About the author
Vita Sackville-West was a successful English writer and poet, born in 1892 in Kent. She died seventy years later in Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, after living a full adventurous life together with her husband Sir Harold Nicolson, whom she married in 1913. She felt lone and isolated as a child and grew up being a shy teenager. Her lineage to Roma people lead to a strong connection between her and the gipsy people, whom she shared a dark and romantic passion for life and for…love affairs.
Vita and her husband Harold had what today is known as an open marriage, both of them having extra-marital affairs with same-sex people. She could never reunite her two sides: the feminine one who was tender and attracted to men and the masculine one, more aggressive, adventurous and attracted to women, and so she lived them separately. She needed a long-term therapy with Carl Jung, in my opinion.
Following her marriage to the young diplomat Harold Nicolson, Vita Sackville-West moved to Constantinople for a while, then return to England to give birth to her sons. After that, she moved to Paris to live with her lover, Violet Keppel. The relationship did not last long, and Vita got involved with Virginia Woolf for a while. All in all a very tumultuous love life.
Twelve days in Persia
The book is about her second trip in Persia (known as Iran today) to visit her husband Harold who had a job there in the foreign ministry, and she traveled together with him and some three other friends the space of Bakhtiari people, whose origins go back in antiquity. As she wrote about them:
“The Bakhtiari are a proud people: they claim that they alone, among the Persians, remained unconquered by Alexander. This is a double boast, vaunting alike their warlike spirit and their ancient origin. To this day they are quarrelsome and independent, settling their disputes according to their own code…”
The trip started in Teheran and headed toward the wilder South-West of Persia. Vita traveled mostly on foot and on mules on a very rough terrain, accompanied by armed escorts. Nonetheless the land, as rough and wild as it was, appeared very romantic, especially for the foreign travelers who were far distance in space and time from their British homes and society.
Those who have seen it, know that the beauty of a pastoral life is largely a literary convention. The truth is that nature is as hard a taskmaster as civilisation, and that realities under such conditions are very bare facts indeed.
Encountering a culture of simple people living a life like in antiquity leave a mark in the mature writer who feel like Marco Polo traveling to the new world.
It was not so much the grandeur of the landscape which impressed one – though that was sublime enough – as the awful evidence of nature labouring on a cosmic scale. The wild loneliness of the place, the ramifications of the valleys leading up into unknown fastnesses, the track made by generations of men crossing the mountains – all this produced a sense of some elemental strength which excited and yet sobered the imagination.
Vita went to describe in details the land and the rituals of Bakhtiari tribes, with obvious literary talent. Let’s not forget that Twelve Days in Persia was written before the internet era, and although they took some black and white photos (which you can see in the book as well), back then the readers rilied heavy upon the accurate and vivid description of the places by writers. Not like today, when a single color photo may very well replace 1000 words. But perhaps even more interesting was the link Vita emphasis between the physical goat-tracks and those of the mind:
The only goat-tracks one wants to explore are the goat-tracks of the mind, running up into the mountains; the only sophistication one really wants to escape from is one’s own. To start afresh; unprejudiced; untaught. Changes of light, coming from the internal illumination, not from the play of limelight over a ready=set scene. Away from papers, away from talk (though not, I stipulate, wholly away from books); cast back on personal resources, personal and private enjoyments.
But what of the growth of the mind? The mind would have only its own rich pastures to browse upon. …The mind would browse and brood; sow and reap. Few of us have known such leisure. Those who achieved are called eccentrics for their pain: it seems to me that they are among the wise ones of the earth. The world is too much with us, late and soon; we are too stringily entangled in our network of obligations and relationships.