Rooftops of Tehran, Mahbod Seraji
NAL Trade, 2009
Multiple-choice question: This book is about
1) Shah Pahlavi's secret police.
3) The people of Iran.
I may flunk the making of test questions, but this first novel by Seraji deserves an “A”. In the tradition of The Kite Runner, and to drag out the most clichéd of all clichés, I could not put this book down until I had read the last blank leaf.
The year is 1973. Pasha, the book’s narrator, and Ahmed, his life-long friend, are both seventeen. This, then, is a coming of age story or, as a Doctoral candidate in creative writing told me, a bildungsroman—defined as the moral and psychological development of the characters.
Pasha, a bookish boy, has a mentor whom everyone calls Doctor. Doctor is an avowed Communist, beloved by all in the neighborhood because he is a radical, and betrothed since birth to Pasha’s next-door neighbor, Zari. Pasha falls in love with Zari, who will forever be unavailable to him. But how does he stop love, a love he did not ask for in the first place? This is his bildungsroman: he cannot stop thinking of this seventeen-year-old girl, and at night he agonizes over his guilt and his desire for the forbidden.
Ahmed, who provides comic relief and a well-tuned sense of the absurd, has a girlfriend whom he courts in the traditional Western manner. Shah Pahlavi was Muslim, but he modernized Iran by doing away with the burkqua and arranged marriages. He was also a dictator and could not allow radical groups, mostly Communist, to exist. SAVAK, the secret police, hunted, imprisoned, tortured, and killed dissidents—one of whom was Doctor.
Doctor’s fate is not only devastating to Zari and Pasha, Ahmed and Faheemeh, and all the parents and relatives; all the neighbors who live in the alley (street) are outraged too, that such a horror has happened to one of their own.
This is where Seraji shines. In addition to creating characters I could not help but like, he peppers the book with stories of the Iranian people to balance the stinging salt of the heavier themes. He points out that Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, and their language is Farsi, not Arabic. Despite hundreds of years of oppression by both invaders and dictators, the people are unusually kind, gracious, and form friendships for life. They love the beauty of their country, which is predominantly mountainous, green, and the land fruitful. They love their rooftop terraces too, where they can gaze at the stars or watch the activity in the alley.
Through flashbacks, Pasha relates stories of his and Amed’s childhoods, their days at school with teachers whose cruelties rival those of Catholic nuns, of Ahmed’s often brash and hilarious antics—and of odd relatives who are comical because of being odd.
The love story: I’m not going to say one word, not one peep, not even if you send me an email begging me to reveal it.
For me, this little gem takes it place beside the works of Khaled Hosseini and Jhumpa Lahiri, even though Seraji’s writing does not rival either one of them as poetry in prose.
And about the rose on the cover. It has a very special meaning ...