Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji is one of those books I would’ve never heard about had it not been for 5 Minutes for Books and a virtual discussion I had with Jennifer. I had commented on someone’s blog that I couldn’t stomach The Kite Runner because of the violence, although I did recognize that it is likely a worthwhile story. Jennifer recommended Rooftops of Tehran as a good alternative; it is a story that is similar in spirit but it has much less violence. Rooftops of Tehran was named the selection for this month’s 5 Minutes for Books bookclub, and here we are.
Jennifer was right–Rooftops of Tehran is a story that I won’t soon forget. It is the story of seventeen year old Pasha, a young Iranian man whose world is torn apart because of political unrest in his homeland. At the center of the story is his love for his neighbor, Zari, the promised bride of Pasha’s own friend and mentor, a young, intelligent revolutionary called Doctor. There are two narrative strands through the first half of the story, and to be honest, I found this to be a little off-putting. However, one tragic turn of events unites the two narratives; it was at this point that I began to truly enjoy the book. Until this point, I saw this story as primarily a teenage love story, beautifully written and full of the intoxication and angst of first love, albeit set in a lovely-but-repressed country, but little more.
By the time I finished this novel, though, what I had read was a story of the cost of freedom, friendship, a cultural statement about Persian society in the mid-1970s, and yes, the passion of first love.
Pasha’s friendship with his best friend, Ahmed, a jokester who is loyal to his beliefs and his friend to the point of death, is touching and heartwarming. I seems to me that this type of friendship is one that is unusual in our Western society, at least in my experience. The Tehran neighborhood they live in in the 1970s seems to be what we affectionately and nostalgically look back at our own neighborhoods as being in the 1940s and ’50s in America. (Of course, whether this is all nostalgia, even for the Persians, I cannot say.) Close friendships seem to be an outgrowth of their society; their society’s openness to share their heartaches and griefs, of course, nurtures that sort of friendship. Again, I wonder if this is still the state of affairs in Iran today. I would love to say that I have these types of friendship in my life, but I don’t. To achieve such closeness with others would require a major cultural shift, as well as a shift in my own thinking.
The idea of freedom, of course, is the very fabric of this story. From Doctor’s own sacrifice to Pasha’s and Ahmed’s own brand of rebellion at their very strict and repressive school to the unspeakable act which in one moment elevates this story from a teenage romance to a story about the terrible cost of freedom that even ordinary citizens must pay, Rooftops of Tehran leaves an indelible impression.
As a caveat, I just have to mention that this story also contains more profanity than any book I’ve ever read. Although I would expect some profanity in a book about political oppression and those who oppose it, this profanity was often just in everyday conversation. I got the point that teens in Tehran in the 1970s cursed. A lot. I think that perhaps that was Seraji’s point. If you can stomach some pretty heavy profanity, though, I think this one might be worth it.