(Book cover: www.rooftopsoftehran.com)
In his much-anticipated speech last week in Cairo, President Obama had some encouraging words for Iran. "For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us," he said. "Rather than remain trapped in the past, I've made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward."
But what would "moving forward" look like? The truth is, no one is exactly sure, and blank spaces can be dangerous breeding grounds for hawkish sentiments.
Despite Obama's appeal for negotiations, the drumbeat for action against Iran has been crescendoing over the past couple of months. Powerful voices in Congress are pushing for harsh sanctions against Iran, and hard-line talking heads are reinvoking the call for airstrikes on Iran's missile sites. On the Iranian side, Ayatollah Khamenei, the country's highest authority, recently declared that the Middle Eastern nations "hate the United States from the bottom of their hearts."
Amid this rising chorus of fear and anger, Mahbod Seraji's stunning novel "Rooftops of Tehran" makes its way to bookstores.
"Rooftops" is a call for peace. It is also a call for storytelling. As the novel embroiders its own tale, it urges us to recognize cross-cultural differences in communication and thought. It begs us to listen with an understanding that we may not understand, at least not right away.
Seraji writes that the Persians are "masters in the art of implication.... The meaning and the message are always woven into the fabric of our discourse," much like the country's famous, intricately crafted rugs. The ancient art of storytelling conveys a personal insight that can't be accessed through policy papers or op-eds in The New York Times. At this crucial moment, "Rooftops" reminds Americans that Iran is full of human beings.
Seraji weaves the tale of Pasha, a 17-year-old boy living in Tehran in the early 1970s. Pasha hangs out with his neighborhood pals, goes to class, reads endless books and falls in love with his next-door neighbor, Zari. Still, his life is crudely shaped by the dictatorial brutality of the Shah's regime and its American backers. After Pasha's best friend - and Zari's then-fiancé - is taken away by the Shah's secret police, Pasha and Zari begin to reveal their own opposition to the Shah, and come face-to-face with the cruelest realities of their place and time. Long segments of the book take place in a Tehran psychiatric hospital, as Pasha struggles to process the events that have wracked his young existence.
"Rooftops's" characters care deeply about their country. They are mostly appalled by its current predicament. Almost everyone has a political opinion to share, though they are rarely exactly the same. There is no homogenous national mindset.
"Rooftops" calls into question the definitions of "crime" and "punishment" under a despotic regime, in which right and wrong are dictated by the powerful. Readers are not spared the brutality. Characters we love are sent to jail, tortured and banished, sometimes without a perceptible reason. Those who aren't directly punished are forced to live in silence, with fear guiding their movements and bruising their dreams.
At one point, Pasha writes a paper for his composition class asserting that "crime is an unlawful act of violence that can be committed by anyone, and that punishment is the consequence designed for criminals who don't have the economic means to cover it up." Secrecy runs thick. Those whose family members have died in government jails are not allowed to publicly mourn for them. Opponents of the Shah are universally labeled kharab-kars - "subversive activists" or "terrorists" - whether they are religious zealots, socialist students or pacifists pleading for a safe, democratic society.
Seraji doesn't deny the presence of some genuine zealots. Brewing alongside the hopefulness of the progressives' dreams, there are whispers of a different and dangerous kind of revolution. One character worries that "the rise of religious fundamentalism would create insurmountable new barriers to attaining democracy in Iran." The author doesn't paint all Iranians as victims of outside forces; he acknowledges the inner turmoil that eventually backfires, leading to the fundamentalist leadership that dominates Iran today.
Notwithstanding all Iran's suffering, Seraji conveys the beauty of its culture in tender detail. We wind through the zigzagging mountain roads of the Kandovan and smell the fresh lavash that Pasha's love carries home from the bakery each morning. We listen to the sweet musings of Persian poet Hafiz, as Zari and Pasha read his words aloud to each other across the wall between their houses. We sleep on the roof all summer long and watch the good-natured commotion that rumbles in the alley below as the neighborhood wakes up. And we are pulled into the close-knit families and friendships that bind the book - and the country - together.
These steadfast ties correspond with a sense of cooperation and shared destiny that sometimes conflicts sharply with the traditional American value system. In fact, the Western reader may be startled by the open indifference to individualistic ideals. When a boy cheats off Pasha's calculus test one day, he doesn't mind. Everyone cheats in class, he says, calling it "more sharing than cheating." Pasha contrasts this Iranian tendency with the winner-loser thinking so ingrained in American culture. "In my country, we don't have the same competitive spirit," Pasha says. "Centuries of misery under the dominance of the Moguls, Arabs and internal despotic rulers have conditioned us to stick together and help each other through unpleasant situations."
Perhaps it's helpful for Americans to wrestle with these societal differences in the context of a novel - to learn Iran's culture through the words and movements of the people living it. The cast of "Rooftops" is certainly aware of American culture. Pasha's politically active friend Doctor observes that American sitcoms and other pop distractions keep its people absorbed in "the irrelevant," while "they are tragically uninformed of their government's unfair and oppressive behavior in other countries." Judging by the amount I learned about Iranian history throughout my 12 years of public education (i.e. a sentence or two about the Iran-Contra scandal in my junior year US history class), I'd venture to guess that today, 30 years after the fall of the Shah's regime, Doctor's statement still holds water.
Despite widespread resentment of the US government's treatment of Iran, America is not hated in the Tehran of "Rooftops." It is often idolized. Pasha's friend Iraj worships Thomas Edison, and his gym teacher praises Americans' discipline ("Everyone stops at stop signs, even if there is no car coming in the opposite direction!") and use of public trashcans.
Pasha's father plans to send him to America after high school to study engineering and secure himself a "great future." He hopes his son will bring his skills back to Iran, build a four-lane highway linking Mazandaran to Tehran and be called "'Mr. Engineer' for the rest of his life."
Yet, inconvenient murmurs sometimes disturb these fantasies. As the gym teacher urges his students to strive for American standards of discipline, Pasha's best friend Ahmed raises his hand to inquire, "Is it true, sir, that the most disciplined army in the world has a ship equipped with the most advanced spying technology docked in the Persian Gulf?"
Despite his googly-eyed love for Edison, Iraj speaks forcefully of the CIA's overthrow of Iran's only democratically elected leader, Mohammed Mosaddegh, in 1953. "No one in the Middle East will ever again trust the Americans and their phony guardianship of democracy," he says.
Today, as America continues its attempts to "guard democracy," Iraj's words carry a note of ominous prophecy. However, a paragraph later, Pasha is laughing and munching on boiled beets purchased from a street vendor, while Iraj grumbles about the hygiene of the vendor's hands. This is the power of storytelling: The boldest of political statements are couched in the pulsing reality of everyday life, so the reader cannot help but relate.
Seraji's delectable wordcraft makes the political intricacies go down a whole lot easier than would a high school history textbook. In the tradition of their treasured Hafiz and the other oft-quoted Persian poet, Rumi, the love between Pasha and Zari inspires its own poetry. As they sit on opposite sides of the roof wall at night, Pasha thinks, "The night sky is drunk with stars, thick with the souls of loved ones, and I'm sure that she feels the magnetism of the inky heavens, that we are both staring into the riot of planets."
Seraji lingers in Pasha's dreams, blending the mystical, the imaginary and the ideal with the historical. As Pasha lies in his hospital bed, he is running through pastures with Zari and his friends, Rumi's verses reverberating around him. He is facing down a man with "evil eyes"; he is sitting beside a rushing brook that his feet will not move to cross. In dreams, the "art of implication" runs freely. Every symbol has three or four meanings, political questions melding seamlessly with personal longings.
The dreams also serve to bring people together: the living, the dead, the kidnapped, the tortured, the hidden. Dreams traverse the boundaries established by the Shah and the secret police, and let love triumph over brutality, if only in sleep.
At its heart, "Rooftops" is a story about friendship and love, bonds that transcend political ideologies and the orders of the powerful. The characters risk their lives for each other, though those risks are not glorified - in fact, they are often taken in silence. In the midst of crisis, Pasha, Ahmed and Iraj meet at the grave of a slain friend, defying rules and warnings.
"You showing up today was a sure sign that despite what happens on a day-to-day basis, the human spirit is indestructible," Pasha says. "No one can destroy it. Not the Shah, not the motherfucking SAVAK, not the CIA, nobody, I mean nobody can touch it."
Love, "Rooftops" says, can be a rebellion in and of itself. In writing the novel, it seems, Seraji is encouraging us to rebel in this quiet yet profound way: to fall in love with the Iranian people.
At one of the saddest points in the novel, Zari's mother tells Pasha that despite his anger at the horrors wrought by US policy, he must go to America. She tells him to act as a messenger. "Tell every American what their government's senseless support of a dictator has done to the Iranian mothers," she says. "Tell them that there will be no end to these atrocities until they stop paying for our oil with the blood of our children."
Now, at a very different moment in US-Iranian relations, Pasha is bringing his message to our shores. "Rooftops of Tehran" calls on America to open its eyes and ears to Iran: its people, its pain, its beauty, its love. Hopefully, America will listen.
More information about the book and about Mahbod Seraji is available at rooftopsoftehran.com.