In the early 1970s, Tehran was the kind of city where everyone slept on the roof because the cool night air chased away the stifling heat of the day. Or so Mahbod Seraji tells us in his compelling debut novel, Rooftops of Tehran, a story of growing up, falling in love for the first time, and living in the turbulent years leading up to Iran’s Islamic Revolution.
Pasha Shahed is seventeen in the summer of 1973, when he spends languid days and sultry nights on the roof of his house in Tehran with his best friend, Ahmed. Like teenage boys everywhere, they tell jokes, smoke forbidden cigarettes, discuss girls, books, and movies, and ponder existential questions of the universe.
A favorite pastime is to gaze into the clear night sky and name the stars for their friends and neighbors. Only good people have a star, and the brighter the light, the better the person. It is telling that Pasha can never find his own star.
Our young hero can’t see himself as a good person because he has a guilty secret: He’s in love with Zari, the girl next door, who has been betrothed since birth to Pasha’s good friend and mentor, a man known only as Doctor on account of his brilliant mind. By Pasha’s way of thinking, such forbidden love can only be a sign of disloyalty.
Doctor is also an agitator against the Shah’s repressive regime, always just one step away from arrest. When Pasha inadvertently draws the attention of the Shah's secret police, his carelessness has dire consequences for Doctor, Zari, Pasha, Ahmed, and their entire neighborhood.
The novel’s characters are the kind of people I wish would walk right off the page and into my living room so I can hang out with them in real life. Pasha is a bright, compassionate boy whose love of books and philosophical discussion prompt Ahmed to tease him relentlessly about his sophisticated vocabulary. What seventeen-year-old, he asks, uses words like “abashedly” and “beautifully composed vignettes?” Yet Pasha’s linguistic skills are of little use to him when it comes to chatting up the lovely Zari. He’s as tongue-tied around her as any young man in the throes of first love.
Ahmed is Pasha’s intellectual equal, even if he uses his smarts in a different way. He’s the kind of kid I picture being regularly sent to the principle’s office for sassing his teachers. Ahmed is a prankster, a teller of jokes, a boy who deflects uneasy tension by making everyone laugh.
The secondary characters are also welcome in my living room. The women – Zari, Faheemeh (Ahmed’s betrothed), and Pasha’s mother – are strong and independent-minded yet live within the confines of a world where marriages are arranged by parents, and boys are held in contempt for looking at their friends’ sisters. Ahmed’s grandmother tells stories that everyone believes are lies about her dead husband. But are they really untrue?
I have a special fondness for the geeky Iraj, a neighborhood boy who hovers on the fringes of the teenage clique. He makes himself unpopular to his peers by winning every chess game and boring everyone with detailed descriptions of his latest invention. But he turns out to be a true and loyal friend when it counts.
The increasing repression of the Shah’s paranoid regime encroaches on the normal lives of these characters and disrupts the peaceful life played out in Pasha’s alley. These political events serve as the larger canvas against which Pasha’s very personal story is told, propelling the story forward and adding a sense of urgency, yet the heart of the tale is Pasha, his secret love, and the people who populate his world.
In the interview at the end of the book, the author mentions that he’s halfway through his next book and plans to write a sequel to Rooftops of Tehran at some later date. All I can say is: “Mr. Seraji, please write faster!”