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Aga Akbar, the youngest of seven children and the illegitimate son of a Persian nobleman, is a deaf-mute. He makes use of a rudimentary sign language to get by in the world, but his deepest thoughts and feelings go unexpressed. Hoping to free the boy from his emotional confinement, his uncle asks him to visit a cave on nearby Saffron Mountain and to copy a three-thousand-year-old cuneiform inscription — an order of the first king of Persia and the destination of many pilgrimages. Through the rest of his life, Aga...
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Aga Akbar, the youngest of seven children and the illegitimate son of a Persian nobleman, is a deaf-mute. He makes use of a rudimentary sign language to get by in the world, but his deepest thoughts and feelings go unexpressed. Hoping to free the boy from his emotional confinement, his uncle asks him to visit a cave on nearby Saffron Mountain and to copy a three-thousand-year-old cuneiform inscription — an order of the first king of Persia and the destination of many pilgrimages. Through the rest of his life, Aga Akbar uses these cuneiform characters to fill his notebook with writings only he can understand.
Years later, his political-dissident son, Ishmael, has been forced to flee Iran. From his new home in the Netherlands, he attempts to translate the notebook, and in the process he tells his father's story, his own story, and the story of twentieth-century Iran — from the building of the first railroad to the struggles for power among the shah, the communists, and the mullahs, and ending with the revolution.
Rich in the myths of Persia and peopled with characters of rare archetypal power, this stunning and ambitious novel by Kader Abdolah masterfully charts a culture's troubled voyage into modernity. Just as poignantly, it is a magnificent, timeless tale of a son's love for his father.
From Amsterdam it takes a good five hours to fly to Tehran. Then you have to travel another four and a half hours by train to see the magical mountains of the city of Senejan loom up, like an age-old secret, before your eyes.
Senejan itself is not beautiful and has no history to speak of.
In the autumn an icy wind whips through the streets, and the snowy mountaintops form a never-changing backdrop.
Senejan has no special foods or products. And since the Shirpala River has dried up, the children play in the riverbed to their hearts' content. The mothers keep a watchful eye on them throughout the day to make sure no strangers lure them into the hollows.
The city's only poet of significance -- long since dead -- once wrote a poem about Senejan. It's about the wind that carries the sand in from the desert and deposits it on the inhabitants' heads:
Oh wind, oh wind, alas there's sand in my eyes,
Oh my heart, oh my heart, half-filled with sand.
Alas, there's a tiny grain of sand on her lip.
Sand in my eyes, and oh God, her rosy lips.
The rest of the poem goes on in much the same vein.
Whenever a poetry reading was held in one of the buildings in the old bazaar, it was bound to be attended by old men rhyming about the mountains. Their favorite topic was an ancient cuneiform relief that dated back to the time of the Sassanids.
An Anthony Quinn movie about Muhammad was once shown in Senejan. It was quite an event. Thousands of country bumpkins who didn't know what a movie theater was rode their mules through the mountains to stare in wonder at Muhammad, Messenger of God.
Hundreds of mules were tethered in the marketplace. The authorities were beside themselves. For three months the doors of the movie theater were open night and day, while the mules ate hay from the municipal troughs.
Although Senejan didn't figure prominently in the nation's history, the surrounding villages did. They brought forth men who made history. One of these was a great poet, Qa'em Maqam Farahani, whose poetry everyone knows by heart:
Khoda-ya, rast guyand fetna az to-ast
wali az tars na-tavanam chegidan
lab-o dandan-e torkan-e Khata-ra
beh een khubi na bayad afaridan.
Though I would never dare to say it aloud, God,
The truth is that You are a mischief-maker,
Or You would not have made the lips and teeth
Of the Khata women as beautiful as they are.
The girls born in these villages make the most beautiful Persian carpets. Magic carpets you can fly on. Really fly on. This is where the famous magic carpets come from.
Aga Akbar was not born in Senejan, but in one of these villages. In Jirya. A village covered with almond blossoms in the spring and with almonds in the fall.
Aga Akbar was born a deaf-mute. The family, especially his mother, communicated with him in a simple sign language. A language that consisted of about a hundred signs. A language that worked best at home, with the family, though the neighbors also understood it to some extent. But the power of that language manifested itself most in the communication between Mother and Aga, and later between Aga and Ishmael.
Aga Akbar knew nothing of the world at large, though he did understand simple concepts. He knew that the sun shone and made him feel warm, but he didn't know, for example, that the sun was a ball of fire. Nor did he realize that without the sun there would be no life. Or that the sun would one day go out forever, like a lamp that had run out of oil.
He didn't understand why the moon was small, then gradually got bigger. He knew nothing about gravity, had never heard of Archimedes. He had no way of knowing that the Persian language consists of thirty-two letters: alef, beh, peh, teh, seh, jeem, cheh, heh, kheh, daal, zaal, reh, zeh, zheh, seen, sheen, sad, zad, taa, zaa, eyn, gheyn, faa, qaf, kaf, gaf, lam, meen, noon, vaav, haa, and ye. The peh as in perestow (swallow), the kheh as in khorma (date), the taa as in talebi (melon), and the eyn as in eshq (love).
His world was the world of his past, of things that had happened to him, of things he had learned, of his memories. Weeks, months, and years were a mystery to him. When, for example, had he first seen that strange object in the sky? Time meant nothing to him.
Aga Akbar's village was remote. Very little went on in Jirya. There wasn't a trace of the modern world: no bicycles, no sewing machines.
One day, when Aga Akbar was a little boy, he was standing in a grassy meadow helping his brother, who was a shepherd, tend a flock of sheep. Suddenly their dog leapt onto a rock and stared upwards.
It was the first time a plane had flown over the village. It may, in fact, have been the very first plane to fly over Persian airspace.
Later those silver objects appeared above the village often. The children then raced up to the roofs and chanted in unison:
Hey, odd-looking iron bird,
come sit in our almond tree
and perch in our village square.
"What are they chanting?" young Aga Akbar asked his mother.
"They're asking the iron bird to come sit in the tree."
"But it can't."
"Yes, they know that, but they're imagining it can."
"What does 'imagining' mean?"
"Just thinking. In their minds they see the iron bird sitting in the tree."
Aga Akbar knew that when his mother couldn't explain something, he should stop asking questions and simply accept it.
One day, when he was six or seven, his mother hid behind a tree and pointed to a man on a horse -- a nobleman with a rifle slung over his shoulder.
Excerpted from My Father's Notebook by Kader Abdolah Copyright © 2006 by Kader Abdolah. Excerpted by permission.
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