her head scarf, or rusari, can signify a great deal. Bird, who is usually just trying to keep her scarf from falling off, is an open-minded traveler who doesn't pause to pass judgment on the hejab, but instead tries to understand how women live within it.
Similarly complex is Iran's relationship to the West. Biased opinions are rampant -- Westerners and Iranians harbor a wide range of misconceptions about the other's culture. The unparalleled hospitality showered on Bird by Iranians stands in sharp contrast to the hostility some Iranians feel toward the U.S. government. Both in Iran and back home in the United States, Bird is frustrated by the numerous misunderstandings that preserve the barrier between the two cultures. With its firm grasp of Iranian history and insightful, nonjudgmental outlook on contemporary Iranian culture, Neither East nor West is essential reading for Americans and other Westerners seeking to learn about this ancient land. (Julie Carr)