Mahbod Seraji, Rooftops of Tehran

From the Novel Readings archives: A very interesting conversation this morning with an Iranian student taking my current summer course had me thinking again about Mahbod Seraji’s Rooftops of Tehran, which I reviewed last year. My student, who plans on becoming a journalist, is passionately interested in telling stories about the experience of living in Iran today, especially for women and children. I was fascinated to hear her account of having read Jane Eyre years ago in a Farsi version which she now realizes was heavily censored or revised–so that, for instance, Jane is a much less rebellious character. She brought out a number of ways in which our 19th-century readings (so far we’ve worked on Pride and Prejudice, Scott’s “The Two Drovers,” and Jane Eyre) resonate for her with very contemporary situations in Iran–in much the way that Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (a book she admires) suggests as well. One of the things we also discussed was how novels (both in the 19th-century and today) offer their readers a look at the human side of history and politics, something Mahbod Seraji had as an explicit goal when writing Rooftops of Tehran.

After I posted my review last year, Mahbod Seraji contacted me and we ended up having a long and very interesting phone conversation, about the novel and about his experiences as an Iranian-American author finding himself expected to answer questions about Iran or “the Middle East” as well as about his book. Clearly there is a hunger for information and understanding that is, in many ways, a good thing, but the expectation that he should be willing to speak as if somehow expert or representative also reflects a continuing inability to recognize that individuality is not a “Western” prerogative. Still, not unlike Scott writing about Highlanders for a primarily English audience, writing about Iran for an American audience inevitably  has a pedagogical component, as Seraji is well aware. I really appreciated both the opportunity to speak directly with him about his work and his interest in my own reading of it. That’s the kind of connection and exchange I think we all hope blogging will create.


In a talk at the American University of Cairo on “the image of the Arab in Western Literature” (linked here), Ahdaf Soueif emphasizes the limited range of character types (and particularly the limited kinds of agency) allotted to Arab characters even in literary fiction celebrated in the West for its sympathetic portrayal of Arab cultures and perspectives. (Two of the novels she focuses on are Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate and Richard Zimler’s The Search for Sana.) Although she stresses that the life work of Arab writers is not to represent themselves or their world to the West, she does also suggest the value of contributions by those at the “touching point” between cultures, particularly Arab-American writers and artists, many of whom, as she says, have “come out” since 9/11 to declare and explore their dual identities. I’m sure she would agree that her argument can be expanded from strictly Angl0-Arab encounters to “touching points” between the West and Iran: as a member of the so-called “Axis of Evil,” Iran is more likely to be misunderstood, misrepresented, or demonized in the popular imagination (at least in America) than most of its neighbours.

In the interview with Mahbod Seraji provided at the end of Rooftops of Tehran, the novelist addresses this problem directly:

‘As for current Americans’ misconceptions about Iran, I see a lot of misrepresentation in the media. Because the governments of Iran and the U.S. don’t get along, we tend to mischaracterize the people of Iran as evil. The media immediately conveys images and information that dehumanizes the Iranian people. Likewise, we’re encouraged to forget that our so-called enemies have feelings and are capable of love and friendship. We see them as so dissimilar, we can’t imagine that we may actually have a lot in common.’

Rooftops of Tehran is clearly offered as a corrective to these tendencies, an alternative representation of “the people of Iran” that emphasizes “common” human feelings and experiences: Seraji says that “love, hate, humour, friendships are universal qualities shared by people of all nations.” But, as he also remarks, “our cultures influence the ways in which we may respond to situations”: how we express love, hate, or friendship, for example, or what we find funny, will vary based on the world we live in, the values we are taught, and the examples set by those around us. Further, love, hate, and friendship may sound like highly personal experiences, but as Seraji’s novel highlights, even the most intimate relationships are lived in political contexts, affected by who has power and the ends towards which that power is directed. Rooftops of Tehran suggests that abusive power–political tyranny–warps people’s lives and characters by constraining, sometimes brutally, their individual desires. Though the love story at the heart of the novel may in some respects demystify Persian culture for North American readers because its basic ingredients seem so familiar (boy meets girl and falls in love, but girl is engaged to boy’s friend and mentor, boy nurtures forbidden passion, etc.), key plot developments including the horrific act at the novel’s center defamiliarize this world again, because their extremity is so difficult to translate, to explain, outside the context of pervasive and arbitrary oppression that frames the superficial normalcy of the characters’ lives. Yes, they love and hate, tease and bully, read and study, dream of becoming teachers or engineers–but the alley where they play out their lives and loves is subject to surveillance and invasion by the Shah’s secret police, against whom there can be no protest or recourse. Though it is a romance, then, Rooftops of Tehran can’t help but also be a novel of political protest, not just against the Shah’s regime but against the Western powers, especially the US, that support it.

Seraji remarks the disbelief expressed by his American college classmates in the 1970s when he told them about the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953: “half of the class accused me of lying because ‘the American government just doesn’t do bad things like that.'” Inevitably, part of his project in the novel is pedagogical, not just about Iran and the life and traditions of its ordinary people, but about how they perceive America and why. Historical and political information of this kind is difficult to integrate elegantly into fiction, especially when, as here, the focus is personal and style is spare, with little exposition. Seraji feeds us tidbits through his characters, as when the protagonist, Pasha, recalls his father saying of the SAVAK, “They live among us, work with us, come to our homes for dinner, participate in our happiness, mourn our losses, and then someday you find out that they have a second job working for the most loathed agency ever created in this country, thanks to the Americans and their CIA.” Pasha’s mentor, known as ‘Doctor,’ “used to say that Mossadegh’s overthrow was the biggest American foreign policy blunder in history. ‘No one in the Middle East will ever again trust the Americans and their phony guardianship of democracy,’ he declare[s] angrily.” Though Pasha dreams of studying in the US, Doctor’s fate teaches him to “‘hate the CIA'” as well: “‘They’re responsible for Doctor’s death, and the deaths of all the other young people executed by the Shah.'” To me, these conversations seemed artificial, though part of that may be simply the difference between a culture in which politics are literally a life and death matter and my own world, in which we take our freedoms so for granted that only a bare majority turn out to vote–or my own circle, more narrowly, in which politics are rarely discussed, much less heatedly. Still, if these moments are dubiously effective aesthetically, they certainly offer the novel’s target audience a different perspective on America’s international role.

And yet for all this, Rooftops of Tehran is not primarily a political novel. It conveys a strong sense of Persian culture, particularly in the ways it differs from Western norms. Again, some of the information is conveyed a bit awkwardly, as when Pasha reflects,

We Persians are not sophisticated when it comes to dealing with pain. I’ve heard that people in the West, especially in the United States, seek therapy when they experience emotional traumas. Our therapist is time. We trust that time heals everything, and that there is no need to dwell on pain. We don’t seek psychological treatment because we’re not as fragile as the Westerners, or so we claim. . . . We bring solace to our hearts by displaying our emotion.

His father explains “the intensity of our mourning” as a historical phenomenon:

‘A recurring theme in our history has been the massacre of our people, in what are now forgotten genocides at the hands of invaders like Alexander of Macedonia, the barbarian who burned down Persepolis; the Arabs, who brutalized our nation for hundreds of years; and Genghis Khan, who in the thirteenth century slaughtered three million of our citizens. . . . Our only recourse in the face of unpardonable evil has been to wail inconsolably.’

There is a great deal of mourning and wailing in Rooftops of Tehran; what is unexpected about it to Western sensibilities is not grief in the face of suffering and loss but the extent to which that grief is expressed through the tears of the male characters in particular. Seraji explains that Iran is one of “what the experts call ‘Affective’ cultures,” while North Americans live in “‘Neutral’ cultures”–and thus “would come across as cold and unfeeling to the people in the Affective cultures.” Again, then, we return to the point that universal emotions have historically and culturally specific expressions; though at times (as above) a Western reader may feel at the receiving end of a lecture from the course Seraji says he teaches called “Understanding Personal and Cultural Differences,” overall the novel is quite effective in bridging those differences by evoking those common human feelings. And in the end, Rooftops of Tehran is as much a romance, a love story, as anything else–a love story, and the story of the elusive quality referred to repeatedly in the novel as “That.” If love is threatened, often destroyed, by the oppressive conditions in which Pasha and his friends must shape their lives, “That” (a potent, if often latent, blend of courage, independence, loyalty, and resistance) defines the alternative to tyranny and flourishes (like the red rose Pasha plants in honor of his murdered mentor) despite–or even, perversely, because of–the arid and unforgiving environment in which it is planted.

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