Why would anyone who managed to escape Iran as a child decide to return after reaching adulthood in the United States? We're not talking about obtaining a visa to go and visit but moving back permanently. Maybe it would be more understandable to our eyes if the person were old and wanted to see his old haunts one last time before he crossed over.
But a young man who has his whole life in front of him; I'm sure that most of us in the west would question the sanity of anyone who'd want to go and live in that country. Maybe if the lifestyle of the west so appalled them and they were a devout Muslim it would make sense, but if they had never shown any interest in living in accordance to those rules it becomes even harder to fathom.
Yet that's exactly what Arash, the protagonist of Naveed Noori's (not the novelist's real name; he uses a nom de plume) first novel Dakhmeh, has done. After years of exile living in California he decide that he wants to return to Iran. He can't even explain it himself completely all he knows is that he doesn't fit in America so he hopes to fit where he was born.
The thing is we know that he doesn't fit into Iran either. Even as he tells us how tired he was of having to explain about being an Iranian refugee so people won't look at him funny in the States, he's doing so on scrapes of paper that have been smuggled into his jail cell in the notorious Evin prison on the outskirts of Tehran.
The opening lines of the book, "Evin is not such a bad place if they leave you alone" lets you know right from the start his circumstances. It's only as we go deeper into the book that we discover anything about his life and how he ended up in his jail cell.
He was a child during the time of the taking of the hostages and the revolution. He remembers when the Shah left the country and how everyone celebrated in the streets. But it wasn't long before Komethi houses began to appear in neighbourhoods. These were properties that zealous followers of Khomeini "occupied" and used to make sure that the rule of their master was being followed to the letter.
They also became bases of operation for subsequent crackdowns on those who were not as attuned to the true nature of the revolution. Like all revolutions there were different factions that had opposed the Shah, and some of them didn't necessarily like the idea of the state being run according to how the followers of Khomeini interpreted the Koran.
We learn this information from a source whose credentials in these matters are impeccable. Mr. Soleymaani is one of the arms of the regime that reach out and snag people who have drifted into counter-revolutionary behaviour. In name he is policeman, but in reality he is the secret police.
The scariest thing about Mr. Soeymaani is how reasonable and compassionate he appears to be, at the beginning of the book we see him casually condemn the man who gave Arash his paper and pen to death, by simply having the driver of his car take the hapless man away.
But when compared to the brutes that torture Arash during the first days of his imprisonment he is even more terrifying. His very reasonableness is what does it. Everything he does is valid and justifiable, especially since he even shows that he doesn't agree with all the laws of the government. But none of that stops him from condemning people to death.
Arash writes about how in America he felt cut off from his roots; that he didn't feel like an American even though he'd been there for the majority of his life. But that's the point he says, I left Iran too early and never got to grow my roots. The trouble is when he gets to Iran there is no soil to nurture his roots, just memories of a different time when he was young, before the revolution came and cut away everyone's roots.
People his generation treat him with mistrust because he escaped having to serve in the army and missed out on some of the worse excesses of the young regime. They ask him the same question that everyone wants answered – Why when he had escaped did he come back to prison?
For that's what Iran is, a prison. Maybe not everybody is behind walls but in Dakhmeh Naveed Noori describes a country so tightly controlled and monitored that everyone might as well be in cells. Judgements are passed quickly and sentences are handed out immediately. Everyone is guilty, and just one finger pointing away from ending up forgotten about and rotting in a cell.
Men and women are forbidden to be seen together in public unless they have papers that proves they are related or married. Women must be completely covered when in public, and saying anything that sounds remotely critical of the regime is a death sentence.
The title of the book describes perfectly what happens to Arash. Dakhmeh is a Persian word meaning, tower of silence, referring to a complex on top of a hill where Zoroastrian funeral rites were performed. The body would be left exposed to be eaten like carrion by vultures, crows, wild dogs, and other creatures and it is disposed of gradually.
The Iran described in Dakhmeh is like those rites. It feeds off its people, gradually eating away at them until they are bare bones with nothing left to them. Arash is just one more morsel that has been chewed up by the state. He returned to Iran in the hope of rediscovering the beauty and joy of his childhood, where he didn't have to explain himself to anyone.
Instead of the romantic ideal that he was chasing, he finds that the land he thinks he loves doesn't want his love or his idealism. They only want his obedience and his soul. Dakhmeh is a damning and believable look inside a totalitarian religious state, and serves proper warning to us of the dangers of letting religion have too much say in government.
(Originally posted April 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.