ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN by Mahbod Seraji
“You need to let go of the past, and focus on the future,” Mrs Naderi says. She hugs me again, and whispers, “I know you’re strong enough to move on. Leave this country as your promised Zari you would. You need to go to the States and get a college education, because only educated people can save this country. While there, tell every American what their government’s senseless support of a dictator has done to Iranian mothers. Tell them there will be no end to these atrocities until they stop paying for our oil with the blood of our children. Promise me that you will do your part toward emancipating our people, because you owe it to Doctor and Zari.”
Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie (JUL 17, 2009)
Rooftops of Tehran is both a bittersweet coming of age tale as well as a story of the tragic loss of innocence.
The setting is Tehran in 1973 and 1974, a period when Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, a brutal dictator, ruled his country with an iron fist with the help of the United States. Members of his National Intelligence and Security Organization, the dreaded SAVAK, were seemingly everywhere. Mohammad Mosaddeq, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, from 1951 to 1953, was famous for his passionate opposition to foreign intervention in his country. He was removed from power by a coup d’etat funded by the British and U.S. governments. The Shah, who had gone into exile during this period, returned to Iran, triumphant, and resumed total power once more.
Pasha Shaheed, our seventeen year-old protagonist, is too busy getting on with his young life and the process of growing up to be concerned with matters that do not involve him, his family and his friends directly. Pasha and his best friend, Ahmed, just completed eleventh grade and will return to high school in the fall as seniors. They are already making plans for college. Pasha’s father desperately wants his son to study civil engineering in the United States so he can return to Iran and build bridges. Pasha wants to study film making. Typical!
The two best friends spend the spring and summer months sleeping on the rooftops, as do most Iranians, in order to escape the heat. They talk, with intensity, about life in general – “There are no walls around what we say, or fears shaping what we think.” There is much humor in their discussions also, and in their schoolboy pranks and antics. Most of all, they talk about the young women they are in love with. Pasha and Ahmed are from Iran’s burgeoning middle class, and live during a period, before the 1979 revolution, when it was OK for unmarried boys and girls to have friendships, even to fall in love and demonstrate modest affection for one another, although this still remains taboo amongst the poor and the more religious people.
Ahmed loves Faheemeh in silence. Everyday he bikes ten minutes to her neighborhood, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. He makes friends with her two overly protective brothers to become closer to her, and dreams and schemes about a way to meet her. His father has told him that “Persians believe in silent communication; a look or a gesture imparts far more than a book full of words.”
Meanwhile, Pasha loves Zari, a neighborhood girl who is a close friend of his, but who has been betrothed, since birth, to Pasha’s dear friend and mentor, Ramin Sobhi, a political science major at the University of Tehran. Everyone calls Ramin “The Doctor.” The teenage boy feels torn. He idolizes “The “Doctor,” but is desperately in love with, and desires, the girl his friend is to marry. Guilt abounds.
Eventually, Pasha, Ahmed, Faheemeh, and Zari become close friends.They share their most personal experiences with one another. All four are very aware of the undercurrents of feelings which pass between them. They attempt to delicately balance friendship and love.
“The Doctor” is very political, and hates the repressive mullahs as much as he hates the Shah’s regime. He is extremely intelligent, yet, he is a humble young man. One day, he tells Pasha that he, Pasha, has “That.” “That” is a “priceless quality that is impossible to define, really…but you recognize it in the actions of great people.” He begins to educate Pasha about the lack of democracy in Iran. He tells him of the jails where innocent people are held, sometimes forever, with no trial, formal accusations or evidence. Many are horribly tortured. Others simply disappear.
One day, “The Doctor” tells Pasha that he will be away for a while. He is going to an area near the Caspian Sea with a group of college friends to teach literacy, a service the government frowns upon. He plans to marry Zari when he returns. But he never returns. He is abducted and killed by members of SAVAK. The effects of this tragedy on Zari and Pasha are extremely traumatic, and breed actions which lead to further tragedy.
Mahbod Seraji’s characters come to life on the page. The main characters’ extended families – loving, boisterous and eccentric – bring much humor and some sorrow to the well written narrative.
My one problem with the novel is also a strong point of the novel. The qualities shared by the book’s characters are universal qualities. This story could be about people anywhere, especially in countries where there are repressive governments. It is not difficult to identify with Pasha, his friends and family. They are like us. And we hear and read about such horror in the world today that we have become inured, in a sense, to the unspeakable. The situation in Iran under the Shah is really no worse than life in that country today – or in many other countries.
I did not get a real feel for the fascinating Iranian culture or the Iranian people. I lived in Iran in the late 1960s. My husband worked for an NGO, (nongovernmental organization), and I taught English as a second language. (ESL). In the three years we lived in that remarkable country, I was and am awed by the rich culture and the kindness and hospitality of the people. I wish the author could have incorporated more of the “differences” between the West and Iran, instead of accentuating the sameness.
Otherwise, I really did enjoy the novel and highly recommend it. Mahbod Seraji is a very talented author.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 49 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||NAL Trade (May 5, 2009)|
|REVIEWER:||Jana L. Perskie|
|AMAZON PAGE:||Rooftops of Tehran|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Mahbod Seraji|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide (with link) and Excerpt (with link)|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read a review of more Iranian novels:
Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shahriar Mandanipour
The Quince Seed Potion by Morteza Baharloo
Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai
In the Walled Garden by Anahita Firouz
And a great love story:
Beneath a Marble Sky by John Shors
- Rooftops of Tehran (May 2009)