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 fiancé, 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 cliché 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!

2 comments: said...

I really enjoyed reading this book. The characters felt real to me and the author did a greatjob of holding my interest throughout the entire novel. I recommended the book to all my friends and book club. Great Job!

Xagros said...

I like the book cover design!