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
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
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
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-fiancÚ
- 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
"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
"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
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
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.