Nicolas Bouvier, the Master Traveler

This is my blog’s fourth Anniversary issue and what better subject than the amazing Nicolas Bouvier! He traveled from Geneva to the Khyber Pass in Afghanistan in 1953-1954 with his painter friend, Thierry Vernet.

I read his great book, The way of the world, last year; it started a bit slow but once that he got to Iran, I was hooked. This map traces their journey from Europe to Asia where Bouvier starts in Geneva and ends in Afghanistan:

His friend, Vernet,  has kept a visual jounal by drawing what they see together and what Bouvier writes:

These images are my interpretation of their work and an homage to this delightful journal. “Ten years in the writing, The Way of the World is a masterpiece which elevates the mundane to the memorable and captures the thrill of two passionate and curious young men discovering both the world and themselves.”

They traveled with a small Fiat Topolino (above and below) that took them through hell and paradise!

What was striking about this little book was the fact that I didn’t have to lower my expectation of excellence: Bouvier writes with the ease of the poet that he is and the attention of an enthusiastic humanist…

He talks about “women buried in their floret tchador”: femmes ensevelies dans leur tchador à fleurettes.

He talks about how “Iran, the old aristocrat, who has experienced everything in life … and forgotten a lot, is allergic to ordinary remedies and needs special treatment. The gifts are not always easy to give when children are five thousand years older than Santa Claus.”

After finishing the book, I got curious about the writer and started the “research”! I compiled many images about this master Iconographer, I watched many of his interviews—from his youth until the last years of his life— and he sounds as fresh at the end as he did in the beginning.

The Swiss television has a great archive on the subject.

I have to admit that the year they spent in Iran was the most interesting to me— even though Serbia, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan had their own exhilarating charm. He even talks about my old school, Jeanne D’Arc of Tehran, in the years before my birth. The next couple of pictures of Bouvier are from their time in Tehran; this one from a modest hotel’s balcony:

He’s typing in the nude in the heat of the Iranian summer:

Most of all I loved the winter they spend in North west of Iran, in Tabriz:

The way he describes the long quiet winter in that city transports the reader to the depth of our common humanity; I laughed when he talks about the smell of hot Persian breads, Sangak and Lavaash in the snow or when he describes the frozen mustaches and beards of men in the freezing cold, the boiling water of samovars and the fact that everybody thinks only about three words: tea, coal and vodka!

Speaking of Persian breads, Bouvier suggests that only a very old country can make luxuries out of most banal routines;  this bread has been thirty generations and a few dynasties in the making…

I was overwhelmed with nostalgia reading his beautiful poem about the onset of winter (Zemestan in Persian) in Tabriz:

I couldn’t find it in English so I translated it myself; first the original in French:

Les grenades ouvertes qui saignent
sous une mince et pure couche de neige
le bleu des mosquées sous la neige
les camions rouillés sous la neige
les pintades blanches plus blanches encore
les longs murs roux les voix perdues
qui cheminent sous la neige
et toute la ville jusqu’à l’énorme citadelle
s’envole dans le ciel moucheté
C’est Zemestan, l’hiver
Tabriz, 1953

Bleeding open pomegranates
under a thin layer of pure snow
the blue of the mosques in the snow
rusty trucks in the snow
white guinea fowl whiter still
long red walls lost voices
who walk in the snow
and the whole town to the huge citadel
flies in the mottled sky
It’s Zemestan, winter
Tabriz, 1953

These images are based on the following books:

Bleu Immortel and The way of the world.

I read the “The way of the world” in french (L’Usage du Monde) but it has been lovingly translated by Robyn Marsack; I recommend it to all of you.

Que votre ombre grandisse or May your shadow grow!


Persian Rug: a paradise at your feet

Being Iranian, I am fascinated by Persian rugs and the exquisite uniqueness that defines them. The art of carpet weaving in Iran is deeply connected with the culture and the customs of the country.

persian rug michele roohani

Being away from California,  surrounded by snow in Switzerland and far from my natural  “soft fascinations” (read flowers, sunshine, rustling trees) I am experiencing a funny sense of “ecoanxiety” that may be cured by writing about my favorite permanent garden: the Persian Rug…

cartoon drawing naghsheh persian rug michele roohani

The designs (naghsheh or cartoon—a grid on paper with spaces colored to guide rug weavers in selecting pile yarns) are still mostly drawn by hand even though computers are doing wonders in this field.

Iranians are literally conceived, born and brought up on Persian rugs! Warmed by their soft and comfortable texture,  touching, caressing,  lying down and relaxing on them, comes naturally to Persians. The rugs add warmth underfoot like my favorite red carpet with these gorgeous Shah Abbasi patterns (with floral and leaf motifs mainly in the form of lotus blossoms):

shah abbasi motif esphahan persian rug red michele roohani

The density of tightly woven Persian knots (or guereh) are the calibrating tool for the quality of the rug,

knot count on nain rug michele roohani

a good Nain rug may have 500 kpsi or 500 knots per square inch (farsibaaf,  asymmetric or Persian pile knot.)

persian knot ardabil carpet michele roohani

This is how a flower looks on the back of this Nain (Na’in):

persian knots rug nain michele roohani

and the same carpet from the front:

michele roohani naiin persian rug shah abbasi

Like most textiles, carpets consist of warps  (tar) and wefts (pud). The warps are the threads running the length of the carpet. The wefts are the threads that run across its breadth. This is the same carpet spread out:

glenroy sunset nain rug michele roohani

Persian rugs go by region (cities mostly— like Tabriz, Esfahan, Nain, Kashan, Kerman, etc…) and each region has its MasterWeaver brand. A small encased signature can usually be found in the minor border like Habibian in Nain, Pirouzian in Tabriz and Taghavi in Bijar.

ardabil carpet cartouche hafez maqsud kashani micheleroohani

The most important signature must be Maqsud Kashani’s (from 1540) on the famous pair of Ardabil Carpets. A poem of Hafez is woven into the cartouche:

“Except for thy threshold, there is no refuge for me in all the world.
Except for this door there is no resting place for my head.”

جز آستان تو‌ام در جهان پناهی نیست

سر مرا بجز این در حواله گاهی‌ نیست

ardabil carpet central medallion micheleroohani

The Ardabil Carpets  have an interesting story:  the lower field and border of one of them has been used to restore the other (now in Victoria and Albert Museum in London). The used and abused twin sister was kept in the dark (not to outshine the V&A version) until 1931 and finally found her way to Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1965.

ardebil ardabil carpet lacma micheleroohani

After exhaustive restoration done to the dazzling beauty, the LACMA sister was finally shown last year (look at how they had to wash it!)

washing of ardabil carpet lacma

The Ardabil carpets are the world’s oldest dated and historically important carpets in the world. This is the twin sister in Victoria and Albert museum in London:

ardabil carpet V&A museum Richard Wait micheleroohani
It all comes down to this fundamental design that I just finished reproducing for the blog:

michele roohani persian rug layout glossary toranj

A love for fine Farsh (rug in persian) may be one of the few things that Shahs and Mullahs have always agreed upon!

cheese and wine in the garden michele roohani

Even though I have visited the great Manufacture des Gobelins some years ago,

manufacture des gobelins paris michele roohani women tapestry

I am dying to see the real thing in Iran,

chris lisle carpet weaving iran michele roohani

and take some great pictures.

loom metier a tisser michele roohani natural dyes

I will leave you with this superb painting of my favorite Orientalist painter, Gerôme, called The Carpet Merchant (ca 1887):

jean leon gerome carpet merchant marché du tapis michele roohani

A great site to get acquainted with Persian rugs: Farsh Mashad

Weaving Art Museum here

About different motifs and style here