Love and Revolution in Tehran:
Mahbod Seraji's Rooftops of Tehran
—Review by Natylie Baldwin

Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji
New American Library (Penguin)
May 5, 2009. 352 pages.
ISBN10: 045122681X
ISBN13: 9780451226815

At first glance, Mahbod Seraji's Rooftops of Tehran may seem like a typical coming of age story: a sympathetic protagonist at a tender age makes a shattering discovery that life can be cruel and unfair. But Seraji takes this basic framework and weaves a fascinating and multi-layered tale around it, providing insight into a geopolitically important nation and abiding culture, neither of which are fully understood or well appreciated by most Americans.

One of three major themes explored in the story involves the yearning and torment of forbidden love, including the exhilaration, guilt and unintended consequences that flow from it. But forbidden love is not limited to a person such as the main character Pasha harbors for his neighbor Zari, a young woman who has been betrothed since birth to a man everyone in the neighborhood calls Doctor and whom Pasha admires. An avid reader and dabbler in underground leftwing organizing, Doctor becomes enamored with ideas of justice. Like most tragic literary love affairs, it leads to his undoing, culminating in a catastrophic event that transforms everyone in the story.

As the title suggests, nearly all of the transformational events occur or have their genesis on a rooftop, usually that of Pasha’s home. This is where Pasha spends his summer nights in 1978 stargazing, watching the goings-on in the neighborhood, and joking and sharing hopes of the future with his best friend, Ahmed. It is also the perch from where he nurses his surreptitious love for Zari. And it is the place from which Pasha unwittingly gives away Doctor’s hiding place as he is pursued one night by the dreaded SAVAK. The rooftop symbolizes the reaching for the stars and the grand dreams of youthful innocence. It also signifies the great heights from which it can all come crashing down. In the heavy days of personal mourning that follow, a rooftop conversation takes place between Zari and Pasha in which Zari hints at a decision she has reached that will carry on Doctor’s legacy but will also devastate their intimate circle of friendship.

The personal drama of the characters is, of course, a microcosmic treatment of the larger political drama that was unfolding in the final days of the Shah’s reign of corruption and terror – a political drama that continues into the present.

This political backdrop of the story provides a window into the zeitgeist of pre-revolutionary Iran as well as the unresolved issues of democracy that plague the nation to this day. Ironically enough, Iran had a democratic leader as far back as 1953, Muhammad Mossadeq, who was forcibly removed from office by a CIA/British-engineered coup. His campaign to nationalize the Iranian oil industry was a step too far out of line for the leaders of the western world who had already become dependent upon the power and lifestyle that access to fossil-fuels make possible. Muhammad Reza Shah, son of Reza Kahn, a western-backed authoritarian leader who is credited with modernizing Iran in the period between World War I and World War II, was installed as the compliant dictator.

The Shah’s reign of power in the 1960’s and 70’s saw an economy that benefited a few Iranian elites and U.S. corporations at the expense of much of the Iranian population who experienced social and economic dislocation due to western-influenced development policies, mass exodus from rural to urban areas and consequent inflation, low wages, shortages of essential goods, and insufficient productive investment.

But what really tipped the Iranian people into profound and, eventually broad, opposition to the Shah was the increasingly brutal political repression wielded over them by the apparatus of the regime. A 1976 report by Amnesty International described Iran as “[having] the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts and a history of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record in human rights than Iran.”

The novel deftly incorporates an unflinching portrait of this repression through the lens of the people in one neighborhood. The second theme, and perhaps the greatest wisdom imparted by the story, is showing how people who are not normally revolutionaries – or even particularly idealistic – will finally reach their breaking point and take a stand. Most people, unlike Doctor, do not fight for an abstraction but for something they have a more tangible connection to or love for, like a person or place. This is where the Shah miscalculated his perceived ability to destroy opposition. In his opulent insulation, he believed, right up until the very end, that the opposition could only be limited to a small group of malcontents – a myth that his cadre of advisors and protectors did little to dispel. As more people became victims of the SAVAK’s repression, it translated into more friends and loved ones who, in turn, became ardent opponents – that is, if the shock of their loss did not render them insane or dead. Pasha’s love for Zari, along with his admiration for Doctor, motivates him to take a stand. In turn, Ahmed supports his friend Pasha, and Iraj – a neighborhood sidekick who, until this point in the story, is merely tolerated rather than respected or well-liked—also takes a risk to show support for his three friends.

In these mounting episodes of mourning for those detained, disappeared or murdered by the regime that, combined with other grievances, ultimately led to the revolution of 1979, people communicated with each other and expressed both outrage and solidarity by shouting from the rooftops – two phenomena that were seen again in the recent Iranian upheaval. While it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and hope of a revolution, many Iranians could also see the problematic nature of the revolutionary coalition that was comprised of a patchwork of groups who had little in the way of common goals beyond the desire for an independent nation and ousting of the Shah.

The complexity of the revolutionary coalition is captured in a quote, provided secondhand from his wife, from Pasha’s father’s friend, an opponent of the regime who spent 18 years in the notorious Evin Prison. This character serves as the mature and wise-with-perspective revolutionary who: "express[ed] serious concerns about the new breed of prisoners in the SAVAK’s jails. He had told her that he was troubled by the strong religious overtones in the thinking and philosophy of the younger revolutionaries. He believed that the rise of religious fundamentalism would create insurmountable new barriers to attaining democracy in Iran." (page 148)

In order to understand how someone like Ayatollah Khomeini could garner credibility as the post-revolution leader of Iran, one must look at the history of the ulama (clergy) and its relationship to the people of Iran. Iran’s geographical location at the crossroads of Eurasia contributed to its rich culture during the Persian Empire. It has also made it a rugged nation nestled between areas subject to domination by competing powers, both past and present. It has, therefore, found itself numerous times as a target of mass violence and barbarism, from the slaughters of Alexander the Great on his way to the ultimate conquest to the butcheries of Genghis Kahn and, later, massacres by Arab forces.

Moreover, prior to Reza Khan, Iran was under dynastic monarchy rule and had no coordination of its far-flung villages, only regional treasurers whose job it was to deliver revenue to the kingdom. Thus, corruption was rampant and little was provided in the way of governance or social infrastructure. What services were provided, such as health and education, were often provided by the ulama, who were seen as one of the few champions of the common people against despots and poverty -- to the degree that such championing would not jeopardize their own power, of course.

This all must be taken into consideration when studying the rise of Khomeini who was the most enduring of the Shah’s opponents and carried great symbolic significance as both a long-exiled critic of the monarchy and a member of the clergy. Upon closer scrutiny, however, Khomeini’s own political writings foreshadowed the kind of opportunistic and autocratic leader he would be. From the outset, Khomeini began implementing an anti-democratic agenda, including broken promises to the National Front coalition, one of the major players in the revolution that actually deposed the Shah while Khomeini was still in Paris.

Examples of these broken promises and anti-democratic behavior included the refusal to insert any democratic language in the name or constitution of the Islamic Republic, destroying many of the grassroots accomplishments of the revolution like local worker cooperatives, purging the universities of secularists and leftists, and, perhaps the most galling betrayal, was the fact that he never really dismantled the SAVAK but co-opted it on behalf of the new regime.

Numerous contradictions of the Islamic regime will likely lay the groundwork for its eventual demise, whether through another revolution, a coup, or a revived and momentous reform movement.

The regime did, for instance, retain some limited social justice goals, such as improved health and education, especially in the rural areas. The regime has also achieved a 98% literacy rate as well as allowing free elections, albeit within a limited framework. This is largely due to the constraints posed by the Guardian Council, a group of twelve Islamic jurists who have the power to vet candidates for office and veto any legislation passed by the Iranian parliament that they deem inconsistent with Islamic law. But the June 2009 elections were actually the first under the Islamic regime that entailed large-scale vote rigging. This combination of factors created a space from which demands for change once again became inevitable.

Though the Ayatollah in many respects is the top authority figure, no one person or small group can effectively control a nation, especially one of Iran’s size, population and geographic complexity, without the assistance of certain groups or institutions. This represents another wild card in the future of the current leadership. For example, Khomeini’s successor, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, has become reliant on the Revolutionary Guards, an elite force of 120,000 that has its own ground, air and naval units and has been the most active in suppressing the current protests. With a force that many believe is better equipped than the regular national military and wields far-reaching economic power and political influence, the Revolutionary Guards may very well have become too powerful in its own right for the top Ayatollah to contain. Some experts on Iran fear that the Guards may seize power upon Khameini’s death.

Then there are the maneuverings of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former president and supporter of beleaguered reform candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi. He is also the current leader of the Assembly of Experts, a body that can theoretically remove Khameini from his position, though this is admittedly a long shot as 50 of 86 members of the Assembly endorsed a statement in late July encouraging Rafsanjani to back off his criticisms of the regime’s handling of the post-election crisis and show more public support for Khameini; however, it is just as interesting that 36 felt no inclination to sign on – one of several indications that there is substantial division among the elites. Another intriguing development is the BBC’s August 14th report that a group of former Iranian MP’s sent a letter to Rafsanjani denouncing Khameini’s post election crackdown and requesting that the Assembly of Experts review Khameini’s fitness to remain leader. If this proves to be true, it would represent an unprecedented move within the political class of the Islamic regime.

To many observers, including the author himself whom I heard speak in July at a local independent bookstore, how the current crisis plays out exactly remains to be seen. The one thing that is certain is the reawakening of the Iranian people from the disillusionment and despair that set in when Mohammad Khatami, between the strictures of the Guardian Council and Khameini, could not deliver on most reform aspirations during his term as president from 1997 to 2005.

In the waning years of Khatami’s presidency and after his departure, Iran witnessed an even higher incidence of alienation among its youth. Seventy percent of Iranians are under the age of 30, which means they have all grown up under the Islamic regime and know all too well of its limitations, such as lack of economic opportunity and stifling controls on personal and social behavior stemming from an ultra-conservative interpretation of Shia Islam.

Iranian culture, however, has demonstrated its resilience and complexity as it was shaped by all of those dark episodes that have littered the landscape of its past. Consequently, the Iranian worldview tends more toward distrust of authority, periodic retreats into the safety of religion – running the gamut from mysticism to dogma, and uninhibited expressions of the grief it has such an intimate familiarity with. But grief can also enable recovery.

This is the third major theme of Rooftops. Some of the most memorable passages pertain to Pasha’s grief process in the latter part of the story, particularly as it relates to the sorrow and emotional paralysis that result from profound loss: “A persistent silence has taken over my life. Life moves on, and I seem to be standing still, defying its demand for change. I live in my life without touching it, without feeling it, and certainly without appreciating it.” (page 274).
Pasha also wrestles with the intense self-absorption that often follows such a trauma: “I, however, am still trapped in the dark winter of my life, and I can’t find a way out. Ahmed and Iraj stop over often. I enjoy their company, but sometimes as they’re talking, I drift away and tune them out, just as everything outside of me gets blocked out.” (page 280).

Pasha does eventually begin the slow and painful process of coming to terms with both his grief and his guilt: “I don’t feel ashamed for loving Zari anymore because there’s nothing wrong with loving someone who is worthy of being loved.” (page 302) One can argue that freedom and justice are also worthy of being loved and desired, though it often takes a concrete bond, as illustrated in the story, to serve as a vehicle for truly knowing or understanding the value of such grand concepts.

Natylie Baldwin is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.