First, a description of a burqa: Worn by women in some parts of the Islamic world, it is a tentlike shroud with a small mesh window over the eyes. The wearer sees only what is directly in front of her—nothing on the periphery, nothing she has already passed.
Canadian journalist Alison Wearing did not wear a burqa while traveling through Iran (the law there requires only a head scarf and long coat), but she may as well have. Posing as newlyweds, she and her roommate “settled on Iran because it was the only place I couldn’t imagine going on my own,” and because “I like to look for saints where there are said to be demons.” She does not disclose her own preconceptions, and she does not state what year it is or what has been happening in Iran when she arrives. Honeymoon in Purdah offers intriguing glimpses into Iranian society but looks only straight ahead and rarely along the periphery.
Over an undefined period, the travelers pass through various towns and encounter an entertaining cast of locals. The book is best when Wearing gives them free rein—a conservative matron in an oasis town yells for tea and fruit for her guests as she massacres them at ping-pong; a man who laments a missed opportunity to meet the Six Million Dollar Man 20 years ago closes his eyes, puts his hand over his heart, and tells them they are like Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett to him. A giggling Mexican woman confides that she goes naked under her cloak. A teenage girl announces she is about to move to England. “Please tell to me,” she asks timidly, “I become happy?”
Imagining this girl returning to Iran after 10 years, the author displays an unashamedly Western bias. Having developed “a taste for philosophy over coffee,” Wearing predicts, the girl will visit her cousin back in the village and “think it pathetic, her life, all these children, this cooking and praying and serving; this waste.” Any affection or wistfulness the girl might also feel for the simpler, more rooted life she left behind is missing.
Declaring the Iranians “a people I will never understand,” Wearing nevertheless generalizes about them, sometimes naively. “We are in Iran,” she writes, “where, generally speaking, vanity is not a national pastime. Where the soul is of greater value than the body. Where plastic surgery is not an industry.” In fact, Iranians are unabashed preeners. Thousands of women of different socioeconomic stripes fill Iran’s hair salons, follow haute couture, and line up for nose jobs.
Wearing is fond of dreamy, fragmented prose. Sometimes it works: An overly hospitable couple transports her to a town far from her hotel. Overcome by heat, she faints, and for a few pages she lets go of timetables and falls into the soothing arms of the local women. Here, the lack of context is an advantage, the images vivid: “When I wake up, I am a sea creature. The children are lying around me in starfish formation. They lie on their stomachs, propped up on their elbows, chins in hand, full of dimply smiles.” As she describes sucking on dates and trading stories with her hosts, Wearing captures the shapeless languor of a Persian evening.
But more often, she overdoes the dreaminess, especially when she is alone. We know so little about her—the life she has come from, her age, what she hopes to get out of her trip—that her occasional epiphanies are jarring. At one point, alone in a mosque, she starts spinning in circles: “The shapes blurring and my eyes crossing I go flailing about the empty room trying to stay upright, shrieks and heaves, slapping these chilled hard walls crackling back at me in echoes until my butt bounces against the stone floor and the place is filled with laughter. The sound God probably longs to hear.” She may have reached some pinnacle, but it’s not clear what it is.
Toward the end, the honeymooners tire of each other and of Iran, and unfortunately by the time they reach Tehran, the country’s social and political nucleus, the only places they visit are the Canadian embassy and the ambassador’s residence. They depart soon after, and we are left with images of sweet, hospitable Iranians, but no background to place them in. In the last scene, which takes place outside Iran, Wearing lifts off the cloak she has worn throughout her journey and lets it be carried off by the wind in a symbolic reconnection with the broader world. One wishes she’d done so earlier.