The geometric patterning in Islamic tiles, carpets and textiles bespeak the Chief Architect, and how He brings forth the beauty of the physical world through eternal shapes. Implicit in these designs are dualities, heaven and earth, light and shadow, and of course male and female. The curating tradition of museums focuses on the male element in Islamic art. From the great monarchs like Iran’s Shah Abbas, Turkey’s Suleyman the Magnificent and India’s Shah Jahan, museums display their silk ceremonial gowns, jade-handled swords and brocaded riding boots. Objects made by or for women rarely figure in the exhibit cases.

Samak the Ayyar:  A Tale of Ancient Persia, Freydoon Rassouli (trans), Jordan Mechner (adapted) (Columbia University Press, August 2021)
Samak the Ayyar: A Tale of Ancient Persia, Freydoon Rassouli (trans), Jordan Mechner (adapted) (Columbia University Press, August 2021)

The adventures of Samak, a trickster-warrior hero of Persia’s thousand-year-old oral storytelling tradition, are beloved in Iran. Samak is an ayyar, a warrior who comes from the common people and embodies the ideals of loyalty, selflessness, and honor—a figure that recalls samurai, ronin, and knights yet is distinctive to Persian legend. His exploits—set against an epic background of palace intrigue, battlefield heroics, and star-crossed romance between a noble prince and princess—are as deeply rooted in Persian culture as are the stories of Robin Hood and King Arthur in the West. However, this majestic tale has remained little known outside Iran.

They gaze at you, the fashionably-attired youths of Esfahan, from a distance of 300 years. Swaying like cypress trees, their tresses floating in the air like clouds, their faces surrounded by peach fuzz, they smile like the Gioconda and with more mystery. Who are these young men and what do they say to the viewers? After the lucidity of the great 16th-century Persian and Mughal painters like Behzad and Sultan Mohammad, who painted kingly battles and hunts, the 17th century brings us the works of Reza Abbasi and Mohammad Qasem, and their ambivalent but sexually-charged portraits of young men and occasionally young women.

Many years ago, before international direct dial, two young telephone operators, a man in Zurich and a woman in Cairo, began to pass the milkman shift chatting together. They became friends, decided to meet, and married. The language of their courtship was French. This was the day when many international organisations, including the Global Postal Union that coordinated the national PTTs (Post, Telegram and Telegraph), considered French an official language.

“How did Ibn Battuta support himself on his travels?”, asked a student once. It’s hard to imagine a world where erudition and charm enable a man to travel the world as the honored guests of kings and scholars as well as humble folk, but that is how things worked in those days. It also helped to be able to sleep as soundly in silk sheets as on a crofter’s mat. A world like that, a man like that, does not belong to a remote past, but it may belong to a past that is fading fast. Tales from the Life is an outpouring of praise and sadness on the occasion of the death earlier this year of Bruce Wannell, the last great English traveler in the Orient.