Posted by: Corri van de Stege | August 11, 2007

More travelling…

Last week I became totally absorbed by Caroline Smailes’ Search for Adam (do go and read it if it is not on your reading list yet!) and so diverted from my travels across the globe (in my armchair).   I’ve felt inspired by IsoA all week, and  jotted down thoughts and even half chapters for my own book/stories for Lara, waking up early, or sitting on a train or in a station.  I am still not sure where I’m going with it all, but it is growing now and becoming more focused.   Well, Lara cannot read yet anyway!

At the same time I greatly enjoy thinking about everything I read and then providing comments, helping me to sort out my thoughts.  

Amin Maalouf’s Samarkand takes us on quite a different search, the search for Omar Khayyam and the manuscript of the Rubayyat,  through Persia/Iran with bits of Afghanistan and Russia thrown in.  Moreover, the narrator, an American,  travels from America to Paris to ‘the Orient’ , so all in all we do quite a bit of globetrotting with this book.  I wanted to read this because of my own three-year spell in Iran, mainly Isfahan but also Tehran, and having seen the ruins of Persepolis and various other magnificent historical sights whilst there.  I knew of Omar Khayyam of course, when I lived in Iran and absorbed aspects of the culture of that country, was mesmerised by it, its history and sights, the snippets of stories and the mosaic of people, dress and tribal influences.   Living in Iran has inspired some of my own stories on the blog as well as more polished submissions to my creative writing course. 

The story of the Rubayyat , which according to Amin Maalouf’s book was born in Samarkand, hence the title, provides the plot allowing the author to tell us about some of the history,  familiarizing us with a culture which is so vastly different from the western one, but which we do need to understand and be sympathetic to in order to make sense of the world today, I think.  Omar came to Samarkand, when he was twenty-four, an outspoken and freethinking young man, and was molested by a crowd of people who accused him of being a heretic and hedonist who needed punishing.  He is dragged to the qadi to provide judgement on the kind of punishment he deserves.  The qadi of Samarkand advises Omar to write down his thoughts and rubayyat rather than proclaiming them out loud for every one to hear and gives him a book to write in, hence the birth of the manuscript in Samarkand. 

The book is written in a very measured style, almost dry and factual at times, but nevertheless provides us with a colourful insight as it moves at a pace and provides enough exoticism   and mysticism to keep one enthralled.  Samarkand is only the beginning of the story and we soon find Omar in Isfahan, nesfe jahan (half of the world as it is still referred to today) as well as  Hassan Sabbah, who will found the Assassin Sect and Nizam al-Mulk the Grand Vizir, the three of them inextricably  linked for the rest of their lives. 
We learn that Isfahan was not actually a city yet, at the time, but rather consisted of two distant cities Jay and Yahoudiyeh, separated by an hour’s journey, although in Khayyam’s day a twelve-mile long wall had already been built to protect the oasis in between.  This would become the Isfahan as we know it today. 

A short review is unable represent the fantastic and colourful way in which Omar’s life unfolds, better to read the book!  However, if you are vaguely interested in today’s world, the underlying cultural clashes between east and west and at the same time enjoy knowing about other people’s histories then this book is for you.  You will move through a country that the west have for a long time called Persia, but which the inhabitants refer to as the country of the Aryans (Iran), and begin to understand their deep-seated and historical love of culture, including the poetry and literature. 

Book Four gives us just a glimpse of what will eventually become Iran’s nemesis: the interference of external powers: Russia, America, England and others interested in maintaining or establishing their power in a country that will turn out to have resources that they need.  The book is introduced with one of Omar Khayyam’s rubayyats, headed ‘A Poet at Sea’: We are the pawns, and Heaven is the player; this is plain truth, and not a mode of speech.  We move about the chessboard of the world.  Then drop into the casket of the void.  (Omar Khayyam)

Do go and take the journey!



  1. The Assassin Sect you mention here, an Isma’ili secret sect, was given this name after Arabic hashshashim or hashish eaters as they were induced to take hashish to commit their murders.

    Something that may be happening today with suicides in Islam, although no mention has ever been made of it.

    Great post, seachanges. Keep at it.

  2. Jose: yes of course you are right and Book Two of Samarkand goes into more detail – it’s headed appropriately and subtly ‘Both paradise and hell are in you’ (Omar Khayyam)… it struck me that they would have been the precursors to today’s suicide bombers, especially when Hassan Sabbah asks his followers who will get rid of Nizam al-Mulk, adding ‘The murder of this demon is the gateway to happiness’.. sounds familiar?

  3. Indeed it does, seachanges, it does.

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