Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Winner of the John Gardner Award for Fiction “Hearken ye fellow misfits, migrants, outcasts, squint-eyed bibliophiles, library-haunters and book stall-stalkers: Here is a novel for you.”—Wall Street Journal“A tragicomic picaresque whose fervid logic and cerebral whimsy recall the work of Bolaño and Borges.” —New York Times Book ReviewLonglisted for the PEN/Open Book Award * An Amazon Best Book of the Year * A Publishers Weekly BestsellerNamed a Best Book by: Entertainment Weekly, Harper's Bazaar, Boston Globe, Fodor's, Fast Company, Refinery29,Nylon, Los Angeles Review of Books, Book Riot, The Millions, Electric Literature, Bitch, Hello Giggles, Literary Hub, Shondaland, Bustle, Brit & Co., Vol. 1 Brooklyn,Read It Forward,Entropy Magazine,Chicago Review of Books, iBooks and Publishers Weekly Zebra is the last in a line of anarchists, atheists, and autodidacts. Alone and in exile, she leaves New York for Barcelona, retracing the journey she and her father made from Iran to the United States years ago. Books are her only companions—until she meets Ludo. Their connection is magnetic, and fraught. They push and pull across the Mediterranean, wondering if their love—or lust—can free Zebra from her past. Starring a heroine as quirky as Don Quixote, as brilliant as Virginia Woolf, as worldly as Miranda July, and as spirited as Lady Bird, Call Me Zebra is “hilarious and poignant, painting a magnetic portrait of a young woman you can’t help but want to know more about” (Harper’s Bazaar).
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About the Author
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Prologue The Story of My Ill-Fated Origins Illiterates, Abecedarians, Elitists, Rodents all—I will tell you this: I, Zebra, born Bibi Abbas Abbas Hosseini on a scorching August day in 1982, am a descendent of a long line of self-taught men who repeatedly abandoned their capital, Tehran, where blood has been washed with blood for a hundred years, to take refuge in Nowshahr, in the languid, damp regions of Mazandaran. There, hemmed in by the rugged green slopes of the Elborz Mountains and surrounded by ample fields of rice, cotton, and tea, my forbearers pursued the life of the mind. There, too, I was born and lived the early part of my life. My father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini—multilingual translator of great and small works of literature, man with a thick mustache fashioned after Nietzsche’s—was in charge of my education. He taught me Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, English, Farsi, French, German. I was taught to know the languages of the oppressed and the oppressors because, according to my father, and to my father’s father, and to his father before that, the wheels of history are always turning and there is no knowing who will be run over next. I picked up languages the way some people pick up viruses. I was armed with literature. As a family, we possess a great deal of intelligence—a kind of superintellect—but we came into this world, one after the other, during the era when Nietzsche famously said that God is dead. We believe that death is the reason why we have always been so terribly shortchanged when it comes to luck. We are ill-fated, destined to wander in perpetual exile across a world hostile to our intelligence. In fact, possessing an agile intellect with literary overtones has only served to worsen our fate. But it is what we know and have. We are convinced that ink runs through our veins instead of blood. My father was educated by three generations of self-taught philosophers, poets, and painters: his father, Dalir Abbas Hosseini; his grandfather, Arman Abbas Hosseini; his great-grandfather, Shams Abbas Hosseini. Our family emblem, inspired by Sumerian seals of bygone days, consists of a clay cylinder engraved with three As framed within a circle; the As stand for our most treasured roles, listed here in order of importance: Autodidacts, Anarchists, Atheists. The following motto is engraved underneath the cylinder: In this false world, we guard our lives with our deaths. The motto also appears at the bottom of a still life of a mallard hung from a noose, completed by my great-great-grandfather, Shams Abbas Hosseini, in the aftermath of Iran’s failed Constitutional Revolution at the turn of the twentieth century. Upon finishing the painting, he pointed at it with his cane, nearly bludgeoning the mallard’s face with its tip and, his voice simultaneously crackling with disillusionment and fuming with rage, famously declared to his son, my great-grandfather, Arman Abbas Hosseini, “Death is coming, but we literati will remain as succulent as this wild duck!” This seemingly futile moment marked the beginning of our long journey toward nothingness, into the craggy pits of this measly universe. Generation after generation, our bodies have been coated with the dust of death. Our hearts have been extinguished, our lives leveled. We are weary, as thin as rakes, hacked into pieces. But we believe our duty is to persevere against a world hell-bent on eliminating the few who dare to sprout in the collective manure of degenerate humans. That’s where I come into the picture. I—astonished and amazed at the magnitude of the darkness that surrounds us—am the last in a long line of valiant thinkers. Upon my birth, the fifth of August 1982, and on its anniversary every year thereafter, as a rite of passage, my father, Abbas Abbas Hosseini, whispered a monologue titled “A Manifesto of Historical Time and the Corrected Philosophy of Iranian History: A Hosseini Secret” into my ear. I include it here, transcribed verbatim from memory.
Ill-omened child, I present you with the long and the short of our afflicted country, Iran: Supposed Land of the Aryans. In 550 BC, Cyrus the Great, King of the Four Corners of the World, brave and benevolent man, set out on a military campaign from the kingdom of Anshan in Parsa near the Gulf, site of the famous ruins of Persepolis, to conquer the Medes and the Lydians and the Babylonians. Darius and Xerxes the Great, his most famous successors, continued erecting the commodious empire their father had begun through the peaceful seizing of neighboring peoples. But just as facts are overtaken by other facts, all great rulers are eclipsed by their envious competitors. Search the world east to west, north to south; nowhere will you find a shortage of tyrants, all expertly trained to sniff out weak prey. Eventually, Cyrus the Great’s line of ruling progeny came to an end with Alexander the Great, virile youth whose legacy was, in turn, overshadowed by a long line of new conquerors, each of whom briefly took pleasure in the rubble of dynasties past. Every one of us in Iran is a hybrid individual best described as a residue of a composite of fallen empires. If you were to look at us collectively, you would see a voluble and troubled nation. Imagine a person with multiple heads and a corresponding number of arms and legs. How is such a person, one body composed of so many, supposed to conduct herself? She will spend a lifetime beating her heads against one another, lifting up one pair of her arms in order to strangle the head of another. We, the people—varied, troubled, heterogeneous—have been scrambling like cockroaches across this land for centuries without receiving so much as a nod from our diverse rulers. They have never looked at us; they have only ever looked in the mirror. What is the consequence of such disregard? An eternal return of uprisings followed by mass murder and suffocating repression. I could not say which of the two is worse. In the words of Yevgeny Zamyatin: Revolutions are infinite. By the twentieth century, the Persian empire’s frontiers had been hammered so far back that the demarcating boundary of our shrunken nation was bruised; it was black and blue! Every fool knows that in order to keep surviving that which expands has to contract. Just look at the human heart. My own, reduced to a stone upon the double deaths of my father and my father’s father, both murdered by our so-called leaders, is plump and fleshy again; your birth has sent fresh blood rushing through its corridors. Hear me, child: The details of the history of our nation are nothing but a useless inventory of facts unless they are used to illuminate the wretched nature of our universal condition. The core of the matter, the point of this notable monologue, is to expose the artful manipulation of historical time through the creation of false narratives rendered as truth and exercised by the world’s rulers with expert precision for hundreds of years. Think of our own leaders’ lies as exhibit A. Let us shuffle through them one by one. When the century was still young, our people attempted the Constitutional Revolution but failed. In time, that failure produced the infamous Reza Shah Pahlavi, who ruled the country with thuggery and intimidation. Years later, during the Second World War, Mr. Pahlavi was sent into exile by the British, those nosy and relentless chasers of money—those thieves, if we’re being honest. And what, child, do you think happened then? Pahlavi’s son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who was greener than a tree in summer, stepped up to the throne. Claiming to be the metaphysical descendent of the benevolent Cyrus the Great, the visionary Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, anointed himself the “King of Kings” and launched the White Revolution, a chain of reforms designed to yank the country’s citizens into modernity by hook or by crook.