Monday, January 18, 2010

The Root of the Wild Madder

Brian Murphy is the religion correspondent for Associated Press. He is also a “Persian” carpet obsessive and has written a splendid book about “Persian” carpets, their history and the people who make them in The Root of Wild Madder: Chasing the History, Mystery, and Lore of the Persian Carpet.

The book is, in part, a travelogue. Murphy takes us to the Teheran carpet bazaar, to cities, to villages, to nomad camps across Iran and Afghanistan. We start in a field of wild madder, a key dye plant for carpets: chemical dyes had taken over to the extent that only 10% of carpets had natural dyes by 2000: the proportion is now 25% and rising, a response to consumer demand (p.5). The book ends in a Cairo shop, near the al-Hussein mosque he was visiting for a Sufi ceremony, where a shopkeeper digs up some coarse dry madder that no one has asked for a long time (p.288).

In between is a travelogue of both physical places and of people and societies. But it is also a journey through the history of carpets—particularly the Western discovery and appreciation of them—and the tangled history of the region. A time-line sets out events from 8,000BC (first settlements) to the 2004 Iranian election. History, personal experience, literature, local outlooks and culture weave together in a thoroughly entertaining narrative.

Murphy is a religious correspondent, and religious experience and practices wander in and out of the narrative. Particularly Sufism. Reading the book, it struck me that, like Tantra, Sufism developed in a society of pervasive religious rules. Like Tantra, Sufism can offer rule-breaking as release but still contained within a religious framing.

One of Murphy’s great virtues is the people speak for themselves: they are not corralled into convenient Western framings. So we do not get romantic nomads, but women who hope education will give their daughters and granddaughters better prospects. A man studying neuroscience thinks about how experience changes the brain while we seek to control the universe around us in mutual effect (P.282). The book makes clear—as more recent events have made even clearer—the popular disaffection with the theocracy, the sense of a revolution hijacked and betrayed.

At the end of the book, in the last of a series of interspersed vignettes, Murphy tells the story of Majit Enderva and three other Iranians who attempt to smuggle themselves into the EU from Turkey. Majit and two others are killed in the border minefield they accidentally come ashore in, only his best friend survives. Murphy goes to Majit’s village, where his mother presses onto him a carpet she was making during and after her son died in the hope that something connected to her son will end up in the place he died trying to get to. An ordinary, unremarkable carpet becomes a carrier of love, tragedy and connection.

Via the author’s passion for carpets, interest in religion and respect for people, The Root of Wild Madder brings alive Persian carpets, and a fraught and complex region, in a very human and accessible way.

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