The Book of Tehran
Book: The Book of Tehran: A City in Short Fiction
Editor: Fereshteh Ahmadi
Authors: Atoosa Afshin-Navid, Fereshteh Ahmadi, Kourosh Asadi, Azardokht Bahrami, Hamed Habibi, Mohammad Hosseini, Amir-Hossein Khorshidfar, Payam Nasser, Goli Taraghi and Mohammad Tolouei
Publisher: Comma Press
Review by Reshma Ruia
The Book of Tehran is an anthology of 10 short stories by different writers, set in Tehran. The stories translated from the original Persian hasn’t lost the idiomatic rhythm and nuances and explores the lives of ordinary citizens of an extraordinary city with a rich cultural heritage and a dynamic youthful population, torn between tradition and modernity.
These protagonists are ordinary people, often belonging to an educated middle class who are acutely aware of their predicament. They are everyday people who are grappling with loneliness, love, parental expectation and self-fulfilment while negotiating a city that is shaped by political and religious constraints. The book is a part of an award-winning Reading the City Series by Comma Press that aims to show different facets of particular cities by commissioning local emerging writers whose work is translated.
Viewed through a Western lens, Tehran is a city steeped in religious repression and feudal dogma. Such cardboard characterisation is debunked in these stories. What I particularly enjoyed was the sensitive portrayal of the interior lives of its protagonists within the domestic setting of home.
The stories are largely set in apartment blocks where residents, frequently women, examine their familial relationships and status. In ‘The Neighbour,’ by Amirhossein Khorshidfar, a young woman spends an afternoon in the company of her neighbour, a wealthier and more mature woman who exudes an aura of sexual sophistication and innuendo that unsettles and tantalises her.
The stories raise issues of class, gender inequality and the gulf between the wealthy and the poor in subtle ways. In ‘Mohsen Half-Tenor’, Mohammad Tolouei portrays a dissolute young man who dreams of a better life in the West and preys on a wealthy old man, hoodwinking and betraying his friendship. Goli Taraghi explores a similar issue in ‘The Other Side of the Wall,’ where a rich teenage girl takes piano lessons in a poorer neighbourhood and becomes aware of the seedier aspects of life.
Sleep is an important metaphor in some of the stories as many of the characters spend their days asleep. “In three days, I had slept, almost fifty hours,” says the narrator in Payam Nasser’s ‘Wake it Up.’
The city is a major character in the stories. We are made aware of its teeming traffic, its frequent power failures and the struggle to make ends meet on the part of the protagonists who want to maintain a veneer of respectability. Stories such as ‘Sunshine,’ by Kourosh Asadi and Mohammad Hosseini’s ‘Circling that Heavily-burdened Tale,’ hint at the violence lurking beneath mundane events. In ‘Sunshine,’ a cab driver discusses his ex-girlfriend whose photograph was considered “morally problematic” by the guards.
What stands out in the collection is the centre stage occupied by the female protagonists. They are not cowed by convention nor are they afraid to seek out a better future. Atoosa Afshin Navid ably shows this in ‘The Last Night’, where young women on the cusp of adulthood, play bridal games that expose their ambivalent feelings towards marriage and longing for a more liberated future.
“As soon as you leave Iran, you’ll meet a lot of easy going people…who are always smiling, exercising and have a zest for life even at the age of 90,” says a narrator’s brother who has emigrated to Canada. She is however not sure and hopes that “the new world will have enough room in it to welcome souls full of memories”.
In terms of language and cultural/historical references, the stories may sometimes require rereading. In my opinion, this only enriches one’s understanding, and readers should bear in mind that these are translations, which faithfully try to capture the spirit of the original. The introduction by Orkideh Behrouzan is helpful provides a concise synopsis of Iranian history and literary development and should definitely not be skipped.
This anthology will appeal to a reader who enjoys the short story as a genre, wants to expand their horizons and read literature that is not just shaped by a Western sensibility or value system.