Tehran's tensions add turmoil to romance

BOOK REVIEW A gripping coming-of-age story from Iran during the time of the Shah. But its insights and politics resonate in the Iran of today.

With his debut novel, "Rooftops of Tehran" (New American Library, 348 pages, $15), Iranian-born Mahbod Seraji offers us more than a haunting coming-of-age tale and a complex Persian love story. He also provides an intimate look at the rich culture of Tehran, one infused with political tension and a longing for justice.

The year is 1973, and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's tyrannical regime maintains control by imprisoning, torturing or killing those suspected of subversive activities. In a close-knit middle-class neighborhood, children play soccer on dusty streets, women gather to gossip and people sleep on rooftops, where the dry heat of summer days cools after midnight. Against this backdrop, 17-year-old Pasha Shahed, the novel's narrator, and his best friend, Ahmed, hash out typical teenage concerns: the meaning of life, questions of love and plans for the future.

Bookish Pasha describes life as "a random series of beautifully composed vignettes, loosely tied together by a string of characters and time." His father's friends, for whom he made the pronouncement, applaud his poetry and thoughtfulness. But that sweet sentiment came before life grew inextricably complicated for the teen, who is as likable and funny as he is smart.

Pasha falls in love with his beautiful neighbor, Zari, though she is betrothed to his mentor, a radical university student nicknamed Doctor. Ahmed finds his own true love, and he and his sweetheart arrange to spend summer days at Zari's house. Pasha tags along. He and Zari grow closer and the summer unfurls in romantic anticipation until political turmoil intrudes and Zari makes a fateful show of defiance that changes their lives forever.

The story grips readers with suspense, even more so because the first half of the novel alternates between the summer of 1973, told in present tense, and the winter of 1974, when Pasha is in a psychiatric hospital slowly remembering and coming to terms with the painful past. At times, I wished the writing were more lyrical, but the straightforward, simple prose befits the teenage narrator and ultimately presents a story rich with vivid detail.

Sometimes, the similarities to reports Twittered out of Iran today are chilling. In the novel, the shah's secret police kill revolutionaries, and deny their families funerals for fear of further political upheaval. (The same was true for the family of Neda Agha Soltan, the young woman recently shot on a Tehran side street.) As in the novel, dissent today can lead to imprisonment or worse.

"We Persians as a people are too deeply immersed in misery to resist despair when it knocks on our door," the narrator says. With persistence and love, Pasha and many of his friends work their way out of despair to something resembling hope, and so we close the book on a note of grace.

Early in the novel, Pasha tells Ahmed that books aren't just fantasies. "They're so much a part of the people who write them that they practically teach their readers invaluable lessons about life."

"Rooftops of Tehran" certainly does.

Kerri Westenberg is the Star Tribune travel editor.

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