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UI alum shares novel about Iranian boy

BY KERY LAWSON | JUNE 12, 2009 7:26 AM

In many ways, Mahbod Seraji has crossed boundaries. From Iran to the United States, from engineering to writing, and from childhood to adulthood, he carries a wealth of stories. But although his career has taken a turn for the literary as of late, he first came to the United States from Iran in 1976 to fulfill his father’s dream of having an engineer for a son. Thereafter, he spent his educational career at the UI, earning a bachelor’s in engineering, a master’s in communication, and a doctorate in instructional technology.

“It was very tough to be Iranian back in those days,” Seraji said. “If it wasn’t for some of those people at the University of Iowa, I don’t think I could’ve ever gotten my Ph.D. … I had a very successful [business] career, and I think it’s thanks to those incredibly wonderful human beings … They were fantastic to me.”

After a successful business career, Seraji will return to Iowa City, embracing the community that changed his life. He will read from his début novel, Rooftops of Tehran, at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

“I remember Mahbod Seraji as a straightforward, clever student with a wry sense of humor,” former UI Professor Dudley Andrew wrote in an e-mail. “I was so impressed with his intelligence and persistence that I played along and was glad to be part of his dissertation. I’m very pleased he has emerged as a writer — it doesn’t surprise me at all. He had [and presumably retains] a great social peripheral vision, able to see many things in perspective at once.”

lthough Seraji began writing Rooftops of Tehran between 2000 and 2001, he originally conceived the idea as a UI student, working 10 to 15 hours a day in addition to taking classes. Narrated by a 17-year-old Iranian named Pasha, the book reveals a part of Iran that embraces love, hope, humor, and friendship.

“I was thinking how miserable and horrible my life was,” he said. “And I kind of felt like if the people that I know heard what I was thinking, they would be very ashamed of me … But I thought, ‘No, I’m going to make it. And you know what? Someday, I’m going to write a book, and it’ll be a series of short vignettes about these people I love, these people who have had a profound impact on my life.’ ”

These stories, however, soon turned into something more.

“I wrote those first two chapters, and I just couldn’t stop,” he said. “I couldn’t write short vignettes anymore … I had to keep going with it. And that’s how the book came about.” His memories became a novel, narrated by a 17-year-old Iranian named Pasha, who experiences love, hope, and humor.
Although writing seems to be a recent development for Seraji, a literary tendency runs in the family. As the son of a successful Sufi poet, Seraji grew up with a love for the written word.

“I wanted to be a writer since I was 10 years old,” he said. “I read Jack London’s White Fang on the same rooftop that’s depicted in the story, and ever since then, I fell in love with writing. I thought, if a writer can take a little boy out of Tehran, Iran, to the Alaskan wilderness … that’s an incredible skill that I wanted to have.”

Excerpt:

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.

— Mabod Seraji, from page 1 of his début novel, Rooftops of Tehran

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 17-year-old in the world, especially if I kept saying things like “unabashedly” and “beautifully composed vignettes.”

— Mabod Seraji, from page 4 of his début novel, Rooftops of Tehran


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