Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Novel reminds us how Iran once was a secular nation

(Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, June 12, 2009)

First time novelist, Iranian native and former Iowa City resident Mahbod Seraji is coming back to town Friday to read from his tale of pre-revolutionary Iran, "Rooftops of Tehran." Set in 1973 and 1974, the novel presents an otherwise straightforward teenage love triangle made complicated by the political oppression imposed by Iran's then American-backed secular leader, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

But Seraji's novelistic debut is also of interest to "Iowa City of Literature" readers because Seraji didn't take Writers' Workshop classes while he studied for his B.S., M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Iowa from 1978 to 1989. Trained in film and instructional design, Seraji didn't begin transforming his life into fiction until long after he completed his studies and moved away from Iowa City.

Q: When you were studying film and instructional design at the University of Iowa, did you have any novelistic aspirations?

A: When I was in Iowa — back in 1979 and 1980 when I was working those many, many hours and there were all those crises going on in Iran — I thought about writing a novel. It was going to be about all the people who had a profound impact on my life. And I was going to write it as a series of short vignettes.

I did nothing with the idea until years later, until long after I entered the corporate world. I lost my job during one of our many mini-recessions, so I took three months off and wrote most of the book. In the process of writing, I decided that it wasn't a series of short vignettes ... it was "Rooftops of Tehran."

Q: Your doctorate is in educational instructional design and technology, but your dissertation is titled, "Cinematic Style and Perception." What's the connection there?

A: It had to do with looking at perceptions of moving images using cognitive psychology. Most of the film studies being done at Iowa at the time were using psychoanalytical theory. So I spoke to the head of the education department and asked what would happen if I looked into the ramifications of the perceptions of moving visual images. If you were watching, say, a film in the French realist style or the Russian formalist style or the Hollywood classic style, what were the different ways in which you might construct meaning out of the film? I was looking both in terms of the way your eyes physically perceive the images and in terms of cognitive perception.

Q: Your film studies background comes through in the novel as the characters begin to analyze how Persian films in the 1970s seem to only tell stories that reinforce the nation's class structure.

A: That was the undertone of most Persian movies of the time. The shah was very afraid of any sort of Marxist or Communist movement. The media — and especially the movies — were full of those types of stories.

Q: In interviews, you've said it's "important" to remember that "Rooftops" is not autobiography. Yet you share many autobiographical elements with your narrator, Pasha Shahed.

A: I was really torn between doing autobiography or fiction. In the course of writing, I found that fiction would unleash my imagination and creativity in a way that autobiography wouldn't. Besides, my life, by itself, may not be that interesting to most readers.

But most of the characters in "Rooftops" are based on real people. And I think that if those people were to read the book, they would recognize who they are.

Many people who know me say that they can hear me speaking when Pasha speaks. ... That's partly why I was at first reluctant to give the character a name. I didn't want to admit the connection. Finally my editor said, 'It's time to separate the two of you. You either need to call him Mahbod and we'll live with it, or give him a different name.'"

So, I chose Pasha, which would have been my name if Mahbod wasn't chosen. And Shahed is my father's pseudonym and my mother's maiden name. So we're still connected.

Q: Given the time period you're writing about, your book is necessarily political. Was it difficult to balance being accurate to the political environment you describe and telling a story about two teenagers falling in love for the first time?

A: If you'd put two Iranians in a room and you'd come back half hour later, you most likely would see them fighting over one of two issues. Either they were playing backgammon and one started accusing the other of cheating, or they were arguing about politics.

If you had videotaped that half-hour discussion, you would find either that nobody had actually cheated in backgammon or that they were actually arguing the same side of the same issue but they weren't willing to agree that they agreed.

Iranians talk about politics. It's interwoven into the fabrics of our lives. Every Iranian I know discusses politics more than nearly all other things. I wanted to have that be part of the personal story I was trying to tell.

Besides, the story grows out of the social and political situation in Iran at the time. It was the pre-revolutionary years, and the revolution was looming — it seemed just around in the corner. If you lived in Iran at the time, you could feel the tension. You could feel something was coming.

These kids, living at that time, would have been part of it. A sort of creative evolution.

Q: Are you offering "Rooftops of Tehran" as window into Iranian life for American readers, or is the book more of an Iranian-American's meditation on an Iran that no longer exists?

A: This period is a forgotten part of Iranian history. Many people don't remember that Iran used to be a secular nation. Under the shah we had political oppression, but we didn't have social oppression. When these guys came in, they said they would remove the political oppression. Well, they not only increased the political oppression, but they added social repression as well. I wanted to make sure that we didn't forget this period.

The revolution happened for a good cause; the shah wasn't good. But then the revolution went down the wrong track quickly, and we have been worse off.

Many people ask me, "Weren't things better under the shah?" I say, "no," because the word "better" implies that it was "good" in some way. Instead, I say, "The shah was less worse."

Many Iranians who read this book say they get nostalgic for that period – that I wrote their life story. They remember the days when boys and girls could get together freely with nothing to stop them. Iran is very different now.

Q: What role has your time in Iowa City played in your development as a writer?

A: A huge role. If it wasn't for Iowa City, I probably would not be where I am right now. After the revolution, there was no money coming from home. I basically was on the verge of going homelessness until I spoke with the university's international office. They were extremely kind to me and helped me to stay at school even though I couldn't pay for tuition.

That's how Iowa City helped me on the socio-economic side. But on the other side were my professors. I learned how to tell a story in their classes. It's true that those classes were on the film studies side rather than the literary side, but everything I know about narrative structure, writing dialogue and creating scenes I learned from watching and discussing movies with those guys.

And I will forever be a Hawkeye fan. I watch all the games I can.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at or 319-887-5435.

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