In this novel by Rashidi (Tales of Iran, 2013), a young man, recently released from an Iranian jail, falls in love with a woman who’s strictly off-limits.
Kazem is not a bad man; he simply enjoys living on the fringes of the law. Just out of prison, he returns to the streets of Tehran to seek out his scoundrel companions. He finds them decaying in a murky world of opium and arrack (an alcoholic drink). Out of the skid row squalor, however, emerges a vision of hope: the beautiful Maryam, daughter of a wealthy hajji. For Kazem, it’s love at first sight, and he sets about wooing her immediately. Maryam remains gentle yet aloof; she’s certain that her father will never consent to her marrying a penniless man with such a dubious background. Finally, she reveals to Kazem that the hajji has promised her hand in marriage to someone else, and that she’ll soon wed. However, this only serves to strengthen Kazem’s resolve, and he kidnaps Maryam. He then seeks refuge with her in the city’s backstreets, as her furious father seeks retribution. The novel opens in the summer of 1978, and its backdrop charts Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power. Along the way, Rashidi examines the growing unrest in Tehran and the emergence of its “thug” culture. Essentially, the novel asks difficult questions about what it means to be Iranian and a Muslim when faced with a brutal regime that tortures its own people. The author is at his best when describing Tehran’s crowds, which he does in great detail: “Hairy, grim-faced pahlavans showed off their physical prowess by tearing large copper trays in two….Multicolored chadored women shrieked at their grubby, shabbily-clothed children.” However, these descriptions are often prone to repetition, which can become tiresome. Rashidi also relies too heavily on clichés; at one point, for example, Kazem’s friend Mohsen runs “like a bat out of hell.” Nevertheless, this is a touching, engaging love story punctuated by pleasure and pain, which offers a privileged glimpse into Tehran life.
An endearing, if patchy, love letter to Iran.