Washington, DC — Anyone who has seen the aftermath of the Iranian election on the news or online, has been undeniably rocked to their human core by the violent backlash Iranians have received for speaking up and asking for their long-overdue freedom(s). Yet, the original party-people and poets of the world: the Iranians, have taken their rebuttal to Ahmadinejad’s statement about the people who protested the outcome of this year’s Iranian election (and his “presidency”) to a new, perhaps romantic level.
“Lower than dirt… is you”, “I am the light, I am the aching lover, I am the power” are a few lines from the poem/chant – which ends with the line, “I am the owner of this land” – that was written in response to the now infamous-amongst-Iranians phrase: “Khas-o-Khaashaak”.
(Click here to download Iranian musician: Hamed Nikpay’s song-version of the people’s rebuttal: “Malek-e in Khak” – “Owner of this Land”.)
As widely reported, Iranians have resorted to their rooftops – a place where some middle-class Iranian families used to spend quality time enjoying the night sky and stargazing during the summer – in an attempt to be heard while crying out to God every night. “Allah-o-Akbar” (Arabic for God is greatest) is the verbiage heard in Tehran, nightly.
Feeling trapped in one’s homeland is not something most people would choose for themselves, as a way to live, but oddly enough… this is not the first time this has happened in Iran, and to Iranians.
Mahbod Seraji’s debut novel: Rooftops of Tehran is a crucial read for people who are looking to understand the aftereffects of this type of movement in a country that was once the largest empire in the world. Seraji’s insightful look into the climate of 1970’s Iran, and the 1979 revolution, is real and penetrating, which now makes this book important, timely, and enlightening.
Rooftops of Tehran is a story about love, passion, life, and the struggles of young man who has to grow up fast due to a looming revolution that ultimately alters his life forever, as it has for Iranians around the world. If you’re looking for a good book to help calm your emotions about the current situation in Iran, Rooftops of Tehran is the novel for you!
Enjoy our interview with Iranian-American author whose delicate and piercing approach to writing and Iran, will send you in a dazed world of emotions and thoughts: compassion, reality, love, guilt, history, and dream… all at the same time.
Pe: Where were you born?
MS: I was born in Bandar Anzly/Pahlavi in Iran in 1956
Where do you currently live?
In the San Francisco Bay area
What is your academic background?
I have a BS in Civil Engineering, an MA in Communications (Broadcasting and Film) and a Ph.D. in Instructional Design and Technology – all from the University of Iowa – Go Hawks!
What was the inspiration for this book?
The inspiration for the book came from childhood memories, and people who either by direct association or through their lives had a profound impact on me. For example I didn’t know Khosrow Golesorkhi personally but his trial touched me deeply as a teenager. So he’s in the story. Although I have changed his trial date to suit the narrative – I’ve also given fictional names to neighborhoods, villages, alleys, etc., like Kolahdasht – I don’t think there is a village in Iran called Kolahdast, is there? By the way, many of the characters in the story would recognize themselves if they read the book – although I have to emphasize that this is primarily a work of fiction and not a memoir.
How long did it take you from start-to-finish to write Rooftops of Tehran?
It took a little over 3 years. I think I started writing the story at the end of 2000 or beginning of 2001 and finished the submission version at the tail end of 2003 or beginning of 2004.
What audience is this book intended for?
Rooftops of Tehran is intended for anyone interested in Iran and its culture, traditions, and politics. It’s also a touching love story. We’re unfortunately living in an era when Iran is portrayed and regarded as the enemy. And my intention was to tell a story of friendship, love, humor and hope. Universal experiences cherished by people of all cultures, religious background and political inclinations. I wanted to show a side of Iran that seems to have been pushed into oblivion: its funny, wonderful, warm, hospitable people. I wanted to show that despite our vast cultural differences, we’re all humans regardless of our countries of origin.
When was the last time you were in Iran ?
The last time I visited Iran was March of 2009. My father lived there until just recently and I helped him move here to the United States – hopefully, permanently now.
Your book is a novel, not a memoir, but with such vivid detail, is it safe to assume that you have used some personal experiences as inspiration?
Absolutely. And that’s a great observation in your part. The story is based on highly fictionalized personal experiences.
In 1970’s Iran , lots of changes took place. Do you think people are still sleeping on rooftops in Tehran today?
No way. I think Iran has become a much more closed society since the revolution. On one of my visits back, I went to the old neighborhood to see my best friend Ahmed. When I told him I wanted to go on the roof, he chuckled. He said he couldn’t remember the last time he was up there. Anyway while on the rooftop, I noticed that the people who had moved into our old house had covered the yard with some sort of vinyl type material. You couldn’t see inside the yard because it was totally covered. It was the strangest thing. I doubt sunlight could creep through, and my old house looked so dark and depressing. I guess they do that to ensure privacy for the female members of the family who may be in the yard without head-covers!
Why is it important that there is literature on Iran besides topics that revolve around the Hostage Crisis?
For many good reasons. First of all that’s a part of our history that shouldn’t be forgotten. Unfortunately, many people don’t remember the secular Iran. They don’t remember that we weren’t socially repressed under the Shah, just politically. I also think by concentrating only on one point in our history such as the hostage crisis, we perpetuate the negative stereotypes of Iran and Iranians. This is like saying anything written about Japan should be centered around one single political or historical event such as the Pearl Harbor bombing… nothing else matters! I don’t think that’s right!
Why do you believe the Iranian-American voice is important?
I guess that’s what democracy and freedom is about. I have the right to express myself, and shame on me if I don’t, especially when I have the opportunity, the tools, and the platform to do it. In recent years the Iranian – American voice has been heard loudly around the globe. We have great Iranian scholars, writers, scientists, artists – – I’m personally very proud of that heritage.
How would you describe your book?
I think as some reviewers have pointed out Rooftops is a historical and political novel about a critical moment in Iran’s past. Many of my American readers have commented that it’s full of vivid cultural descriptions that are fun to learn about. I think beyond all that it’s also a story of hope and the indomitability of the human spirit and the universality of humanity and human experiences. In Rooftops of Tehran I’m suggesting that as human beings we are not that different from one another. Or as one of my readers wrote to me in a wonderful email “it’s exactly those differences that make us all, One!”
What is your favorite destination in Iran?
Northern part of Iran by the Caspian Sea area. I have traveled to many countries around the world for work or on vacation and Iran’s Northern provinces are some of the most stunning on this planet.
What has your general audience response been?
The reviews have been great. I haven’t seen any sales numbers yet since the book came out less than two weeks ago. But I’m keeping my fingers crossed. But I’ve also received some very kind emails from some of my readers.
Do you plan on translating your book into Farsi?
Oh, there is a great story here worthy of a book. I tried. As you know there are no copyright laws in Iran. So literary work developed outside the country can get easily translated into Persian without the permission or involvement of the author or the original publishing company. But you also face incredibly interesting challenges as you deal with the Ministry of Ershad (The Ministry of Guidance) who heavily censors anything that is not consistent with this government’s definition of moral values, e.g., a boy and a girl holding hands, drinking beer, cussing. I learned that even making fun of the teachers or the clergy can be a challenge in getting your book published. My book has lots of those kinds of scenes. So, at this point, things are in the air. We’ll have to wait and see.
Would you like to return to Iran someday? Why?
I love Iran – Yes, probably for visits but not to stay there forever. I have been living in the States for over thirty-three years now – The logistics of uprooting my entire life at this stage can be a bit challenging.
Are you working on another book/project currently?
Yes, I’m about 250 pages into my second book. It’s called, at least for now, Squawk of the Crows, but that’s probably going to change!
How does your book differ from other books written by Iranian-Americans about their view of Iran ?
I think most of the recent literature has covered the Iran of post revolution. The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani (a lovely novel) focused on the 17th century Persia. So I think Rooftops of Tehran is a bit different in the sense that the story covers the Shah’s era. And again the focus here is on the brighter side of our culture and ways of life. I also think that most of the literary fiction work that has been published by the main stream publishers has been written by extremely talented female writers. The male voice has been noticeably less prominent. I think it’d be great to have both.
What advice do you have to give aspiring Persian writers?
Writing is hard and writers live a hectically lonely existence – it’s many hours behind the computer alone. You got to get used to do that and be okay with it. You have to love to write. And then you must be open to others’ feedback. Be flexible, listen and use the criticism to improve your work. Set your ego aside and don’t assume that you know best. If others see flaws in your work, there are probably flaws in your work – so don’t dig in your heels – you only hurt yourself and your career. It takes a lot of people to publish a book – and all of them have to love what they’re publishing!
How can people stay up to date on your work?
Visit mahbodseraji.com and people can send me emails on that site. Or through my agents Danielle Egan-Miller and Joanna McKenzie at: Browne & Miller Literary Associates.