Dastgah by Mark Mordue – Review

A travelogue published in 2004 but written largely from just before the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and just after them, it’s a look into a world that less than a decade later may not even exist. As it stands, it is prescient look at an area just before, as the time worn adage goes, everything changed.

Reading through it, I wasn’t sure how to break it up to talk about it. I considered breaking it up by destination, talking about who he encountered in each place, what he saw, where he went, etc. etc. but breaking it up takes a way what gradually revealed itself to be the overwhelming arc of the journey – the discovery of a common humanity in the farthest reaches of the world. And how our, the industrial western world’s, occasional lack of humanity is reflected back by this.

At a time when the over-riding image of the Middle Eastern world is of an area under the tidal pull of religious fanaticism, the only truly negative experience Mordue suffered was when he was gently mugged at an ATM in Paris. Before that he would journey through India (twice), Nepal, Turkey and Iran. He will have visited tiny villages in the middle of nowhere, he will have witnessed the aftermath of a person losing a battle with a tour bus and he will have survived the streets of India and all of their roving, one -man one stop shopping stores where whatever you want is either up a sleeve, in a pocket or around the corner. By and large, everyone he meets greets him with an overwhelming kindness, partly because they wish their nation to make a good impression on him but, you get the feeling, that it is simply seen as the right thing to do, the human thing. And this human thing is repeated in his smaller, quicker jaunts through the Western World after his bank card is stolen and friends of friends of friends allow him to crash on their couch or their floor and allow him to return to his feet first in Paris and then in NY.

the chapter on Iran is perhaps the most interesting in relation to current events. Mordue paints a picture of a nation divided with a growing youth movement seeking a transparency and openness that its predecessors and, frankly, rulers are not comfortable with. The impression is that Iran is a nation that has come to its revolution independently and inevitably, a nation that is perhaps far more Westernized than its aging rulers wish to believe a nation of people desiring greater western freedoms.

Woven into the adventure is the ups and downs of Mordue’s relationship with his girlfriend, the push and pull of it, the occasional strain of the travel and the binding of it. Throughout the text you are never sure if their relationship will last and you wonder why it is strained so, why Mordue at times seems so ready to move away from it. Looking back through the book, I’m not sure we’re given a definite answer as to how this turned out for Mark but he does provide an answer in the acknowledgements. I won’t mention what happens but, if you’re curious, look there.

In blurbs for the front/back cover, Wim Wenders touches upon Jack Kerouac a couple of times, as well as Paul Bowles. I can see the comparison to a Paul Bowles character but I’m not entirely sold on the Kerouac comparison. Mordue certainly seems to be a bit lost, to be searching for something, but he also doesn’t seem to have the same desperate energy in finding it. I wonder if part of this comes from the fact that Kerouac was often surrounded by friends and contemporaries in his travels and adventures while Mordue was with his girlfriend and how the dynamics of each as travel companions are evident in the comparisons. This isn’t to say that either is better than the other, just that the energy is different.

Dastgah is taken from the name for the complex form of classical music created in Iran. It is a combination of memorized parts that make up the basics of every “song” but which can be interchanged and woven together randomly and on the fly by a group of musicians. It is the musician’s responsibility to not only know these different sections well enough to play them but to also know his fellow musicians well enough to instantly recognize where they are going and how to join in with them. It also works as a nice metaphor for life. We are all given pretty much the same parts to work with. We must all learn the different notes we have to play but the construction of life is the random use of these notes and how well we react and weave ourselves in amongst them. Dastgah is a record of one person’s learning the notes and discovering new ways of weaving his parts into the whole. full of life’s minor and major victories and defeats and some of the horrors that simply exist outside of either of those, it is a riveting read of a journey through life.

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