June 20th, 2009


Eggs Benedict and Iran

Back in the early to mid-80s, while I was finding out that I wasn't cut out to get a doctorate, I had the best eggs benedict I have ever eaten. Were I a "realist" in the Platonic sense, I would voice my suspicion that the cook had managed to steal the archetypal eggs benedict from Plato's heaven.

I found them at a restaurant owned, as far as I knew, and certainly run by, an Iranian who'd majored in architecture. I never asked whether he'd decided to change professions or whether this was just a way to support himself while he completed his studies, but if he designed as well as he cooked, I'm sure he wound up in the upper echelon of architects. On the walls--or was it in the windows?--were photocopied sheets of text, all in Farsi, some with the famous Zoroastrian symbol of the winged sun.

I had, at the time, two LPs of Iranian music. (That should show you the era we're talking about.) One was an album on the Nonesuch label of music played on the santur, a hammered dulcimer. The first track had a title that translated as "New Year's in Exile". The other was a Lyrichord album of Persian songs and chants. One morning I brought them with me as I stopped for my eggs benedict and offered them to him. He accepted them with a smile.

A while later he refused to accept my money for eggs benedict. Why? I asked. Because of the records you gave me, he said. For a second, I would have sworn I'd said I was lending them to him back when I handed them to him, but he was so plainly happy that I smiled, thanked him, and headed on my way, happy as well.

I will never forget the last track on the latter album; it's from Rumi's Masnavi, and tells of a man who comes upon Majnun in the desert. I think of it as the perfect calligrapher's love song:

A man came upon Majnun in the desert.
Using the sand as paper and his finger as a pen,
He was writing the name of Layli over and over again.
"O mad Majnun, what are you doing?
 If you are writing a letter, who could receive it?"
"I write the name of Layli.
 Since I cannot reach her in true union,
 I make love with her name."

Now that Iran is in turmoil, I wonder how life has gone for that most excellent cook and architect who I so pleased with that unknowing gift, and whether he is well--I hope so.

UPDATE: a blog entry with YouTube video of the chant, along with lyrics in Farsi and English.

  • Current Music
    "New Years in Exile"