Friday 8 May 2009

A Sense of Place

Clockwise from top left; The Imam Mosque in Esfahan, an Iranian tourist family we met in Shiraz and Esfahan, Abbassi Hotel Esfahan during the day, and again at sunset. Photos by Al-Qasim Martin

Most fiction writers will at some point have to engage in research about the place or places they set their novel in, unless you set your novel in a place that you know very well or the place exists only in your imagination, whether in a realist or science fiction format.

Every writer is unique in the way she brings forth her novel. At workshops and talks writers often struggle to articulate that process, but more often than not they admit that at some point it is a matter of trust, of blind faith, that somehow or other that novel will get written. Some writers start with ideas, others with places, others with plot. I belong to the group of writers who are motivated by characters. The characters of my novels are not so much products of my imagination but independent beings who will pursue me and ask me to tell their stories. Once I have agreed to sit down and write them they will let me know what has happened to them, what it feels to be them, but they don’t usually tell me about the place where they are coming from or where they are living.

Unfortunately that doesn’t mean I can just put them anywhere. One of the main characters of my third novel insisted he was Iranian. I told him that wouldn’t work; I had never been to Iran. I suggested all kind of Middle Eastern countries I had visited in the past, but the man was unmoveable.

Because I liked the character I started reading travel books on Iran. I found them fascinating, I enjoyed myself; but I postponed writing because of my lack of first-hand knowledge of Iran.

I am a member of a writers’ group. We have been meeting about once a month ever since we finished our MA Writing course seven years ago. All the while when this Iranian character pursued me I was embarrassed coming to meetings without having written a word since the last meeting. I watched with envy how one of my colleagues had the courage to throw a whole manuscript into the fire and start the project afresh with the help of a mentor.

‘I need a mentor,’ I told myself, but a mentor costs money, and as an unpublished writer I felt I couldn’t justify that expense.

Then my husband bought me a bread maker for my birthday. I had a perfectly good one and used it regularly. Why would I want another one? “Our daughters keep asking when you get a new one, so they can have the old one,” my husband justified his purchase.

In no time I had found myself a mentor, openly claiming that she was my husband’s birthday present. My husband did not deny it. She told me right at the beginning of our year together that she would expect me to write about 10,000 words a month. I panicked and wanted to travel to Iran immediately, but of course that was not possible, and instead I sat down and started writing. To my surprise I had no problem to write the scenes set in Iran. All my reading had provided enough background knowledge for a first draft.

When nearing the end of the first draft, however, the yearning to go to Iran came back. I wanted to see with my own eyes that the things I had described from online images, after reading other people’s impressions and listening to people who had visited Iran, were accurate.

I persuaded my teenage son to join me because I didn’t want to travel on my own and my husband was too busy. We applied for a visa. My son was granted one, I wasn’t. I applied again. Again my application failed. So I went to a travel agent who promised a visa, against additional payment of course. This time the visa arrived.

The trip to Iran with my son was only a 12-day event, far too short yet long enough at the same time. We arrived in Tehran during the holiday time of Noruz, the Iranian New Year, and at first I was disappointed because I needed to see Tehran at its worst, not quiet and without traffic. At the same time however it allowed us to explore the town in a relaxed manner. We walked up the Elburz Mountains, we saw some of Tehran’s splendid gardens, we visited the quarters of the rich and the poor. We flew on to Shiraz, a place not featuring in my novel but a place I wanted to see, its Bazaar and the tomb of Hafiz, a 14th century poet and mystic whose poetry many Iranians are still able to recite by heart. About 70km northeast of Shiraz we visited the ruins of Persepolis, an ancient city that quite a few Iranians called one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is not one of them, but it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Finally we travelled to Esfahan, the city where my character’s family comes from and where he returns to with his daughter. I fell in love with its mosques, its beautiful square, its gardens and courtyards. We stayed in the Abbasi Hotel, a five-star hotel that we were forced into because all the cheaper hotels were full. It had been impossible to book hotels from the UK. Being an independent traveller had its disadvantages. The disadvantage was purely a monetary one though; everything else was perfect in the hotel. We sat in its magnificent courtyard that was once part of a caravanserai, looking at pools and the lovingly planted beds of flowers, their scents becoming intoxicating in the late afternoon just before sunset. Above the wall surrounding the courtyard we admired the view of the turquoise tiled dome of the adjacent mosque. Birds would fly in and out of the trees and shrubs, and for moments I felt quite literally in paradise.

The indoor swimming pool was single-sex, with different times for men and women, which suited my Muslim and feminist sensibilities.

Was the trip necessary to finish my novel? I think so. I had to rewrite quite a few scenes because I pictured them as if they happened in one of the Middle Eastern countries that I had visited when Iran was in fact different. In Iran smoking in public places is forbidden. The airports are modern and not crowded at all. I had no idea that you had separate entrances for men and women. Many of the beautiful mosques are no longer used for communal prayer. I was unaware that Shia Muslims, like the Iranians, pray only three times a day, and that you will hear the call to prayer only three times, not five times like in the Sunni countries. I imagined the cities full of huge billboards with photos of the ayatollahs, akin to the portraits of the royal family in Saudi Arabia lining the roads, but the portraits were much smaller than expected, and not at all ever-present. These may only be minor things, and the average novel reader might never have spotted the mistakes, but to me they were important.

After coming back from Iran I had this renewed energy that allowed me to finish the novel. It still needs further rewriting, this time in the context of character development, but at least I feel that I have done my best concerning the sense of place. In a strange sort of way, the visit has also helped me to understand my characters better, and to see much clearer the road they are travelling on during the timescale of the novel.

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