For me, and for many other Iranians, nothing is more representative of London than the lord of the calabash pipe, the deerstalker cap and the magnifying glass. Not only because Conan Doyle’s 221b Baker Street was the only address I knew before coming here for the first time but also because of my everlasting nostalgia for the magnificent TV series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which is extremely popular in Iran.
Holmes’s series has been shown at least 10 times on the Islamic republic’s state-run TV and DVD versions dubbed into Persian are available everywhere in Iran. Sherlock Holmes’s stories are also translated and rank among Iranians’ favourite books.
Iranians are enthusiastic about Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Poirot and many other western detectives such as Georges Simenon’s Maigret partly because for Iranians these stories evoke popular images of the west but also because Iran – despite having a huge amount of poetry in its literature – has virtually no history of detective fiction.
I don’t remember any Iranian writer of detective stories, though Esmail Fasih’s fictional character, Jalal Arian, always had a great sense of deduction. Hasan Hedayat’s Persian TV series called Detective is the only real Iranian detective TV series I have seen in Iran.
The state broadcaster loves western detective stories because they don’t – on the whole – raise politically or morally controversial issues requiring censorship. The picture of life in Holmes’s Victorian London is broadly compatible with the “Islamic values” of modern Iran. Mr Holmes is a gentleman and not into women very much. The women themselves wear long dresses and mostly cover their heads.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are dubbed into Persian perfectly, with Bahram Zand’s memorable voice replacing that of Jeremy Brett. We have a nice film-dubbing tradition in Iran, started with the unforgettable musical film, Tears and Smiless, before the Islamic revolution. I have heard that in the Netherlands they never dub films and use subtitles instead and I remember my brother telling that he saw Titanic with a Russian guy dubbing simultaneously for Jack and Rose.
It’s good to have Sherlock Holmes in Iran as an antidote to historical images of Britain as a schemer meddling in Iranian affairs. Britons themselves are generally considered mysterious, intelligent, politically aware, prestigious and mean (this latter characteristic being one that they reputedly share with Iranians from Isfahan).
A decade has passed since I read most of Conan Doyle’s Holmes stories or watched them as TV adaptations, but the clip-clop of horses on London’s cobblestones still resonates in my ears. I think of Holmes giving money to street boys for information, Holmes scrutinising the footprints at a crime scene, Holmes’s compendious knowledge ranging from literature to chemistry, his hasty way of going up the 17 steps to his flat to be greeted by Mrs Hudson, his rather bohemian lifestyle and – of most interest to me as an Iranian – the Persian slipper for Holmes’s tobacco.
So when I arrived in London for the first time I headed to 221b Baker Street, even before visiting the British Museum, the National Gallery or the fabulous Tate Modern. I went to the Sherlock Holmes Museum in search of my “real” London but it’s always distracting to confront the real place or the real person after many years of imagination. What I found was a tiny privately-run and artificial setup with a fake police office standing outside the front door.
This reminds me of a wonderful phrase in the last volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time: “Time changes people but keeps their image constant in our mind. Nothing in the world is as painful as this contradiction between consistency of memory and change in people.”
Maybe I was expecting to see more Londoners tapping on the ground with their umbrellas or walking in the manner of Holmes, but not much of today’s British capital resembles Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s London.