Searching for Love in All Its Manifestations Across Tehran
Salar Abdoh, author of "A Nearby Country Called Love," on portraying Iranian life outside of the diasporic lens
I’ve seen Salar Abdoh only a handful of times. The most noteworthy is in May 2017 when, hearing that I’d be spending vote day in the southernmost areas of Tehran interviewing working class Tehranis about their choice for president, he offered to give me a ride through some of those neighborhoods. Abdoh, whom I had previously corresponded with over Tehran Noir but only met earlier that week, had a motorbike and even more conveniently, knew the area like the back of his hand.
If I’m sharing this anecdote, it’s because reading A Nearby Country Called Love, which is sprawling with characters, intrigues, and story twists, isn’t unlike the experience of zigzagging through the mega-capital and being privy to the woes and wants of a range of dejected but yearning Tehranis. In his latest novel Abdoh takes us through the intimate lives of an assortment of Iranians—washing machine salesman, artist, mechanic, poetess, realtor, surgeon, constructor worker, housekeeper, farmer, and former combatant—as they seek justice, try to affirm themselves and navigate boundaries of sexuality and love in an unforgiving society.
Connecting this cast of characters is Issa, a man returning to Tehran “penniless and broken” after years of working the night shift in a hotel in New York because, as he reflects, “sometimes there simply was no story of triumphing elsewhere in the world. Home was where one belonged even if home was shit.” Moving back into his former building, haunted by memories of his patriarchal father and queer brother, Issa is forced to reckon with his own complicated family history.
Outside, men consumed by their “prickly little manhood” pick fights, protestors erupt in chants, and women burn their headscarves—and sometimes themselves. But it’s in the intimacy of the homes we enter, especially Issa’s apartment and the house of the strong-headed Azeri maid who had helped raise him and his brother, that the characters seek help, become confidants, and find solace.
I spoke with Abdoh in August via Zoom. We discussed patriarchy, gender-affirming surgery, translating women and the pitfalls of Iran being primarily represented by the diaspora. Our conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Ladane Nasseri: Your main protagonist, Issa, is not easy to place. His grandfather was a Shia cleric, and he has some religious tendencies, but he’s not a believer. He’s from a conservative background, but he’s quite tolerant. He doesn’t shy away from getting into street fights, but he’s sentimental in his search for love. How did the character of Issa take shape?
Salar Abdoh: I wrote two essays that originally came out in journals in Tehran. One was about my late brother, who’s a famed international theatre artist who died of AIDS, and the other one was about my relationship to sports—I grew up in a professional sports family, that’s how my dad made his money. I always knew that at some point, I wanted to come to terms with my brother, and my dad, two men who occupied the exact opposite poles of so-called manhood in a country with extreme machismo. I had a brother who didn’t want anything to do with sports and a father whose entire life was based on that, and I was always in the middle. I came from a patriarchal world even more than the typical Iranian because my father’s background is from the Lorestan province. Lors are especially famous for being dast-be-ajor, quick to take a brick and hit each other!
Growing up it was expected of us to rise to that occasion and if we didn’t, we were not respected by our fathers and uncles. My older brother who did not subscribe to it at all was left alone, but for me who came after him it was infinitely difficult to negotiate that world and my love for books and poetry. So, the Issa character and his uncertainties, a lot of it came from my own life.
After years of coming and going, and living in Tehran for periods of time, there were also dynamics in Iran that concerned me. I wanted to deal with all of that. I just didn’t know when the right time would be. After these two essays came out, I thought this is a cross, this is a place where these things come together. I want to find out what it means to be a man in our age.
LN: So, you set off on an exploration of masculinity?
SA: There was an element of dissatisfaction for me because the discourse around women’s issues, LGBTQ issues is a Western discourse. 80% of the world is an entirely different place, it’s not this world of New York. It’s a very brutal and brutalized place for a lot of women or people who don’t necessarily subscribe to the so-called normal society as far as their sexuality goes.
I read memoirs about people coming out, people discovering their sexuality, but I never saw anyone write about what it means to be someone like me. For half a decade before this I spent the bulk of my time with Shia militias in Syria, in Iraq. I’d go for weeks not seeing a single female person. And how do people like that come to terms with this new paradigm in the world that, in fact, doesn’t exist in places like Iran? There is a consciousness about it, somewhat of a discourse among the intellectual class, but it’s a patriarchal society.
I didn’t want to create a character who is a hero and says I’m going to pick up the flag of this oppressed, and that oppressed. Issa is at war with himself and a lot of times, he is hesitant to do things. In his search for love, and his constant failure to find love, he starts to make certain decisions that affect himself, his mind and everybody around him.
LN: I saw similarities between the character of Issa in this book and that of the protagonist in your previous novel, Out of Mesopotamia. I sensed a quest in both these books. In Out of Mesopotamia, I remember this idea of “taking a bullet” for someone, and the question of what makes us want to extend ourselves and die for a person or a cause. In A Nearby Country Called Love, the search is inwardly, the characters are more conflicted. One of the questions that came to my mind as I read was how do we love someone, or care for someone?
SA: In Out of Mesopotamia it was a quest for the character of Saleh more than for me. I knew who Saleh was, why he was in these combats, and why that sense of brotherhood you found in combat is nearly impossible, as Sebastien Junger said, to find in a quotidian life. My objective, if there was one, was to show war from a different perspective. Whereas in A Nearby Country Called Love, as you said, the quest was also my own quest. I was trading in a territory I truly had not had the courage to approach. Women, LGBTQ… I didn’t feel myself up to the task. But the sort of craft I practice, a lot of it comes from my penchant for journalism. I’m not a journalist but I do journalistic things.
LN: Tell me about this. How did you set yourself up for the task?
SA: Like you, I try to have my boots on the ground. I may not understand everything, but I need to be a witness. For example, I needed to go talk to a person in Iran who has gone through gender reassignment. I asked them: “you’ve been a woman and you’re a man, which is more difficult?” and they said, “being a man is more difficult in Iran.” I was flabbergasted and he said “yes, because of the expectations. Even my mother has more expectations from me than before.” That’s one person’s point of view, another person will tell you differently, but to have that POV is interesting to me. I needed to spend time with that person and understand them.
It was a conscious act of wanting to understand what the LGBTQ community goes through in that society and a big part of that was because of my experience with my brother, what he had to do to come out in that society and the way it haunted him to the last day of his life. I asked questions, read material and I also thought about the various feelings I had throughout the years about my brother and his illness, and how it was or was not dealt with within my family, and about my own depression after my brother died.
LN: The scenes between Issa and his older brother, and their relationship with their dad are some of the most compelling. Issa’s reflections seem to mirror some of your own. Did writing this book help you make sense of the complicated dynamics between your older brother, your father and you?
SA: As I was writing this novel, I really came to understand something I already knew and it sounds boring to say, but human beings are really, really complicated. Even when we know why they do the things they do, it’s hard to understand the electricity, where that dynamic comes from.
Ultimately, I wrote this novel because I’m always searching for love in its various manifestations, and I think everybody else is too. Love shows itself in brotherhood, male-female partnership, male-male partnerships…etc. and to be able to show that I had to understand it first and understand the complexity that human beings occupy in every molecule of their being.
I hope whoever reads this book sees it not just as this thing about Iran—it’s a universal theme. When I read African American memoirs because of my dad’s background, I understand that hard world where every day that you wake up you have to prove yourself and your manhood otherwise you will be belittled and bullied. My brother transcended that world early on, but I never did, and I don’t think I have to this day, but by writing this novel I understood it finally.
LN: The setting of this novel is the less affluent southern Tehran, and your characters are mostly working class. Tell me about this choice.
SA: The area that Issa lives in is around the corner from me, I can jump on my motorcycle and be there in five minutes. It’s a sports shops area and that’s where my father grew up. It’s a traditional neighborhood but it’s no longer the neighborhood where if you look at somebody wrong, they beat you up—you’d need to go another mile down for that!
These areas of old Tehran are areas that I’m not just fascinated by and see as the beating heart of this city of 14 million people. The neighbors shout and leave their shoes outside the doors. I was interested in showing these lives with traditional backgrounds in these traditional neighborhoods. Issa has somewhat followed his brother’s path, he has gone to New York, he’s gotten higher degrees in literature, he’s read all the books but deep down inside he’s still the son of his father. He ticks against that, but he doesn’t always win. That element of depicting segments of societies where you really struggle with your past, with your faith and your background and everything that you’ve known, everything that makes the fiber of your being, that I’d have to situate in the heart of the city that I know well.
LN: I found so much of the Tehran I know in these pages. The Tehran of my grandparents, old Tehran with its own rhythms and rules, and the city as this complex organism that I re-discovered when I lived there as a journalist. It’s a Tehran that is not accessible to visitors or even to Tehranis who live in the northern neighborhoods and who are not interested in immersing themselves in less affluent areas of the capital.
SA: It really takes a long time to know a place, it’s like a language, you can try but you’re not going to know a language intimately if you just do a crash course of two weeks or two months. You know, I have the six months rule about Iran and that’s if you’ve been out of the country for six months you probably should not say much about it because that place changes all the bloody time, its dynamics change, its young folks change, people change their mind, the government is always in flux. Nearly everything that gets reported about it is not necessarily wrong but just simplistic, and I don’t ever want to fall in that trap.
LN: I agree. What’s depicted in traditional media and by social media influencers based outside of Iran is often oversimplified, ill-informed, or out of context.
SA: One of the reasons I wanted to write a novel about a variety of people but also people on the margins of that society who are kind of invisible was because of this dissatisfaction. Iranian people are always explained through the diasporic discourse. It felt reductive, and agenda driven, and I wanted to show people as they are, as it plays itself in the streets of Tehran—real people with real jobs and not through this continuous diasporic discourse. If you want to understand France you are not going to ask someone in D.C. or LA or NY what French women think or talk about for example when they go to a hair salon, but it seems that when it comes to Iran anything goes. I wanted to show that society in all its ambiguities and complexities.
LN: In the Tehran you write about, people tease one another, have sex, go to see plays, and hurl insults when driving. Ordinary people like everywhere. What is it about Tehran that was most important for you to show?
SA: Tehran as an entity has so many layers as say Mumbai does, or Mexico City does. The issue with Tehran is because of the limitations of access to it people either make a monster of the place, its government, or its people, or they make heroes or heroines of its people. Often when things get written about Iran it comes out as simplistic because the person goes to Turkey, or they write from London or DC or New York. Or they go to Iran for a couple days and have a minder with them. You can’t really blame them because access is limited. So, the discourse by default is narrow.
What happens in these periods of upheaval, of protests, is that the loudest voices which are not necessarily the most sophisticated or elegant or honest are the ones that take over and then the reality on the ground in Iran is forgotten. In writing about Iran and Iranians I don’t set out thinking I’m going to fight against that, but my hope is that I’m giving depth and layers to the discourse that exists and people remember that these people are not heroes, and they are not evil. They can be all these things, and they cover the whole spectrum of society.