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Marcello Di Cintio

When Calgarian travel writer Marcello Di Cintio was offered a book deal by Knopf Canada, he didn’t play it safe with a fun excursion and light hearted reflection of exotica. Instead, he chose to go on an odyssey of Persian poetry and wrestling, finding out how the two seemingly offbeat and disparate activities complement each other and have defined Iran through its long history. It is a profound and engaging journey, witnessing the cultural reverence of verse, the celebration of the sport of wrestling, and the religious ecstaticism that bridges the two chief preoccupations of Iran’s people.

The apocryphal Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times” has, in fact, been prescriptive for the epochal, Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey into the Heart of Iran. Di Cintio was in Iran during the Bam earthquake, the death of Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi, the American invasion of Iraq, and the start of the continuing international drama regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Three years after dedicating himself to what many would have mistakenly dismissed as esotery, Di Cintio’s choice of unique subject matter has proven to be prescient. It seems Knopf has not only succeeded in delivering to the public a gifted writer of travel literature, but is offering a timely and important book about modern day Iran.

Four years ago Di Cintio’s debut, Harmattan: Wind Across West Africa, showed that he was a travel writer with fine chops. His ability to find and tell a great story separates him from too many others in the genre who are (lamentably) travelers first and writers second. In Poets and Pahlevans, Di Cintio’s account of Iran is of a country preternaturally disposed to the power of poetry but that defines itself in great part by its prowess in the traditional sport of wrestling. His narrative is telling of the extraordinary power of verse, the beautiful violence of ancient grappling rites, and the sentiments of a nation of thoughtful readers.

The marriage of art and sport seems an unlikely path to understanding the obverse nature of the draconian Islamic Iran. However, Di Cintio provides poignant, resonant views of a country shrouded in mystery, reduced by the press to caricature. There is a visitation to an exalted poet ’s shrine that becomes his introduction to the breadth of discontent in Iran. We learn this tenth century poet patriot kept Iran from becoming an Arab nation, preserving, despite the influence of the Arabic Koran, the language of Farsi. In modern times the poetry has been celebrated not only for its artistic value but as emblematic of the need to value language for more than its medium of religious text. Another excursion is to a modern wrestler’s tomb, a touchstone for the Persians’ love of sport. The Shah tried to disgrace the outspoken athlete by demanding his return to wrestling after his decline. After his suspicious suicide he has become an unlikely martyr for the tyranny of the Shah’s reign.

Di Cintio follows his passion with the abandonment and fervor of a pilgrim. He travels to monuments, mosques, far flung locales, and wrestling rooms throughout the country and meets personalities equal to his own. The tombs of poets command incredible audiences of devotion and passion. Understandably surprising to most Westerners is Di Cintio’s account that taxi drivers, fruit sellers, and athletes-seemingly everyone in Iran, is conversant in the nation’s poetry. Their hospitality and politeness, deeply encoded, far surpasses the Western superficial nod to etiquette and cordiality. Di Cintio occasionally gives us a peek at his machismo and hubris, presenting monstrous athletes in an archaic style.

But the cultural relief valve for Iranians is in jeopardy. There is fear amongst Iranians that poetry is losing the battle against religious rule and Western distractions. The many forms of folk wrestling are on the cusp of being neglected and forgotten in preference for the Olympic style. This fear epitomizes the essential struggle of Iran to define and defend itself and its culture while living in interesting times.

I met up with Di Cintio at a Kensington pub and he politely suggested a change in venue after sensing my fear of second hand smoke. He was affable, charming, and handsome. His cauliflower ears looked incongruous to the rest of his baby face and the twinkle in his eyes left all females encountered en route with oversized smiles. We passed by the local independent book store displaying his just-released book and he humbly recounted how he was discovered by a publishing agent who had serendipitously stopped in to ask about local authors while breezing through town. This is the expurgated transcript of the interview.

Beatroute: In Harmattan you claimed that the inspiration to visit Ghana was a lunch you had at an African cuisine eatery in Calgary. This time around were you more influenced by recent books like The Secret Garden, Reading Lolita in Tehran and We are Iran?

Di Cintio: No. Of course I’m familiar with those books and looking forward to reading them but I really try not to read about the places I’m writing about. I don’t want to have my first impression made by someone else. I read a lot of Iranian history and political history before I went, but to me that doesn’t count.

Beatroute: In Poets and Pahlevans everyone you met in Iran recites poetry regardless of their station in life. They seemed so eloquent and literate, it seemed like a literary utopia.

Di Cintio: They have a more refined culture than we will ever have here, books are sold on the street, people are reading all the time. Arabs too have a strong tradition of poetry but not like the Iranians. It is really amazing.

Beatroute: And yet everyone there seemed to be in fear that poetry was in a state of decline…

Di Cintio: That’s right, one of the first people I met in Tehran I talked to about poetry. In Iran he told me, no one was interested in poetry anymore. He said, “You could give a man a poem and he wouldn’t know whether to boil it or fry it”. He made me pretty nervous, I thought, oh God, I don’t have a book. But he was totally wrong and he was proved wrong every time I met someone new.

Beatroute: I heard you have a hate-on for Lonely Planet backpacker types?

Di Cintio: Well, it’s a love/hate thing. I carry that book too but the problem with the books is that it narrows the experience for people who follow it like a bible. And people do follow it like a bible. If it says go here that’s where people go, and every hotel, restaurant, and place it recommends becomes ruined because the quality goes down and the price goes up. I really don’t respect the kind of traveler that sees the world looking over a book.

Beatroute: Travel writing is too often relegated to summer reading for the beach, how do you feel about your chosen genre?

Di Cintio: There is a lot I don’t like. I don’t care for situations where a bunch of people relate on trips, and I don’t like the strain of writing where Westerners just complain about the country-it seems borderline racist to me. And adventure writing doesn’t appeal to me; you don’t get to understand cultures by climbing mountain tops. Also, I don’t think we need another A Year in Tuscany with what is happening in the world right now. I’m not saying my book is more valuable or going to change things but maybe if we learned a little bit about people in the Middle East we’d be less inclined to drop bombs on them.

Beatroute: Your timing is impeccable with everything going on with Iran and the American sabre rattling.

Di Cintio: Good timing for me I guess but not for the Iranian people. If nothing else I hope my book gives people a look at real Iranians. Canada is a healthy functioning democracy but even here very few Canadians would claim the Prime Minister speaks for them. Why then do we think in a place where the leader isn’t elected, the leader speaks for everyone? It was an incredible time to be there but not a blessing for the people.

Beatroute: You seem to be a pretty brave traveler.

Di Cintio: I think you are pretty much okay most of the time with most people… you trust your instincts. I’ve never been in danger, maybe uncomfortable but not in danger.

Beatroute: Getting attacked with a knife in a robbery in Africa?

Di Cintio: Yeah… that was a mistake [laughing]

Beatroute: Sexual politics in Iran seem odd. You lament that you only got to know half the population because you couldn’t really spend any time with women. The women you did meet seemed so refined and interesting while so many of the men have a junior high school view of women.

Di Cintio: Yeah, you look over at the women and they’re having intelligent conversations. I can pass as an Iranian and they communicate with you subtly with maybe a raised eyebrow and small coy conversation. Meanwhile there’s some guy who’s cornered you asking you about whether women in Canada like… [Makes obscene gesture with his hand]. It was frustrating I just wanted to ask, can I go talk to those women instead?

Beatroute: Last thing, I’m a little concerned with your water-pipe habit– you seem enamoured with the practice.

Di Cintio: I realize now that there is way too much water-pipe in the book [laughing]. Next book less water-pipe, I promise.


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