Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mahbod Seraji, The Rooftops of Tehran

In chaotic atmosphere leading up to the election, or worse, the election’s aftermath, when all the human codes of decency have been ignored, and when my countrymen and women have been striped from their last thread of dignity, I felt it is so untimely to remind myself and my readers of what we were once upon a time. It was in that spirit that I delayed my review of The Rooftops of Tehran. I hesitated, too, fearing that few, besides ourselves, would believe the gentility, peace and wisdom displayed in this novel to be the genuine and true textures of Iranian culture. I wanted to leave my review for a better time to come to, the wonderful day that I can envisage coming soon. On the other hand, the similarity of the situations, hammering on my mind, urged me to write. I could resist no more.

The story is happening as during the last days of Pahlavis when the people’s dissatisfaction merged with their fearlessness and lead them to street protests. Mahbod Seraji, a teenager at the time, I guess, recorded his own account of the event as a witness to history. Oddly enough, his testimony comes exactly when our younger generation is protesting against the very same regime whose foundation Seraji’s characters paved the way for. Very likely, most of our young protesters today are under the impression that their predecessors were responsible for all they pay for with their lives. I think this book stands by the truth, tells us things as they happened, and shows the way we were!

Seraji’s account of the last days prior to the revolution is more colorful than the black and white pictures fed us for the last thirty years by media, analysts, academics, political scientists and even by few writers who tried to gives us a taste of those days through their memoirs. What distinguishes his narrative from the others is that the narrator, who appears not to be so courageous, takes refuge in the rooftop of his home. In the safety of that elevated enclave, where the entire community becomes a big family under the sky, where only an unguarded short wall sets the moral, ethical and physical limit for each, and where unspoken laws guarantees everybody’s privacy and security, he observes from a distance what those who courageously fight in the streets could not see themselves. Protected with the love, compassion, and friendship he enjoys within his family, friends and community, wrapped in wit and humor, he feels secure enough to observe life as it was. Dicken’s “it was the best of times, it was the worse of times,” echoes all through his narrative.

From the rooftops of Tehran, we hear a harmonious chorus of young Pasha, Zari, Ahmad, Fahimeh, Masked Angel, Doctor, and their parents singing a melodious song that is not so unfamiliar to our ears. Love, compassion, friendship, trust, and respect echoes into each other to provide a safe haven for our youth to grow to amazing individuals who are willing to give unhesitatingly and as graciously to receive.

What I liked the most about the story was that author traced the last vestiges of men and women in our pre revolution history whose action and whose behavior was not dictated by the books, slogans, and fashionable political ideology but from their youthful experiences, seasoned by their old culture. The story opens up with our fellow narrator, Pasha, teases his mother for her homeopathic remedies and concoctions she makes for his mental and physical stability, and grouches against his father who made him and Ahmad to abide with the unwritten codes of fraternity of athletes which forbids fighting with those who are weaker than oneself, the rules of a non existing society!

As the story progresses, the narrator moves slowly away from his mother’s homeopathic pantry and his father’s non-existing fraternity athletic society, to the periphery of the neighborhood beyond their alley where there is something called authority, force, police, security, batons, guns, arrests, prison, torture and murder. Oddly enough, his high school is where he received his first taste of each. His math teacher, the embodiment of the whole system, forced him to decide the road to his future. That is where he chose his father’s way of life, maturity, wisdom, justice, and freedom. He never regretted it to the end.

Along with other characters in the book, he learns to defy the injustice and to fight for his rights not through ideological training or the fashionable theories dictated to him, not even through what was generally believed, the militant or revolutionary religious teachings, but through following numerous national elites. The ideal society of The Rooftops of Tehran is not formed or modeled by the Communist nations aiming to achieve a proletarian government, nor to create a model of religious Medina. Love for democracy is the heartbeat of pre-revolution Iran.

Indeed this novel is so unique, even iconoclastic, as a literary piece. No clash between the characters, no clash between the classes, no clash between generations and no clash between genders. No opposite forces, no personal conflicts, inner or outer. What we have studied in the development of the story fails us right from the start. The favorable response of Zari, Doctor’s fiancĂ©, to Pasha’s love and their warm innocent, guiltless love for each other might even surprise our Western readers. Zari’s parents’ recognition and acknowledgment of their relationship is unexpected, even though they knew that there is a very strong emotional bond between them. The freedom these young people enjoyed and the respect their parents showed their choice and decision counters all the stereotyping in the region’s culture. Fahimeh’s courageous and liberated decision to reject the suitor her parents had chosen for her and her steady relationship with Ahmad, for example, are not exactly classical tools in writing a love story. The absence of love pain and love sickness, family or gender abuse, emotional cruelty within the family and friends that in normal sense is a receipt for failure, makes the story even more attractive. None of the above detracts from the charm and sweetness of this work, nor does it diminish the reader’s urge to read further. The curiosity it arouses in the reader is not due to an artificial or clichĂ© conflict, but to a genuine excitement of watching a skillful performance. Indeed, these groups of kids with an awesome maturity, half intuitively and half thoughtfully, go through a life full of turbulence and emerge magnificently. The characters in this story enjoy a kind of freedom provided to them by Seraji’s generosity more likely to compensate for what they lacked in their real life and what was denied them politically and socially.

In his review Thomas Vincent mildly objects to so many heroes, almost everyone, in one novel. “It is too good to be true,” he says. I felt a bit flattered by this objection and I think any Iranian, including Mahbod Seraji, would feel the same. I would like to reassure the critic that by no means is it fanciful to have all these heroes in one story. Thank Heavens we have live witnesses on our side. These last two months, Iranians by the millions have displayed such an amazing show of gentility, humanity, and culture that no one should be surprised to see a book full of heroes. Seraji could have written a novel with hundreds of heroes if it were technically possible. Yes, “too good to be true,” but hey! That is who we are: exactly, too good to be true!

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Mani's Conversion

I rushed to the kitchen to prepare food, sabzi polaw and fish, my usual fast food! My guests very graciously had let me neglect my duty as a host for few days, so I wanted to make it up to them in their last night’s stay in New York on Friday. Food was simple but the table was elaborate, with all my sets of green china and glasses to match not only my green dinning room but our Green Movement and our Green Youth and hopefully our Green Victory.

After dinner, my guests started to pack. Elahe has promised Darya, her granddaughter, to be in Montreal before 4 pm on Saturday. However Mani, my friend’s son did not want to go back on Saturday. I felt something very emotional was happening since Mani switched to French, the language that he is more fluent in, when he said grumpily, “I should stay for tomorrow and leave the following day by bus.”

“We all came together and we should all leave together,” His mother declared authoritatively.

“It is all my fault. I said I can go alone by bus and you all can come whenever you feel like coming,” Darya said with tears in her eyes.

“No Darya jan, your grandma won’t let you go alone. They feel responsible to take you back home as they promised to your parents,” Mani’s mother said.

“I can go by bus on Sunday. I know how to get the bus. I should stay here for tomorrow’s march,” Mani said, as if knowing he was crossing a narrow line.

“But we all should go back tomorrow, you knew it, and you agreed, didn’t you?” his mother said.

“Oh, please, we are not in court and we are not putting a kid on trial,” I wanted to tell his mother but I kept quiet.

“Ya, I did, but that was three days ago; do you understand? Three days is a long time, Mom! Something has awakened in me during last three days. I feel something now that I didn’t feel before; something that I did not even know existed. Tomorrow, everybody is marching, people from all over the world march for us, from South America, from Europe, form Africa, from Australia, they all march for us when I, who should be there, sit in the back of the car and drive to Canada to go the a party! No, I can’t do that, I must be here.” The words were pouring out of Mani’s mouth as if he had no control over them, as if he did not need to think about them.

“It’s entirely my fault, I should not have come, I know it is my fault, I ruined everything for all of you. What if I go tomorrow by myself and you can come after the march.” Darya said, almost crying.

Mani went toward her and gently patted her on the back and said, “No dear, it is not your fault. You did not do anything wrong. It is me who is changing his mind and can’t help it. You did nothing wrong, otherwise I would not talk to you.”
“But listen! Don’t be so childish …” his mother started to say but stopped suddenly and just stared at him as if in disbelief.

I felt an urge to jump in and give my unsolicited advice to his mother. I felt an urge to scream at his mother and tell her “the hell with the stupid party you want to go. Remember your own youth and your own rebellion. Remember when your father brought you from Tabriz, to Tehran to go to law school. And remember the promises you made to your father about staying away from the line of opposition to the Shah, and remember how you broke them all and did what your heart told you to do. Remember that you never regretted any of them. Remember that was some forty years ago, and you were a little provincial girl and not a young person grown up and educated in cosmopolitan cities such as Paris and Montreal, and remember that by breaking your promise you did not fall into disgrace. Remember that nothing happened. Remember that for years in law school, in spite of everything, again and again, you have used promise-braking as a paradigm for the most unethical behavior!" Yes, I wanted to tell her she broke her agreements with her father on such an important issue and she still became such a dignified lawyer. I wanted to tell her that a little contradiction and deviation of this sort seems inevitable at certain age. I wanted to tell her…

I had the urge to say even more. But I did not. I just felt the futility of it all. Not that she won’t recall what I wanted her to; very likely she would. But the futility of urging someone to do something that she is not willing to do. I felt it is irrelevant if Mani comes to the march on Saturday or not, or even if by some miracle everyone decides to stay for the march on Saturday, or simply letting him stay with my responsibility to arrange his trip back the following day. What was most significance was Mani’s spontaneity and his eagerness to grasp the new breath of his experience. Sitting in a rocking chair and swinging back and forth, he looked more like a mother nursing her baby with passion. Indeed, he was nursing a new born, a precious little feeling. It seems the last three days he was transported to another life and was returned with an adopted child which he did not want to let go of. “Yes, I must stay here,” echoed vehemently, though, it was uttered gently as a whisper. I felt the young man sitting a few feet away from me was miles away from the little boy I saw in 2000 with all the characteristic of a twelve year old so absorbed with his personal needs. Responsibility, compassion, sympathy, love, and connectedness towards millions unknown has found a venue for display, and he was wise enough not to loose the opportunity.

I felt no need for my interference. I felt what was supposed to be achieved had been achieved already. Mani in French expressed what his new friends, who were unknown to him up a few days before, would have expressed in Farsi on the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz or Mashhad. I had no doubt that he would have marched with his friends in Iran somewhere without fear, without hesitation had he been there. He had truly become one with those millions in Iran.

It was three a.m. when I left mother and son to decide the way they usually make other decisions in life. A few hours later when I woke up they were loading their belongings into the car. Mani was going as well. He gave me a warm hug and said “Khaleh Mina, I’ll be back soon.” I responded with a much warmer squeeze and wished him well. I stayed on the road with a pitcher of water to splash at the back wheels of their car for a safe trip and watched until they disappear into the traffic.

I have no doubt that Mani gave in so easily because in reality he did not give in. I’m convinced he thought the way I thought. I’m convinced in his heart he felt it does not matter if he would march with us in New York City or ride in car to Montreal. In the reality of his heart, he had made a bond with his fellow Iranians that he felt no need to display.

I went to the march thinking all the way about Mani and his excitement. A memory came back to me. I recalled when some seven years ago I obtained my Iranian passport after twenty five years with a not-so-flattering photo of mine, wearing a black scarf, attached to its first page, along with usual personal information. I read that few lines of information at least hundred times a day for a while. The passport was placed on the night table next to the books I read at night. For months it was the last thing I would look at before sleeping and the first I would look at on opening my eyes. I even thought that photo was the prettiest I ever had. Even to this day I have never cherished anything more than that sudden sense of belonging given to me by touching that little red booklet or reading its content. I can never forget the sensation of reading my name and my family name, most significantly, the place of birth! I would never forget the pleasure and a sense of security I found within that little booklet. I felt I had found a place to live safely, among a clan who would give me refuge with love and compassion if it is needed. I felt I’m not lonely anymore, I felt I’m together with many, with so many. I felt “fear no more.”

I was marching and thinking of Mani in the back seat of the car, secure and safe, knowing he is not alone, knowing he is with many, and would “fear no more,” listening to his favorite musician, Alizadeh. (Mani is student in a music academy.) I thought he is as excited as I was with my Iranian passport. I wished I could have taken a photo of Mani’s feeling, I wished I would have been a painter and draw that sense of belonging, that sense of awakening, and then I would frame it, frame it with pure gold and place it in a high place somewhere, very high, close to God maybe, on a prayer mat, above the piano he plays, over the fireplace he gazes, at or simply next to his bed, to look at it every morning and every night, the first and the last.

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Four Glorious Days for Iran

Three days of hunger strike ended with a most beautiful day of solidarity

rallies all over the world, including our city of New York. Words said, pictures taken, interviews done, speeches made to condemn the fraudulent election and violations of human rights, and pleas made for peace, and encouragement given to the world not to forget us on our way to democracy.

I have so little to say about who said and did what. Yes, we all had the green wristbands, we all participated, some few thousands of us in New York alone. Lots of people came from Canada, Washington State, Virginia, Washington DC, Pennsylvania, Florida North Carolina, etc., many with their family, many even with their dogs. And many missed the occasion as well, most likely because they were busy, though, I should say they missed so much.

Among those who did not come, I regret the young children of my friends who had gone to the movies or to the beach. Not that the movement was damaged by their absence, but they missed one of the most precious experiences in life: being a very genuinely proud Iranian, and something more even: to be a witness to a golden page of history.

For three decades we Iranian were imposed upon by a government of abnormity, a government of innovation created out of a vacuum of statesmanship as well as wisdom and foresight. For three decades those bearded clerics sprang out of nowhere, ruled according to their will and ignored whatever Iranian culture or international norms prescribed. The abuse of power had never been reached to such degree in Iranian history even during reign of Arab Muslims, Mongols or Timorids.

Most intolerable is the deceitfulness involved in their ruling. The ruling clerics not only violated all norms in the name of Islam, (I should admit that I can’t possibly care less about this) but our name, Iranians, as well. Not only have they represented themselves as the emissaries of God and His appointees on earth, but as our delegates. The world around us, being preoccupied with its own problem, sluggishly and carelessly embraced the idea. We all were portrayed as friends of Hamas and Hezbollah and were tagged as terrorists within a short period of time, a picture that we all resented in every way.

On Saturday in front of the UN, excited and energized even after four days of walking and talking and fasting and after a long walk from Times Square to the UN with quite a bit of zigzagging, from the South African Embassy to the Office of Iran’s Delegation to the UN, I ran to some old friends from our student days, all happy and smiling, proud and content at have come back together for a glorious conclusion. Lots of kisses and hugs, “Isn’t this elegant?” I asked rhetorically. “Yes very elegant, exactly the kind of revolution you like,” one of my friend teased. “Why not?” I thought without making any apology for my taste. Indeed I do not take the word elegant so lightly. Isn’t it always coupled with orderly, cultured and civilized?

Indeed, how else we could describe the movement? How many nations reacted, in defiance, like us to a military coup? Half dizzy and half excited, I look around in order to find something to concentrate on. Though I could not decide where to focus, I finally managed to fix my attention when Faramarz started to play his sitar and sing, accompanied by a saxophone and daft. In one corner, a lady with her beautiful Papillion in her arm was singing with the crowd, another man with his pooch, name Apple, lying on the ground in fatigue, standing there attentively. (Thanks to all those pooches who came to rally with a green band around their necks, not only to show their support but to restore our reputation: Iranian do not hate dogs!) Across the fence separating the demonstration from First Avenue’s by passers, one could not miss the admiring look of the people who were watching us. Puzzled by what they were looking at, more likely they would have thought us as holding a celebration if a few signs of “Free All Political Prisoners” had not betrayed us.

Later on, looking at the gallery of the photos from the event, I was so pleased to see indeed we looked very elegant. Noam Chomsky looked very cheerful. Gee, he was even smiling! Reza Bareheni, though looked much older, appeared quite content, very likely since someone remembered his theory of Masculine History. Ganji looked as if he had never heard the word fatigue in his life; Masoumeh Shafii, smiling at someone very shyly. I think she was explaining that she is not Fatemeh Haghihgatjoo ; Nayereh Tohidi, gallant and dignified as always, seemed to be offering her seat to someone else. Does she ever loose her attentiveness? I wondered. Kazem Alamdarian looked as fresh and happy in all the pictures taken from day one to the last. And oh, yes, my beloved husband who fasted all three days and left his computer behind for four consecutive days, was almost on all the gallery photos. I do not know how he did it, I mean leaving the computer at home!

And finally those kids! Sadra and Company with their yellow shirts, warm, pleasant, proud, and happy. They did not need to be in any photos, they would stay in our heart forever for all their composure, style, management, and smiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiles! Oh yes, fear no more!
Food was brought for those who had fasted. I ran after my husband, preventing him form eating much, but it was too late; he already had got to desert, sholezard. Well, I had to be a little generous; he really did not eat for all three days. I had just a date which with my luck was not sweet.

The program ended like usual Iranian gatherings: no one wanted to leave. “We should get together again,” “Lets not to wait for the next crisis,” “We really should not let go of this momentum,” “Call me and let’s get together,” “We really….”, and more hugs and more kisses, and handshake, again and again.
It was six o’clock that it was announced that we should leave. In fact, we should have left some half an hour earlier. And again the traffic of invitations and promises for the next time and again lots of “We should really….” We were the last one leaving, followed by janitors with brooms and garbage bags sweeping after us.

“Did they ever see such a jolly adult demonstration against brutality and violence?” I thought to myself when leaving.

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