Friday, 2 January 2009

Pistachio Nuts

By the time you get to your 50s, the majority of your "life choices" have been made, evaded, or forced upon you, but one compensation (I suppose) is that, as a result, you generally start to get a proper sense of the arc of your own story. It's why even interesting people start to become bores (or, um, bloggers) around that age: you have stories to tell and, by God, you're going to tell them. Beware, you wedding guests, there's an apprentice Ancient Mariner sitting in every carriage of every train ...

But in anyone's personal history, there are often a number of "roads not taken," subplots and storylines which, like red herrings in a thriller or links in a Wikipedia article, never get played out but which might easily, if followed, have led somewhere quite different. These pseudo-stories are the hardest to tell, partly for the obvious reason that they never actually happened, but also because they can be very precious. Sometimes, these "might have beens" can constitute an important negative space in a life, like your recurring dreams; it's as if you had a backstory in a parallel universe.

For example, around 1973/4, I got the strong feeling that the world was telling me to take an interest in Iran. As described in an earlier post (What I Don't Know Isn't Knowledge), at that time I was experiencing the full rush of the transition from a life of limitations to one of great expectations. Opportunities whistled by at an exhilarating pace. Being an idiot, I enjoyed the sensation of speed rather than grabbing anything as it went by, but certain clusters of stuff would land in my lap anyway, and one of these was distinctly Persian.

For a start, one of my new instant friends-for-life had parents in Iran. His father worked in the oil business out there, as Brits did in those far-off days*. We shared an interest in the writings of Idries Shah on Sufism and the tales of Mulla Nasrudin, and he introduced me to the ecstatic, mystical poetry of Rumi and Hafez. Then another new friend turned out to be studying Persian; I had no idea such a thing was possible. Through her I encountered Persian miniatures for the first time. I rubbed my bare feet on my first Tabriz carpet, and discovered that some carpets were so valuable they were to be hung on the wall. Yes, I had fallen into a Den of Orientalists, but Edward Said's book was still four years away from publication, so I can plead innocent on that charge. And also, in the end, it was simply not my style: it made me feel too much like a cartoon hippie. I will always have a soft spot for Rumi and Persian miniatures, but it was a road not taken.**

No, the real revelation of this period, the thing that brought me closest to the ecstatic swoon of a Sufi mystic, was salted pistachio nuts. Forget your Nepalese Temple Ball or your Thai sticks, this was the real thing. In 1974, no-one from my background in Britain had any idea what a pistachio nut was. Being a sophisticated and well read bloke, I did know that in the USA it was the name of a flavour of ice-cream, and that it was also the name of a certain tart green colour, but beyond that, nothing. Then, one day at the start of a new term, as we were sitting around in his smoky room doing nothing much, my friend Gerry opened up a box, and offered it to me. It was something he'd brought back from his home visit to Iran; about the size of a shoe-box, it was full of little salt-crusted, wolfishly-grinning nutshells, that looked as if they had been left out on a beach somewhere to bleach. To cut to the chase: I very nearly ate half of the box in a snacking frenzy, even sucking the salt out of the shells. I can remember vividly that we were listening to the album Countdown to Ecstasy by Steely Dan. If there is a Heaven, it may be something like that: an endless passionate first encounter with pistachio nuts. The Apotheosis of The Munchies...

Of course, now every Christmas all the supermarkets sell giant tubs of pistachios alongside the Flame-Grilled Steak flavoured crisps, but I still get a warm feeling, remembering that afternoon in 1974, and am reminded, without regret and with much pleasure, of one of my many "might have beens".

* Amusingly or not, I could never convince my grandmother that anyone living in Iran could also be native-born English, and she always referred to Gerry as my "darkie friend." And, yes, that probably was every bit as racist as it sounds, but it still made and makes me laugh. One day, I must tell you about my formidable grandmother.

Curiously, my brief "Persian Phase" pre-dated the Ayatollah's Revolution by about five years. A later Road Not Taken was my "East European Languages Phase," when I was re-learning Russian
(I had briefly studied the language at school) in the late 70s / early 80s and working with German as part of my job. For a while, I seriously considered a change of career as a linguist. Until, oh, about 1985. Now, I'm not claiming I had anything to do with the events of 1989 and 1991, but let's just say that for a price I'm willing to pass a list of my recently- abandoned interests to any betting folk out there ... Address your query to "Mr. Zeitgeist."

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