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Rooftops of Tehran

Rooftops of Tehran

4.6 44
by Mahbod Seraji

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From "a striking new talent"(Sandra Dallas, author of Tallgrass) comes an unforgettable debut novel of young love and coming of age in an Iran headed toward revolution.

In this poignant, eye-opening and emotionally vivid novel, Mahbod Seraji lays bare the beauty and brutality of the centuries-old Persian culture, while reaffirming the human


From "a striking new talent"(Sandra Dallas, author of Tallgrass) comes an unforgettable debut novel of young love and coming of age in an Iran headed toward revolution.

In this poignant, eye-opening and emotionally vivid novel, Mahbod Seraji lays bare the beauty and brutality of the centuries-old Persian culture, while reaffirming the human experiences we all share.

In a middle-class neighborhood of Iran's sprawling capital city, 17-year-old Pasha Shahed spends the summer of 1973 on his rooftop with his best friend Ahmed, joking around one minute and asking burning questions about life the next. He also hides a secret love for his beautiful neighbor Zari, who has been betrothed since birth to another man. But the bliss of Pasha and Zari's stolen time together is shattered when Pasha unwittingly acts as a beacon for the Shah's secret police. The violent consequences awaken him to the reality of living under a powerful despot, and lead Zari to make a shocking choice...

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Set in 1970s Iran during the shah's regime, this earnest, semiautobiographical debut novel is told from the perspective of bookish 17-year-old Pasha Shahed, who, along with his best friend Ahmed, plays soccer, goofs off and thinks about girls. But Pasha pines for one girl in particular-his neighbor Zari, betrothed since birth to Pasha's mentor, the neighborhood radical, Ramin Sobhi, whom everyone calls Doctor. Over a summer Ahmed orchestrates daily meetups with his own beloved, Faheemeh, and includes Pasha and Zari. Despite knowing he shouldn't, Pasha falls in love with Zari. The idyllic summer comes to an end when Doctor is abducted and killed by SAVAK, the not-so-secret police. The effects of Doctor's death on Pasha and Zari are traumatic and lead each to acts of transgression with tragic results. The prose has the simplicity of a nonnative English speaker, which could be seen as clichéd ("treasure of love," "dark winter of my life") or charmingly romantic. Seraji captures the thoughts and emotions of a young boy and creates a moving portrait of the history and customs of the Persians and life in Iran during this period. (May)

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Seraji's wonderful coming-of-age story is at times funny and sweet as well as thought-provoking and heart-wrenching. A powerful tale of the universal longings of teenagers compounded by the horrors of tyranny.
Kirkus Reviews
A star-crossed romance captures the turmoil of pre-revolutionary Iran in Seraji's debut. From the rooftops of Tehran in 1973, life looks pretty good to 17-year-old Pasha Shahed and his friend Ahmed. They're bright, funny and good-looking; they're going to graduate from high school in a year; and they're in love with a couple of the neighborhood girls. But all is not idyllic. At first the girls scarcely know the boys are alive, and one of them, Zari, is engaged to Doctor-not actually a doctor but an exceptionally gifted and politically committed young Iranian. In this neighborhood, the Shah is a subject of contempt rather than veneration, and residents fear SAVAK, the state's secret police force, which operates without any restraint. Pasha, the novel's narrator and prime dreamer, focuses on two key periods in his life: the summer and fall of 1973, when his life is going rather well, and the winter of 1974, when he's incarcerated in a grim psychiatric hospital. Among the traumatic events he relates are the sudden arrest, imprisonment and presumed execution of Doctor. Pasha feels terrible because he fears he might have inadvertently been responsible for SAVAK having located Doctor's hiding place; he also feels guilty because he's always been in love with Zari. She makes a dramatic political statement, setting herself on fire and sending Pasha into emotional turmoil. He is both devastated and further worried when the irrepressible Ahmed also seems to come under suspicion for political activity. Pasha turns bitterly against religion, raising the question of God's existence in a world in which the bad guys seem so obviously in the ascendant. Yet the badly scarred Zari assures him, "Things willchange-they always do."Refreshingly filled with love rather than sex, this coming-of-age novel examines the human cost of political repression. Agent: Danielle Egan-Miller/Browne & Miller Literary Associates

Product Details

Center Point Large Print
Publication date:
Edition description:
Large Print Edition
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5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Winter of 1974
Roozbeh Psychiatric Hospital, Tehran

I hear someone's voice chanting, and the repetitive verses lap like water at the edge of my consciousness.

If I had a book, I would read it.
If I had a song, I would sing it.

I look around until I see an old man standing a few meters away chanting in a steady, empty tone. The place does not look familiar to me. The blue robe that covers my body, the wheelchair I am sitting in, the sunlight creeping between the shades that warms me—all feel strange.

If I knew a dance, I would dance it.
If I knew a rhyme, I would chant it.
If I had a life, I would risk it.
If I could be free, I would chance it.

Outside in the yard, men of all shapes and ages shuffle around in blue robes. There is something peculiar about each of them. They look lost.

Suddenly a surge of emotions fills my chest and rushes into my throat. A little nurse with a kind, full face that resembles an apple runs up to me and plants her hands on my shoulders and screams, "Help me out here, help me out!" A man in a white uniform runs over and tries to hold me down.

"Stay in your chair, honey. Stay in your chair," Apple Face shouts, which means I must be moving. I focus on sitting still, and look toward the old man on the far side of the room. He is gazing at me as he frantically repeats his mantra:

If I had a horse, I would ride it.
If I had a horse, I would ride it.
If I had a horse…

I am taken to a room with a bed, and Apple Face says, "I'm going to give you a sedative to make you feel better, darling."

I feel a pinch in my arm, and suddenly my head and arms become unbearably heavy and my eyes slide shut.


Summer of 1973

My Friends, My Family, and My Alley

Sleeping on the roof in the summer is customary in Tehran. The dry heat of the day cools after midnight, and those of us who sleep on the rooftops wake with the early sun on our faces and fresh air in our lungs. My mother is strictly against it, and reminds me each evening, "Hundreds of people fall off the roofs every year." My best friend, Ahmed, and I trade hidden smiles with each warning, then climb the stairs to spend our nights under stars that seem close enough to touch. The alley below settles into a patchwork of streetlight, shadow, and sound. A car hums slowly down the deserted street, cautious not to wake anyone, as a stray dog in the distance releases a string of officious barks.

"I hear your mother calling," Ahmed mumbles in the dark. I smile, aiming a good-natured kick that he easily rolls away from.

Our house is the tallest in the neighborhood, which makes our roof an ideal spot for stargazing. In fact, naming stars for our friends and the people we love is one of our favorite pastimes.

"Does everyone have a star?" Ahmed asks.

"Only good people."

"And the better you are the bigger your star, right?"

"Bigger and brighter," I say, as I do every time he asks the same question.

"And your star guides you when you're in trouble, right?"

"Your star and the stars of the people you love."

Ahmed closes one eye and lifts his thumb to block out one of the brighter stars. "I'm tired of looking at your big fat face."

"Shut up and go to sleep then," I say, laughing, letting my gaze relax into the velvety emptiness between each pinprick of light. My eyes travel down the sky until they rest on the familiar rise and fall of the Alborz Mountains, which serpentine between the desert and the blue-green Caspian Sea. I get distracted for a moment trying to decide if the darkness is black or so deeply blue that it just appears inky in comparison.

"I wonder why people are so unabashedly afraid of the dark," I ponder, and Ahmed chuckles. I know without asking that he is amused by my eccentric vocabulary, the product of a lifetime of heavy reading. My father pulled Ahmed and me aside one day and asked me, in front of family friends and relatives, what I thought life was about. I promptly said that life was a random series of beautifully composed vignettes, loosely tied together by a string of characters and time. My father's friends actually applauded, much to my embarrassment. Ahmed leaned over and whispered that I would soon be inaugurated as the oldest seventeen-year-old in the world, especially if I kept saying things like "unabashedly" and "beautifully composed vignettes."

Ahmed and I have just finished the eleventh grade and will be entering our last year of high school in the fall. I look forward to the end of preparatory school as much as the next seventeen-year-old, but this lively anticipation is tempered by my father's plans to send me to the United States to study civil engineering. Long ago, my father worked as a ranger, protecting the nationalized forests from poachers who cut down the trees illegally for personal profit. He now works in an office, managing an entire region with an army of rangers reporting to him.

"Iran is in dire need of engineers," Dad reminds me whenever he gets the chance. "We're on the verge of transforming ourselves from a traditional agricultural country to an industrial one. A person with an engineering degree from an American university secures a great future for himself and his family, in addition to enjoying the prestige of being called 'Mr. Engineer' for the rest of his life." I love my father, and I would never disobey him, but I hate math, I hate the idea of becoming an engineer, and I would hate being called Mr. Engineer. In my dreams I major in literature and study the philosophy of the ancient Greeks, evolution, Marxism, psychoanalysis, Erfan, and Buddhism. Or, I major in film and become a writer or a director, someone who has something worthwhile to say.

For now I live with my parents in a middle-class neighborhood. We have a typical Iranian house with a modest yard, a large guest room, and a hose—a small pool in the front yard. In our neighborhood, just like any other in Tehran, tall walls separate houses that have been built connected to each other. Our home has two full levels, and my room occupies a small section of the third floor, where a huge terrace is connected to the roof by a bulky mass of steel steps. Ours is the tallest house in the neighborhood, and has a southern exposure.

"I wouldn't live in a home with a northern exposure if it were given to me for free," my mother states repeatedly. "They never get any sun. They're a breeding ground for germs." My mother never finished high school, yet she speaks about health issues with the authority of a Harvard graduate. She has a remedy for every ailment: herbal tea to cure depression, liquidated camel thorns to smash kidney stones, powdered flowers to annihilate sinus infections, dried leaves that destroy acne, and pills for growing as tall as a tree—despite the fact that she stands an impressive five feet tall in stocking feet.

The peace of each summer night fades with the noises of families starting their day, and our alley bustles with kids of all ages. Boys shout and scuffle as they chase cheap plastic soccer balls, while girls go from house to house, doing what girls do together. Women congregate in different parts of the alley, making it easy to tell who likes whom by the way they assemble. Ahmed has divided these gatherings into three groups: the east, west, and central gossip committees.

Ahmed is a tall skinny kid with dark features and a brilliant smile. His strong but slender body, bold, broad jaw, and bright hazel eyes make him the picture of health, according to my mother's expert opinion. He's well liked in the neighborhood, and funny. I tell him he could become a great comedian if he took his God-given talent more seriously.

"Yes, more seriously," he replies. "I can become the most serious clown in the country!"

I've known Ahmed since I was twelve years old, when my family first moved to the neighborhood. We met for the first time at school when three bullies were beating me up. All the other kids stood by and watched, but Ahmed rushed to my aid. The boys were tall, big, and ugly, and despite our heroic attempts we both took a beating.

"I'm Pasha," I introduced myself after the fight.

Ahmed smiled and reached over for a handshake. "What was the fight about?" he asked.

I laughed. "You didn't know? Why did you help me?"

"Three to one! I have a problem with that. Of course, I knew they'd still take us, but at least it wasn't as unfair as three guys thrashing one."

I knew right then that Ahmed was going to be my best friend forever. His gallantry and upbeat attitude won me over instantly. The experience bound us together and prompted my father, an exheavyweight boxing champion, to start teaching us how to box—much to my mother's dismay.

"You're going to make them violent," she would complain to my unsympathetic father. To make things right, every night after dinner she would hold out a glass of amber liquid that smelled like horse urine on a hot summer day. "This will reverse what your father is doing to your temper," she assured me, while forcing me to drink the nauseating brew.

I loved boxing, but my mother's remedy nearly drove me to quit.

After a few months of training, as our punches became crisp—short and quick, but heavy when they needed to be—I began to ache for a rematch with the three bullies at school. My father overheard our plans for revenge and intervened.

"Sit down, Mr. Pasha," he said one day after practice. Then he pointed to Ahmed. "Would you join us, please?"

"Of course, Mr. Shahed," Ahmed responded, and as he was sitting next to me, he whispered, "I think we're in trouble, Mr. Pasha!"

"When one learns how to box," Dad started thoughtfully, "he joins the fraternity of athletes who never raise a hand against people weaker than themselves."

My mother stopped what she had been doing and walked up to stand sternly next to my father.

"But, Dad, if we don't beat up people weaker than ourselves, who do we beat up?" I asked, stunned. "And wouldn't it be dumb to pick on people stronger than ourselves anyway?"

Dad was doing his best not to look at Mom, who was staring at him like a tiger checking out a deer right before the final, fateful dash.

"I taught you how to box so you could defend yourself," he mumbled. "I don't want you to go looking for a fight."

Ahmed and I couldn't believe what we were hearing.

"I want you to promise me that you will always respect the code of our fraternity," my father insisted.

We must have been slow to react.

"I want you to promise," he repeated, his voice rising.

And so Ahmed and I grudgingly joined the fraternity of athletes who never beat up bullies who break the faces of kids weaker than themselves. At the time, of course, we had no idea that such a fraternity never existed.

"Iraj is lucky your dad made us promise," Ahmed says later, making us both laugh.

Iraj is a small, scruffy kid with a long pointed nose whose sunburned features make him look Indian. He's smart, has the best grades in our school, and loves physics and mathematics, the two subjects I hate most.

I am convinced Iraj likes Ahmed's oldest sister, because he can't keep his eyes off her when she is in the alley. Everyone knows you don't fancy a friend's sister, as if she were a girl from another neighborhood. If I were Ahmed and caught Iraj checking out my sister, I'd kick the shit out of him. But I'm not Ahmed. "Hey," he'll shout, trying hard not to smile when he startles Iraj, "stop looking at her or I'll break my pledge to the sacred brotherhood of the boxing fraternity."

"Sacred brotherhood of the boxing fraternity?" I whisper under my breath with a smile. "Brotherhood and fraternity mean the same thing. You shouldn't use them in the same sentence."

"Oh, you shut up." Ahmed laughs.

Iraj is the chess champion of our neighborhood. He is so good that no one is willing to play against him anymore. When we play soccer in the alley, Iraj plays chess against himself.

"Who's winning?" Ahmed asks with a smirk. Iraj ignores him. "Have you ever beaten yourself?" Ahmed asks. "You could, you know—if you weren't so fucking preoccupied with my sister."

"I'm not preoccupied with your sister," Iraj mumbles, rolling his eyes.

"Right," Ahmed replies, nodding. "If you have any trouble beating yourself, let me know and I'll be happy to do it for you."

"You know," I tease, "I used to get mad at him for looking at your sister, but it might not be so bad to have a chess champion as a brother-in-law."

"Bite your tongue," Ahmed growls, "or I'll raid your mother's pantry to mix you a special brew that will grow hair on your tongue."

The threat has some weight, considering the way my mother has applied her unique brand of knowledge and listened to her gut to diagnose me as an extreme introvert.

"Do you know what happens to people who keep everything to themselves?" she asks, not waiting for my answer. "They get sick." When I object that I'm not an introvert, she reminds me of the time I was four years old and fell down the steps. My two aunts, two uncles, and grandparents were visiting us that day, and my mother estimated that watching me tumble down two flights of stairs nearly caused two heart attacks, three strokes, and a handful of small ulcers.

"You broke your shin in three places!" she chides. "The doctor said he'd seen grown men cry after a break like that, but not you. Do you know what that kind of stress does to your body?"

"No," I say.

"It causes cancer."

Then she spits three times to atone for the thought.

In order to cure my introversion, she insists I drink a dusky concoction that looks and smells like used motor oil. I complain that her remedy tastes horrible, and she tells me to be quiet and stop whining.

"I thought this potion was to bring me out of my shell," I remind her.

"Hush," she orders, "whining doesn't count. If you want to be successful in life you must force yourself to be an extrovert," she explains. "Introverts end up as lonely poets or destitute writers."

"So," Ahmed ponders one day, "the engine oil makes you an extrovert, and the horse urine helps you crawl back into your shell." He shakes his head in empathy. "You are going to be one fucked-up person by the time your mother gets done with you."


What People are Saying About This

Gail Tsukiyama
"Rooftops of Tehran is a richly rendered first novel about courage, sacrifice, and the bonds of friendship and love. In clear, vivid details, Mahbod Seraji opens the door to the fascinating world of Iran and provides a revealing glimpse into the life and customs of a country on the verge of a revolution. A captivating read."--(Gail Tsukiyama, Author of The Street of a Thousand Blossoms and The Samurai's Garden)
Sandra Dallas
"In his haunting debut novel, Mahbod Seraji brings humor and humanity to a story of secret love in the brutal last days of the Shah. Set against the background of repression that launched the Iranian revolution, Pasha's and Zari's story shows that love and hope among the young thrive even in the most oppressive of times. Seraji is a striking new talent."--(Sandra Dallas, author of Tallgrass)
Susanne Pari
"Beyond being a bittersweet love story, Rooftops of Tehran is a story of Community. No reader will be unfamiliar to the situation of the alley--the neighborhood--where these characters are united and bound together by history, ritual, grief, respect, and by the bond of protection that arises under the brutality of an oppressive government. Rooftops of Tehran takes an uncommon and refreshing view of Iran and reveals how an American immigrant is born out of a young foreigner's desperation for self-determination and social freedom."--(Susanne Pari, author of The Fortune Catcher)
John Shors
"A stirring story about the loss of innocence, Rooftops of Tehran reveals a side of Iran understood by few Westerners. An ambitious first novel-full of humor, originality, and meaning."--(John Shors, author of Beneath a Marble Sky)
Nahid Mozaffari
"Rooftops of Tehran evoked many memories, along with tears and smiles, of starry nights on rooftops, long lost loves, and intense, passionate feelings of anger at the injustices . . . of the Pahlavi regime."--(Nahid Mozaffari, editor of Strange Times, My Dear: The PEN Anthology of Contemporary Iranian Literature)

Meet the Author

Mahbod Seraji was born in Iran, and came to the United States in the 1970s.

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Rooftops of Tehran 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 43 reviews.
sa09 More than 1 year ago
This book was filled with the mysteries of daily life and the difficulties of the Iranian peoples. From two lovesick young teens to young men wanting love they can't share with the women they want, to the heartbreak of mysterious death and disappearing life as they know it. Would love to read another novel this author releases; very descriptive, moving and thoroughly enjoyable. A DEFINITE read for book clubs!
BookFanatic132 More than 1 year ago
The blurb pretty much sums this whole book up. We have Pasha Shahed, who is a normal teenager like most people have been. He spends his summer on the rooftop and he's enjoying life. But one thing will change his life forever: love. Not only does Pasha's love with Zari have an impact on him, it has an impact on everyone around him. Pasha grows up and matures throughout the book—he's no longer blind to the things going around him. He loves deeply and truly, and he also cares a lot for the people around him. He has moments where he doubts the things he's been taught, his religion, and many things like that. That's what made this book so realistic. This book is truly a coming-of-age novel—and a really good one at that. Zari, in my eyes, is brave as she is reckless. Her decision was an act that in order to commit it, one had to be brave. But she also had to pay for her actions, which affected other people besides her. I'm not sure if she thought that part through, but then she, in a way, opened other people's eyes to the things she say. I hold a lot of respect for Zari. This book is powerful. Just as Zari's choice opened Pasha's eyes, it opened my eyes to a lot of the problems people around the world face and though some of them aren't in the USA, we should still know about them. Rooftops of Tehran brought out dozens of emotions. While reading this book, I cried. When I finished this book, I cried. The ending left me wanting for more. I truly hope there is a sequel, but if there's not I'm content with how the book ended. It ended perfectly for a stand-alone book, but also for the book that has a sequel. Either way, this book is a great book that teaches great life lessons and is a heartwarming as well as heartbreaking story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was really fond of this book and loved how I was able to see how life was during the Shah's dictatorship. It really opened my eyes, many of my Iranian friends still feel like it's the same today. Thank you for this wonderful book and I recommend it to all that is curious about Iran.
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sassypickle More than 1 year ago
Mr. Seraji tells a passionate yet sad and heartbreaking tale about teens approaching adulthood in Iran. Captivating story with a twist at the end. Hopefully there will be a sequel.
Lucia Andrade More than 1 year ago
The best book ever written, simply put.
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TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
Set in the summer of 1973, 17-year-old Pasha Shashed spends most of his summer on the rooftops with Ahmed, his best friend. They joke around and talk about the future, life, and love. Crushing on Zari, the betrothed of his mentor, the neighborhood radical, Ramin Sobhi. Torn between his feelings for Zari and his loyalty to Ramin, he feels guilty over their friendship, but can't resist spending time with her. Pasha's life comes crashing down, however, when the Shah's secret police take away Ramin and kill him. Forced to grow up fast and come to terms with his feelings for Zari, his country's ruler, and his connection to his dead friend, summers will never be the same for Pasha ever again. A touching, endearing story about coming of age and falling in love. The characters are well-developed and believable. The plot is hard-hitting and well-done. Readers everywhere will relate to this novel of discovering one's self. Readers who like more modern historical fiction, stories from other countries, and semi-autobiographical novels will enjoy reading ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MB-Loves-to-read More than 1 year ago
An easy read and very current even though it was set in the 70's. Found it thought provoking as the characters exbited different personalities then one would imagine. It's refreshing to read a book that provides a different understanding of an unknown culture.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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crimekitty763 More than 1 year ago
This book reminded me of THE KITE RUNNER. It is the story of teenagers growing up in Tehran and the difficulties they had to face. It was written during the overthrow of the Shah and the turbulence that followed. If you enjoy stories of other cultures, this is a book you should read. I highly recommend it.
Elsie_Brooks More than 1 year ago
In Rooftops of Tehran, Mahbod Seraji masterfully weaves Pasha's coming of age story into the instability of Iran's political climate. Seraji's language and vivid descriptions immediately transport his reader to Tehran as it was in the early 1970s. He allows the reader to understand how politics, culture, education, and religion interplay in the decisions young adults make, while focusing on the constants in their lives: family, friendship, and school. Seraji holds no punches in describing the prevalence of Iranian hostility toward and suspicion of the United States. At the same time, Pasha's parents are encouraging him to study engineering in the US to bring change and advancement to Iran upon completion of his studies. Further, Pasha relates incidents in his life to those in American movies and gives much thought to western attitudes toward romance and marriage. Rooftops of Tehran is a beautiful coming of age story with a good balance of philosophy, religion, and politics. This novel is an ideal work to discuss in book groups or a liberal studies curriculum.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was easily one of the best romance stories I've ever read. The characters were relateable and entirely unique, the plot gripping and shocking; the type of book you can read for hours without realizing any time has passed. It gives fascinating insights into Iran's culture and was, overall, unforgettable. However, two warnings: 1. Be ready to cry 2. This is not a book for younger readers, as it is filled with cursing and crude humor. All the same, this is a story we all need to read.
SuperMomof4 More than 1 year ago
"The Rooftops of Tehran" was a well-written glimpse into Iran in the 1970's. The story was beautiful and the characters were quite memorable. There is much to admire about this debut novel by Mahbod Seraji and it provides a great deal to ponder. I picked this novel up to share with my teens (it was listed on a teen summer reading list); however, I will not pass the book along to them because of certain parts of the book that were not appropriate for adolescents. The book would have been much better had the gratuitous profanity and explicit discussions of masturbation and homosexual child abuse been omitted. Overall, I liked "The Rooftops of Tehran" and look forward to other works by this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago