Room with a veil

Mar 27, 2002 at 12:00 am

At first, Alison Wearing's view of Iran is obscured by the native attire she dons, her Western upbringing (she's Canadian), and a romanticized view of the Middle East. But by the end of her journey, Wearing — and readers of Honeymoon in Purdah — may be surprised to learn that basic human ideals are the same the world over.

Her five-month journey begins with an 18-hour bus ride from Istanbul, and a colorful cast of characters previously unknown to the author: from drivers to housewives, opium dealers to Christian missionaries, through deserts, mosques, cities large and small. The political upheaval, oppression, and religious fundamentalism of Iran simmers in the background, but Wearing doesn't focus on it; instead she chooses to concentrate on the human exchanges that make her trip a rich experience.

Wearing's sometimes uncooperative companion Ian is her gay roommate posing as her husband, since traveling alone as a woman would have been impossible. Their "honeymoon" is only a ruse.

"I have come to this place because it frightens me; because it frightens the world. And because I don't believe in fear. In giving it such power," says Wearing. Though armed with only a rudimentary knowledge of Farsi, Wearing is never without Iranian citizens — complete strangers — willing to offer advice, friendship, lodging, and food.

Honeymoon affords readers a unique opportunity to armchair travel, but eventually it's time to return to the familiar. Throughout the book Wearing struggles with her attempts to wear Iran's socially acceptable female attire: the hejab, chador, and manteau. As the journey ends she can't help but feel a release to be rid of it, removing it once she crosses back into Turkey.

"I wait for the next big gust to launch the fabric into the sky. It swoops up like a kite and hovers. I am leaping up and down on the sidewalk, trying to keep it in sight. Watching the air make light of weight. Watching the shape of a darkness that dances."