Poets and Pahlevans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran

Travel is all about connecting, true, but Di Cintio’s headlocks and body slams take cross-cultural bonding to a new level…. Di Cintio has found a low-key, accepting style of exploration that transfers perfectly into writing that manages to be both easy-going and vivid. Though its subject is wrestling, this is much more a book about putting your life in other people’s hands during an age of distrust.  – The Globe and Mail

  • Winner of the 2007 Wilfred Eggleston Award for Non-fiction
  • Finalist for the 2007 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction and the 2006 W. O. Mitchell City of Calgary Book Prize

Marcello Di Cintio prepares for his “journey into the heart of Iran” with the utmost diligence. He takes lessons in Farsi, researches Persian poetry and sharpens his wrestling skills by returning to the mat after a gap of some years. Knowing that there is a special relationship between heroic poetry and the various styles of traditional Persian wrestling, he sets out to discover how Iranians “reconcile creativity with combat.”

From the moment of his arrival in Tehran, the author is overwhelmed by hospitality. He immerses himself in male company in tea houses, conversing while smoking the qalyun or water pipe. Iranian men are only too willing to talk, especially about politics. Confusingly, he is told conflicting statements–that all Iranians love George Bush, that all Iranians hate George Bush; that life was infinitely better under the Shah, that the mullahs swept away the corruption of the Shah’s regime and made life better for all.

Once out of Tehran, he learns where the traditional forms of wrestling are practised. His path through the country is directed by a search for the variant disciplines and local techniques of wrestling and a need to visit sites and shrines associated with the great Persian poets: Hafez, Ferdosi, Omar Khayyám, Attar, Shahriyar and many others. Everywhere his quest leads him, he discovers that poetry is loved and quoted by everyone from taxi-drivers to students.

His engagement with Iranian culture is intimate: he wrestles (sometimes reluctantly) when invited, samples illegal home-brew alcohol, attends a wedding, joins mourners, learns a new way to drink tea and attempts to observe the Ramazan fast, though not a Muslim himself. Though he has inevitable brushes with officialdom, he never feels in danger, even when he hears that a Canadian photo-journalist has apparently been beaten to death in a police cell during the author’s visit. The outraged and horrified reaction of those around him to this violent act tightens the already close bond he has formed with the Persians.

The mosaic of incidents, encounters, vistas, conversations, atmospheres and acutely observed sights, smells and moments creates a detailed impression of a country and society that will challenge most, if not all, preconceptions. At its heart, Poets and Pahlevans is Di Cintio’s love letter to the Iranian people.

Walls: Travels Along the Barricades

Harmattan: Wind Across West Africa

Di Cintio’s narrative is remarkably blunt and elegant at the same time. The West African images flash so vividly across these pages that the people and the landscape jolt the senses. Beyond these quicksilver episodes-leaving the reader wanting more — a fine, fine talent is to be savoured.  – Wayson Choy, author of The Jade Peony

  • Winner of the 2003 Henry Kreisel Award for Best First Book
  • Finalist for the 2003 Wilfred Eggleston Award for Non-fiction

Each year the harmattan wind blows sand from the Sahara Desert into the skies throughout West Africa. In the midst of such a wind, suddenly things are not what they were. For Marcello Di Cintio, the harmattan wind captures the essence of his ten-month journey through Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania, a journey that is as much about what he discovers within himself as it is about the lands of people of West Africa.

Di Cintio’s perceptions of Africa, poverty, justice, religion and beauty are profoundly altered as the seemingly everyday transforms into the sacred before his eyes. Daily life calls him to reconsider his Western values. And as a traveller, he discovers the difference between being a guest in a foreign land and what it means to belong.

Harmattan is peppered with adventures and layered with lush descriptions of the sights, scents and rhythms of this truly exotic part of the world. This book is a travelogue of a different order: the searing beauty and sombre reality of West Africa are distilled into poetic moments of refreshingly honest insight, a world transformed through the wide eyes of a new traveller.