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February 22, 2010

Mahbod Seraji: Rooftops of Tehran

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Community and college reads are becoming more and more popular and we here at ReadingGroupGuides.com couldn't be happier. For what is a community or college reading program, but a really, really big reading group? In today's guest post, Mahbod Seraji author of Rooftops of Tehran talks about his experience with Villanova University.

Rooftops of Villanova

As a debut novelist, the selection of my book Rooftops of Tehran for Villanova University’s One Book program was an amazing honor. In its fifth year, earlier selections of this prestigious initiative have included Khaled Hossini’s The Kite Runner in 2005, followed in successive years by Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name, Immaculee Illibagiza’s Left to Tell, and Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle.

I had no idea, prior to arriving at the campus, how much time and effort had gone into preparing for my visit. As the program sponsors told me at breakfast, the One Book program was a year-long initiative in which the committee involved students, parents, faculty and even members of the community to foster a climate of cultural and intellectual engagement through reading and conversation.

I was truly impressed by the reach of this program when I received a call from Philadelphia’s NPR studios for an interview on Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane. Marty, a nationally celebrated radio personality who occasionally sits in for Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, eased me into the interview with a professionalism that made our conversation a delightful experience.

At lunch I was introduced to the members of the selection committee. A few had brought their personal copies of the book to the lunch, which I signed with great willingness and joy, although I wished I knew each person better to write something special in their dedication.

Right after lunch we rushed across the campus to the library for a book signing event and an exclusive conversation with 25 honor students and some faculty about cultural aspects of life in Iran. The line of students waiting to get their books autographed was long; many told me they loved the story of Pasha and Zari. I thanked them while secretly feeling overwhelmed with a feeling of melancholy recalling my own wait in a line 30 years earlier at my alma mater, the University of Iowa, to get a signature from the late Phillip Dunne, the Hollywood screenwriter and two-time Oscar recipient who adapted How Green Was My Valley for John Ford. Life goes by quickly!

After a brief late afternoon rest, I met with a young and intelligent reporter from the school newspaper, The Villanovan, before heading out to the cafeteria. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next. To say my heart skipped a beat may very well be a cliché—but I know what I felt. There were red roses placed at every table, following the motif on Rooftops’s cover and the symbol of so much more in my story. The director of food services, his chefs and their staff had read my book and liked it so much that they had cooked every dish I had mentioned in my novel, including Khoresht Badmjan, Shish Kebab, Jujeh Kebab, Mast-o-Khiar, and Dolmeh. They had even made my favorite Akbar Mashdi ice cream, a truly impossible recipe to follow, especially for those who have never had it. The food was fabulous, and I had the opportunity to meet everyone who worked in the kitchen. The extent of their genuine kindness and the lengths they had gone to open their hearts, minds, and lives to Rooftops was simply awe-inspiring.

My speech was scheduled to start at 7:30 that evening and I was taken to a room to rest at 7:00. I was told that the venue accommodated 500 people but they weren’t sure how big of a crowd to expect. I personally would have been happy with 200, but I didn’t say anything. At around 7:30 one of my sponsors came up to take me to the ballroom. A bit frazzled, she whispered, “We have a little problem.”

“What?” I asked, my heart racing. No one showed up, was the first thought that flashed through my mind.

“The room is full,” she said. “We have added another 100 chairs but people are standing up in the back of the room, sitting in the aisles, and we have turned away at least 50 people because of the fire code. We think we have about 750 people in there already.”

The ballroom was packed and a hum buzzed in the air as I entered with my heart pounding as it always does before every speech I have ever given. The lights in the hall were dimmed but the podium and the small stage were well lit. Two large projection screens were placed on either side of the stage. I’m a professional speaker and I have never been timid on stage, but something about this experience felt different to me. Normally people listen to me discuss other people’s books. These people had come to hear me talk about my book. In the back of my mind and in my heart I promised God that I would never speak ill of another writer’s work for as long as I shall live.

I spoke of my early years in this country, and how difficult the burden of revolution, the hostage crisis, and the Iran-Iraq war had been on a 19-year-old struggling to make it in the U.S. I spoke of the financially difficult days when I had to choose between buying lunch or a pack of cigarettes (I often chose the latter). I told them of how despite a difficult life in those early years, I chose to stay in the U.S. with a promise to myself to write a book about the people whose sheer existence in my life gave me the strength to survive any adversity. I said that in my book I wished to show that we are all people regardless of our culture, race, sect, or country of origin. People are people, I said. We all laugh, we all cry. We all want safety, security, health, and peace for ourselves and for our children. I said that I picked my main characters Ahmed, Faheemeh, Doctor, Iraj and Zari to tell a story that I hoped would bring our people closer, make us realize that we share a universal truth, and that we have more in common than we sometimes realize. I also emphasized that in countries like Iran the actions of the government do not always represent the will of the people, and that we must never form a perception of a nation based on the actions of its official rulers.

I could tell that my audience was listening. I was told not to be offended if people left as Q&A started. But no one left. Almost everyone waited through the end of the program. As I came down from the stage, I did so with some trepidation; sometimes people don’t like to have common perceptions challenged. But I was instantly approached by many who congratulated me on the book and the talk. I was then taken to a table outside the hall, where a long line of people were waiting to get their books signed. I was thrilled. Only in America, I thought, people listen to a man who comes from a country that’s labeled as an enemy, and don’t interrupt him, don’t heckle him, and wait in line for an hour to get his signature. Openness and tolerance, as well as understanding and celebrating differences of opinion, are gifts that Americans are blessed with.

Since the visit I have received over one hundred emails from students, parents, and faculty. One writer wrote: “You have certainly achieved your goal of humanizing the Iranians… You have also opened my eyes to a culture and a people of which I knew very little about, other than negatives.”

I was more than pleased with those words. Reflecting back on the whole experience, I imagined myself sitting on the rooftop of a campus building at Villanova waving to Ahmed, Faheemeh, Iraj, Doctor and Zari in Iran as they waved back from the rooftop of my old house in Tehran. For that remarkable image, I can only say: Thank you, Villanova; my friends send their bests!

-- Mahbod Seraji, Author Rooftops of Tehran (http://www.rooftopsoftehran.com/)

We're working on a blog series about the trials, tribulations, benefits and experiences of college and community reading programs. If your an organizer, author or participant in one of these great programs, we'd love to talk to you. Email me at dana@bookreporter.com