Still looking great at 74, he has of course more lines, wears glasses and his hair color must be assisted, but the face that accompanied Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men” and Barbra Streisand in “The Way We Were” is unmistakable.
Flashbacks to the past triggered by the sight of something oh so familiar, that on the one hand has changed with time but on the other seems to have not changed at all, underlined the theme song of this latter film.
“Memories, like the corners of my mind,
Misty water-colored memories
Of the way we were.
Scattered pictures, of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another
For the way we were.”
More flashbacks, too, this month as one of the movie channels on Digitürk is screening “Topkapı,” the 1964 film starring Melina Mercouri and Peter Ustinov. I never really enjoy the actual film for itself, feeling it is a dumbed-down version of Eric Ambler’s truly thrilling novel “The Light of Day.” The film I feel can’t decide whether it is a comedy, a showcase for a sexy actress or a tense heist.
But it is worth a viewing for the lover of İstanbul -- just see “the way we were” in this city some 60 years ago. Just as with the Turkish Yeşilçam movies you can’t help being amazed at the amount of greenery lining the Bosporus. Can those really be thickly wooded slopes where today many thousands of people have their apartment dwellings?
Yes, the roads really were that empty. Yes, policemen’s’ uniforms were like that. Yes, a typical government office was full of manual typewriters and ceiling fans, with men sitting at the entrance gates offering to type your “dilekçe” for you.
Although it was the 1980s before I first came to İstanbul, I remember taxis like that. I remember the old international terminal at Atatürk Airport (renovated and hugely expanded it is now the domestic terminal). I remember telephone kiosks, and the way stall-holders would advertise how you could call from their telephone and pay by the unit. I remember wooden buildings lining each side of cobbled lanes in certain parts of the city. I remember inter-city buses completely filled with cigarette smoke.
İstanbul has changed, but its heart is still the same old, loveable city. While the surface changes (and I am not just referring to the way it seems that every year the local authority insists on tearing up the new paving stones they put in last year to replace them with the current fashion!) its heart stays the same.
For this reason, Michael Carroll’s gem of a piece of travel writing “From a Persian Tea House,” although it relates to a trip in the mid 1950s (soon after the CIA-sponsored coup in Iran) strikes a chord in the reader. The Iran he describes is in one sense unrecognizable today, so much has the country modernized since his visit. But in another very real sense, it is exactly the Iran of today that he describes. Although the surface changes, the heart stays the same; and Carroll has an amazing gift of describing the heart.
In a way, even back in the 1950s, Carroll could recognize this. Arriving to catch a bus back to Isfahan, he is struck by how although the surface has changed the heart of the Iranian travelers has not: “There is still something left of the old caravanserai romance, even in a bus station. For in Persia it seems that only the method of traveling has changed: camels to motor-buses; to the Persian the spirit of the journey has remained the same.”
Carroll manages such deep insight because, although always a foreigner, he doesn’t seem just to be passing through. He makes deep relationships with the locals and enters into that in-between world where he is at least partially accepted as “one of them.”
Each chapter in this fascinating travelogue is a series of episodes, of loving reminiscences and of gentle insight. The motif of the tea house is not just a gimmick to create a catchy title: It is a theme that runs throughout the whole work. From the stunningly lyrical opening where Caroll describes the sunlight streaming through the tea-house windows “like thin smoke between the pillars, filling the vast room mysteriously” to the final pages, it is a recurring stage on the journey.
We regularly return to the Isfahan tea house, to sample its atmosphere, to enjoy the convivial conversation and to muse on what we have seen or are about to see in the current chapter. Carroll takes us the length and breadth of the country. We see big cities and small isolated villages. We touch both the Caspian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. We reach the borders with Turkey, the USSR and Pakistan.
We see Isfahan -- as nisf-i-jahan known as “half the world,” visit Shiraz -- the city of roses and nightingales and poets, pass through Qum -- a saintly place to die and many other well-known names. But it is to the tea house in Isfahan that we lovingly return. For it is here that the deepest relationships are made.
For Carroll, the tea house is a place of delving deeper into the Iranian psyche. For the Persians it is a place to avoid the outside world. Michael Carroll is there surrounded by, and makes close friends with, men who are avoiding -- amongst other things -- work, their nagging wives and fathers-in-law with too high expectations.
We look forward to returning with Carroll to Isfahan after each leg of his journey; it is chosen not because of its location at the center of the country, but because it holds for him and for the reader the magnet of this window into the Persian heart. Isfahan is “a place where blue domes shine in the sun and scrolled minarets gleam against sky and mountain; a place where silver poplars line the streets, and pools lie as mirrors in the quiet courtyards of mosques; and a tea-house [is] there, [with] faces in it that I knew.”
Standing on the corner of the Maidan-i-Shah, one of the largest public squares in the world, we catch Carroll realizing that it “has remained almost exactly as it was built 350 years ago.” True, “workmen were putting the finishing touches to some huge flower-beds in the center of the square and a great open tank of water.” He had been told by friends in Tehran that these new flower-beds would break up the space and destroy its grandeur. But, just as with the people, surface change leaves the heart untouched. “I narrowed my eyes to take in the complete picture framed in the blue sky and the line of purple mountains behind the minarets. The place was big enough to take the flowers and the pool, they were only details.”
Maybe the Maidan has changed in the 60 years that have passed since Michael Carroll narrowed his eyes to take in the complete picture. But what it stands for in the hearts of the people will not have changed, just as we and they have really changed little deep down.
The Isfahan tea-house reminds us that the way we were is, after all, the way we still are.
“From a Persian Tea House,” by Michael Carroll, published by Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 10.99 pounds in paperback ISBN: 978-184511500-5