The Immortals of Tehran

The Immortals of Tehran

by Ali Araghi


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“A highly recommended literary page-turner worth a second reading; fans of Gabriel García Márquez will delight in this fantastical—and fantastic novel.”Library Journal, starred review

"Impactful . . .  Araghi’s skillful combination of revolutionary politics and magical realism will please fans of Alejo Carpentier."Publishers Weekly

A sweeping, multigenerational epic, this stunning debut heralds the arrival of a unique new literary voice.

As a child living in his family's apple orchard, Ahmad Torkash-Vand treasures his great-great-great-great grandfather's every mesmerizing word. On the day of his father's death, Ahmad listens closely as the seemingly immortal elder tells him the tale of a centuries-old family curse . . . and the boy's own fated role in the story.

Ahmad grows up to suspect that something must be interfering with his family, as he struggles to hold them together through decades of famine, loss, and political turmoil in Iran. As the world transforms around him, each turn of Ahmad's life is a surprise: from street brawler, to father of two unusually gifted daughters; from radical poet, to politician with a target on his back. These lives, and the many unforgettable stories alongside his, converge and catch fire at the center of the Revolution.

Exploring the brutality of history while conjuring the astonishment of magical realism, The Immortals of Tehran is a novel about the incantatory power of words and the revolutionary sparks of love, family, and poetry—set against the indifferent, relentless march of time.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612198187
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 04/07/2020
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 1,171,555
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Ali Araghi is an Iranian writer and translator. He won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing and has published stories and translations in Prairie Schooner, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Asymptote, and Hayden's Ferry Review, among others. He lives in St. Louis.

Read an Excerpt

AHMAD WAS A TEN-YEAR-OLD BOY when he was a ten-year-old boy. Never would he have thought, as he played tag with his childhood friends in the village of Tajrish, that he would one day watch his best friend’s father bite off a dead cat’s ear. Ahmad could not have foreseen that he would one day work in a forge, pounding white-hot iron with a heavy hammer. His childhood imagination could never have pictured the trains that sped through tunnels under the big city, in which one grasped for a hanging strap. In short, Ahmad Torkash-Vand could not have fathomed that the fog that shrouded the village that early summer morning would change the course of their history.

On Ahmad’s sister’s wedding day, the morning fog descended the mountains as if some god had summoned it from the far seas. Many in the village had been in preparations since the marriage was announced by Ahmad’s father one month before. On the Day of the Fog, as it would later be called by those who decided to stay, a knocking woke Ahmad from his sleep. The sound traveled, jerky and anxious, from the front door, across the yard, into the house, along the hallway, and into Ahmad’s bedroom. For a few seconds he thought he had heard the rap in his dreams. His eyes were closing again when the repeated pounding yanked him out of sleep. He sat up remembering his sister’s wedding. His mother had told him the night before that she would leave for the Orchard with the women from the neighboring houses shortly after dawn to prepare for the ceremony. She had asked him to let the chickens out of the coop, scatter some feed, and not forget to get them back in before leaving for the Orchard. That was his only chore for the morning.

The house was quiet. “Mom!” Ahmad called out toward his closed door. He sprang up from his sleeping pad on the floor to look out the window. Behind the white lace curtain, a fog had fallen so dense he could barely make out anything in the courtyard. With its chain-link fence lost in white, the coop was no more than the ghost of a large cage with blurry wooden posts. The blue hoez that reflected the overhanging elm branches in its calm water every morning had dimmed into an unidentifiable dark patch. Ahmad heard the nervous knocking again and this time Salman’s voice came with it: “Ahmaaaad!” Ahmad was not unfamiliar with Salman’s banging on the door, which often meant play time out in the dirt alleys or outside the village on the mountain trails, shooting pebbles at sparrows with slingshots. But his friend had never come so early in the morning, when it was time to prepare fresh meat for the customers and he had to lend a hand at the butchery. In response to Salman’s shout, the rooster, Ahmad’s favorite in the coop, cried out a hoarse ghoo-ghooli-ghoo-ghoooooo.

“Coming,” Ahmad shouted as he stepped onto the wide veranda that overlooked the courtyard. The fog was the thickest Ahmad had ever walked into. If he had not already known where the hoez, the flower beds, the coop, and the cauldrons were, he would have lost his way in the limbo of the large yard. “Ahmad, hurry! It’s your father.” Suddenly the fog seeped into Ahmad’s chest. From the pile of shoes and slippers, he threw on the first pair he could find, ran down the four steps into the courtyard, and sprinted to the front door. Salman was restlessly shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Worry shot from his eyes. Without a word, he started running. Ahmad ran after him, along alleys in which fog flowed like a river toward a white sea. In front of him, Salman was a ghost, only half-visible, partially dissolved. Ahmad had to exert himself to catch up with his swift-footed friend lest the fog eat him altogether. He kicked off his slippers. The only sounds were their steps on the ground, and their panting. The rest of the world had gone. Ahmad tried to think what might have happened to his father. He followed Salman around a corner and came to the open area in front of the mosque where a murmuring crowd had gathered. The people close to the entrance were more visible while the ones on the periphery blended into white.

“Here comes his son,” someone shouted. The people Ahmad could see turned their heads toward him as the crowd parted to let him through. Both metal doors of the mosque were flung open. Usually only one door was used; the second was unlatched only for funerals, marriages, and ceremonies. Surrounded by the onlookers and standing taller than them all, Mulla Ali was waiting close to the door. It was the first time Ahmad had seen the mulla without his white turban. The man’s sparse gray hair was in disarray, as if he had run his hand through it in different directions. He had draped his black cloak over his shoulders without changing out of his striped cream pajamas and white undershirt. Inside the mosque, a few men stood facing the small door in the corridor that opened into the stairwell inside the minaret. The turquoise tiles of the minaret faded into the milky haze before Ahmad could see what was happening up at the crown.

“Come down, Nosser,” Nemat the Barber shouted up. “Don’t do this to the House of God.” Ahmad felt a hole open in his stomach down which his insides tumbled in an endless fall. It was his father Nemat was calling. The muffled sound of metal hitting something nonmetal was the only reply from the top of the minaret. “Step back! Step back!” shouted one of the men standing inside. Some ran out and others dashed farther into the mosque before something rumbled in the minaret and large chunks of broken brick shot out of the stairwell at the bottom. A flowerpot broke. Ahmad looked around at the faces he saw every day: the grocer; the bathhouse keeper; Mohammad the Carpenter; the baker; Salman’s father, Mash Akbar—a short man with a big stomach—and everyone else. It was hard to make out the faces of the women who were sitting—mostly in white chadors, camouflaged by the fog—on the rooftops witnessing the incident. He could not tell if his mother was among them. Why would she be watching and doing nothing? Salman’s father limped over to him and rested a hand on his shoulder. “What’s my father doing, Mash Akbar?” Ahmad asked, but before Mash Akbar could answer, there was a gunshot from the top of the minaret: a shot into the fog. Everyone looked up in sudden agitation, although nothing could be seen. Ahmad was afraid. A second shot was fired. Salman covered his ears. Ahmad, too, put his hands on his ears and took shelter behind Mash Akbar.

Mulla Ali combed his black-and-white beard with his long, bony fingers and looked up at the top of the minaret. “Nosser Khan, come down!” he shouted. “There are no Russians in the sky.” Another shot followed. A man stood next to Nemat the Barber with a sheet tied around his neck, half his head shaved clean and the other half covered in lather. Ahmad had seen him before, but did not know his name. Word had it he once loved a girl who broke his heart by running off with someone else. Now the man lived in a shack in the mountains and came down to Tajrish only to buy necessities, sell wild rhubarb, and shave his head. Nemat the Barber grabbed the man by the arm. “Let’s go,” he said, pulling gently. “Let’s go finish you. The man’s gone cuckoo again.” This he said looking at Ahmad, as if the ballyhoo was the boy’s fault. Ahmad kept his ears covered.

There was another gunshot, and more brick came rolling down the spiral stairwell of the minaret.

“Nosser Khan,” shouted Mulla Ali, “your son is here. Can you hear me? Ahmad is here.”

Nosser was looking for trouble again; that was what Ahmad’s grandfather, Amin-olla Khan, would have said. Khan had certainly not yet heard what was happening, or else he would already be at the mosque to right things.

“Khan” was what they called Ahmad’s grandfather. He was not considered the chief of the village, but he had the village in his pocket. He was the owner of several apple orchards in Tajrish and the surrounding villages, in the foot of the Alborz mountain range, north of Tehran. In recent years he had purchased even more land and orchards in the eastern area of Damavand, and it was through his enterprises that years later, the Damavand apple became the most popular variety in the capital city of Tehran, synonymous with quality and taste.


MULLA ALI PLACED HIS HANDS on Ahmad’s shoulders and pushed him gently forward. “Nosser,” he shouted into the white above, “can you see Ahmad? He’s here, right here with me! Don’t bring God’s wrath upon the people. Don’t do this to the House of God. For the sake of your son.” A heavy silence fell upon the crowd who looked up into the fog listening for a reply. Crows cawed somewhere deep in the white murk from their perches atop plane trees. Sparrows chirped their morning songs. “Nosser Khan!” shouted Mash Akbar, Salman’s father. “Nosser Khan, can you hear us?” Ahmad slowly removed his hands from his ears. “Nosser Khan!” The crows stopped their baleful shrieks and now it was only the song of the sparrows piercing the shroud of the fog that had enveloped Tajrish and its people. Ahmad turned at the sound of footsteps to see his mother rushing toward them. He wiggled out of Mulla’s hands and ran to her.

“What’s your father doing?” Pooran whispered as she approached the edge of the crowd.

“He’s shooting flying Russians,” Ahmad answered, squeezing his mother’s chador in his fist.

“What?” she turned her eyes to the crowd as if, not believing Ahmad, she was looking to see what was really happening.

“I got up and I was going to feed the chickens and come help you. But Salman knocked and we ran here. Father is up there at the top of the minaret. He’s hunting the Russians, and Nemat said we are crazy. Father is fine, right?”

“God willing, son, God willing.”

“Nosser Khan,” shouted Salman’s father, “your wife is here, too. Come down. Nosser, can you hear me?” But no human sound seemed able to descend from the invisible top. The sparrows had become silent too and now Ahmad could even hear the wheezy breathing of Mohammad the Carpenter, who had tilted his large head back and looked up into the fog with an open mouth. Sweat slid from his temple down his round, fleshy cheek. Time had stopped. The villagers had turned into stone figures in a hushed apocalypse. Then Nosser’s voice blasted from the heart of the fog:

“Send the boy up.”

Faces turned to Ahmad. He looked at his mother.

“God bless your father, Mr. Nosser,” shouted Mulla Ali toward the minaret. “May your family live long. He’s coming right up to you now. Just put the pickax down and don’t throw any more bricks, Nosser Khan. All right? We don’t want the boy hurt, do we?” Ahmad’s mother gave him a soft tap on the back meaning, Go to your father. Everything is going to be all right. Mulla Ali accompanied him through the crowd. “He is at the foot of the stairs, Mr. Nosser.” The door was open wide. It was a small, old, wooden door leading to a dark and narrow spiral stairwell that went up as if to a white hell in the sky. A broken lock lay on the floor. “Go, go.” Mulla Ali pushed Ahmad in.

The jagged triangular steps curled around the inside of the minaret toward the crown. Ahmad wanted to hurry, but he had to place each foot carefully, avoiding the fallen chunks of brick. He ran, a groping hand on the wall, but the blackened plaster provided nothing to hold on to. Small openings in the wall allowed the softened morning light to penetrate the darkness. If the openings had been lower, Ahmad could at least peek down at the people, but all he could see now was the fog.

“Who is that?” his father barked from above. “Who’s coming up? I have bricks. I’ll throw. Who is there?”

“It’s me.”


“Yes, Father.”

“Come on up here, son,” he snapped. “Quick.”

As Ahmad hurried up, each step more covered by dust and pieces of brick, he began to hear his father’s hoarse breathing. A few more steps and there he was, sitting on the stairs. Behind him on higher steps lay his leather boots and the pickax he had used to pry out bricks. Ahmad looked at the pockmarked wall, then at his father’s rifle sticking out of the opening in the wall. The stock rested in his strong arms like a baby. The soft light from the opening lit the left side of his face. Deep wrinkles burrowed his dusty, sweaty forehead. He looked more like Grandfather. But Khan was old. Nosser was not.

“There you are,” he said, his voice rasping, his eyes fixed on Ahmad with an unwavering intensity. “Where have you been?”

“I was down there,” Ahmad replied, “with the others.”

“Are you afraid?”

Ahmad was not sure what to answer.

“I said are you afraid?”

Ahmad shook his head.

“Then hold up your head and let me hear your voice. Are you afraid?”

“No, Father, no.”

Nosser rolled over to look out the opening and a button popped off his shirt, bounced off the step where Ahmad was standing, and landed on the one below it. Ahmad fished the button from dust and debris. In the palm of his hand, it reflected the subdued white of the fog outside, as if it were pearl. Ahmad looked at his father’s shirt. The dark-brown pinstripes cascaded and surged like waves. “Is your mother there, too?” Nosser asked, squinting down into the fog.


Nosser placed his cheek on the rifle and tilted it up. “They’re there,” he said with an eye closed. “Are you listening to me?”

“Yes, Father.”

“Who’s up there, if you are listening?”

Nosser had not said who was up there. Ahmad threw a furtive look out the opening from where he was standing: nothing was there but the milky sky. “Russians?” he mumbled.

“Yes!” Nosser roared with excitement as he turned to face his son. “Yes, boy, yes! They’re up there spying on us. Of course. Why not? It’s a war. Isn’t it a war?” He paused for a second. “Is it not?”

“Yes, it is, Father,” Ahmad said, slipping the button into his pants pocket.

“Listen, Ahmad,” he lowered his voice as he leaned forward and grabbed the boy’s shoulders in a firm grip. “Listen, Ahmad, they’re going to come, put their filthy boots on our soil. From the North. Maybe others, too. They’re here to make us a war country. I don’t have much time left. But you have a lot of time. As much as you wish. You’re still a little boy. I want you to be watchful. Keep an eye on land and sky. Do you understand?” Ahmad did not remember having seen white strands in his father’s beard before. He had aged overnight. His cheeks were sunken and the black rings made the sparks in his eyes menacing. For an instant, Ahmad thought he was talking to a stranger. But the voice was familiar. “Do you understand what I’m saying?” Ahmad nodded, not sure what his father was talking about. “Good. Now there’s one thing I need to tell you. Here.” He lifted the rifle and nested it in Ahmad’s arms. “This is like a baby. You have to hold it in your arms very carefully; tightly but gently. Like a baby. You have to take care of it.” He took Ahmad’s hand and placed it on the rifle. “And you know why?”

“Mr. Nosser, yo!” Mulla Ali’s voice came from the foot of the stairwell. “How is the boy? Are you coming down? Can you send him down?”

Nosser looked around and picked up half a brick behind him. “Step aside,” he ordered Ahmad and hurled it down the stairs. The brick ricocheted off the wall, tore a chunk off of the plaster, and disappeared into the darkness.

“You know why this is happening?” Nosser pulled Ahmad back in front of him. “Because the world is in a war. A big war. It isn’t only us, it’s the whole world, and the second time, too. It’s been going on for years and now it’s crawling toward us. I want you to hold onto your gun and promise to take care of your home and your mother and sister. If you see a sparrow in the air, don’t shoot it, but if you see a Russian in the air, shoot it. Do you understand, Ahmad?”

He did not understand. He had chased chickens in the yard, hidden in the large copper cauldron in the basement while playing hide-and-seek, ridden on top of apple crates on the back of Khan’s wagons, and even snuck into Rakhsh’s stable without his grandfather’s permission, but he had never held a gun in his hands. He had never shot anything except for crows, sparrows, and empty tins with a slingshot. His father was waiting for an answer. Ahmad nodded. With the nod came the slap in his face.

“Don’t you lie to me! You don’t understand. You have no clue what you are holding in your hands. You don’t have the slightest idea your country is in danger and neither does anyone down there.”

Ahmad’s ear was burning, but he did not dare let go of the gun to press it and soothe the pain. Tears welled up in his eyes. “Now listen to me: strangers will come, from the land and from the sky. There is a war going on. War is when strangers come to our village to take our things and kill our people, to turn us into a second Poland. They have guns and rifles like this one. So we need to have guns of our own to save our lives and protect our loved ones. Others can’t see this now. But they will. You’ll live a long life. Remember, you need to fulfill your responsibilities. Now repeat so I know you understand. You need to do what?”

“Fulfill my responsibilities,” Ahmad answered, fighting back tears.

“Good boy, which is what?”

Against his will, a tear slid down Ahmad’s cheek. “To protect my mother and sister and Khan and Agha.”

“That’s my boy.” A smile flashed on Nosser’s face. “It’s not that bad. Collect yourself. All you have to do is accept them and cherish them and savor them as if you were drinking from a glass of cold barberry juice, as if you were sucking on a piece of ice in the summer.” And with that he grabbed the barrel and put the tip in his mouth.

Ahmad’s hands were drenched in cold sweat. It looked like he had shoved a gun in his father’s mouth. Like he was going to kill him. But he was not. What he meant to do that day was to get up, feed the chickens, and go to the Orchard where everyone was preparing for the wedding: women of the village sailing around the steaming cauldrons, checking how much longer the stew needed to cook or if there was enough salt in the rice, others sitting on blankets and rugs, in front of heaps of herbs to be cleaned and crates of apples and cucumbers to be washed; men sweeping the ground and laying more rugs, carrying big bags of rice to the women and putting the watermelons in the narrow creek that ran through the Orchard. Ahmad had looked forward to the wedding tunes that the duo of musicians would blow into the sorna and beat on the dohol all through the evening and night. He had wanted to bet with Salman and the other boys who could keep his hands in the cold creek water the longest, watch the men dance, and maybe dance a little himself somewhere behind the crowd. He wanted to see if Agha would come out of his tree for Maryam’s wedding. What he had never meant to do was put a rifle in his father’s mouth.

At that moment Khan’s strong voice echoed up the staircase. “Nosser, I’m coming up.” It was not a request, nor was a trace of doubt in it. Khan was finally there to right the wrong. Ahmad watched his father’s strong hand slide slowly along the barrel to rest peacefully over his frail fingers, as if to help him bear the burden. The hand’s skin was darker and more wrinkled than Ahmad remembered, but its weight felt fatherly and familiar. Ahmad could hear Khan’s footsteps. His father’s hand was talking to him. Everything is going to be okay, it said. Ahmad’s arms were tired from the weight of the rifle and his father’s hand. He wished he could put it down for a second. But then it went off.

It was sudden. It was loud. Then it was silent. Not a caw from a distant crow, nor the faintest rustling of villagers’ shoes on the dirt. There was no sound. But there was color. Red had splashed behind his father on the steps, on his boots and pickax, and on the bending walls that ascended still higher. Was his father’s head there or had it disappeared? Had it bent back? It seemed that the fog had started to leak in through the opening to dissolve Nosser. And Ahmad too—until he felt his father’s body, leaning heavily on the barrel of the rifle. He could not hold it anymore. He made no attempt at escape as his father tilted toward him, toppled, and everything went black.

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