A Ravaged World Travels Across Iran François-Henri Désérable 4Translation

Francois Henri Deserable Ravaged World Travels Across Iran BookBlast Review

A Ravaged World: Travels Across Iran details the adventures of François-Henri Désérable as he journeys from Tehran to the border with Balochistan at the height of Iranian Government repression quashing nationwide protests against the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.  At the end of his forty-day journey he was arrested and interrogated by the Revolutionary Guards, who believed his story: instead of being imprisoned he was ordered to immediately leave the country. He returned to Europe with this unique traveller’s tale, recounting his adventures and encounters with a largely pro-Western people brutally subjugated by an anti-Western religious theocracy, in L’usure d’un monde: Une traversée de l’Iran / A Ravaged World: Travels Across Iran.

Désérable’s itinerary starts from a boarding house in Tehran, going on to Qom, Kashan, Ispahan, Shiraz, Persepolis, Yazd, Kerman, Bam, Lut desert, Keshit, Bam, Zahedan, then back to Tehran; and finally Tabriz and Saqqez.

Why Iran and why now? I had been planning this trip for years, inspired by that travelling wizard, Nicolas Bouvier . . . The Way of the World was my Bible, the Gospel of the Road According to Saint Nicolas . . . In June 1953, Bouvier joined his friend Thierry Vernet in Belgrade. Age twenty-four and twenty-six respectively, they both grew up in Geneva, and had met ten years previously at college. One writes, the other paints; they have a Fiat Topolino, two years stretch before them, and enough money to last them for four months. Their plans were vague, point being to just go.”

Désérable had ignored the official’s voice at the end of the phone line while boarding the plane: “We cannot give you consular protection, we will not be able to visit you in prison, or do anything much at all. In short, you could be stuck there for a year, two years, maybe ten years, go figure. You get my drift? Iran is not governed by rule of law. Cancel your trip.”

“You should not travel to Iran”

On arrival there is no one at the counter for Foreign Passport Control since neither tourists nor journalists are welcome. His passport and visa are checked by an apathetic, sullen customs officer. The flirtatious receptionist at his boarding house is wearing a loose hijab. He is the only European other than Marek, a nervous twenty-two-year-old German with disheveled blond hair and big blue eyes who’d been dumped by his fiancée three months earlier in Istanbul. The guests are mainly from Pakistan and Afghanistan; most are waiting to get visas if not for somewhere in Europe, for Australia.

Almost everyone or in Iran is opposed to the regime . . . Fear promotes paralysis. Fear is the most reliable weapon used by those in power. But here, fear has recently been trumped by courage.”

Désérable heads for the bazaar where demonstrators gather on most days – except holy Friday – after receiving seemingly innocuous messages via the Telegram app. They mingle with the crowd and are identifiable by their trainers in case they have to do a runner. There are many ways to protest, from dropping an iron from a balcony on to the head of a passing supporter of the regime, to posting videos online, or tagging. Almost half the women under the age of thirty do not wear the hijab. This despite the undercover activities of the paramilitary volunteer militia who prohibit vice and promote virtue; the threat of torturel; or of being sent to Evin Prison, “a city within the city, north of Tehran, built to accommodate three thousand prisoners but which today houses around fifteen thousand inmates.”

Firouzeh: A women’s rights activist

His most endearing portrait of a young activist is that of Firouzeh whom he meets in Isafahan. She is “studying engineering in addition to which she works forty hours per week in a youth hostel; on top of which she is learning English by watching Friends.” Also a graffiti artist, her tags do not last long since the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on motorbikes out looking for trouble cover them up with spray paint.

In Qom – “City of preaching and dust, with flat roofs, sad streets, sombre faces, hostile to anyone who is not Muslim” – the mullahs are everywhere. Chadors are worn from the age of five onwards. Not one woman would dare to openly defy Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 decree that veiling be mandatory: she’d be stoned to death.

The soldiers in fatigues at a checkpoint between Qom and Kashan, want to know if Désérable knows Kylian Mbappé personally. Football is, as always, a great bonding agent.

In between descriptions of his daily encounters with Iranians, Désérable drops nuggets of insight into an unfamiliar culture, from its poets to the cult of martyrs; from the banned writer and translator Hedâyat, best known for his novel The Blind Owl, to the Western writers, Pierre Loti, Ryszard Kapuściński and Paul Theroux. He admires the gardens – most particularly Eram in Shiraz, with “its palm trees, cypresses, rose garden, fountains, and pavilion; its origins date back to the Qajars.” He complains that the oasis Keshit and its ancient ruins should be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and meets bona fide travellers who make him only too aware of his tourist status. The story of a Swiss German during his first ever crossing of the desert when he strayed from the main road is a fearsome cautionary tale. When he tries to get an interview with the veteran correspondent for a French newspaper allegedly based in Iran, it turns to farce, since the man is based in Paris. Will Iran become the next North Korea?

The Zahedan Massacre

Perhaps the best part of the book is the last section, starting with Désérable’s experiences in Zahedan, Balochistan, where heroin addicts abound, and the rape of a fifteen-year-old Sunni girl by a Shia police commander in the police station triggered mass unrest. Outside the vast Sunni Mosque, with its fifty-two domes, on Friday, 30 September, 2022, people started shouting slogans. A policeman dressed in white holding a machine gun climbed on to the roof of the police station and began shooting into the crowd and was joined by more cops. People fell, ran towards what they thought was a sacred place, to no avail. Dozens of wounded were carried away on prayer rugs; ninety-six people were killed.

The arrest and interrogation of Désérable make for tense reading. A shrewd operator, he makes a miraculous escape.

A Ravaged World: Travels Across Iran is a thoughtfully-written book which serves as a bridge between cultures as it details a successful journey through modern-day Iran, offering a fresh and informed perspective on a country that is often portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. It is a perfect find for translation. 

Éditions Gallimard, 160 pages | Published April 2023 ISBN : 978-2073026163

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.