From Tehran to Tel Aviv

So there we were, two Israelis, an Iranian Jew and an Iranian Muslim, all writers, sitting on a stage at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building.
November 12, 2014

So there we were, two Israelis, an Iranian Jew and an Iranian Muslim, all writers, sitting on a stage at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building. The occasion for the gathering was the publication of two anthologies of short stories, “Tehran Noir” and “Tel Aviv Noir,” featuring contemporary writers from each city. That’s “noir” as in “film noir” or “noir fiction” — “a genre,” Wikipedia tells us, “characterized by cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity.” But, of course, there was more to this event than what was announced on the library’s flier. You could sense it — the awareness of the symbolism of this moment, how it felt so easy and natural, something that could — should — be unremarkable because it’s so common, but that was, in fact, so unusual. 

“Can we not go there right away?” Etgar Keret, one of the Israelis who edited “Tel Aviv Noir,” had asked the moderator minutes before we began the conversation. “Can we not make it political from the start?” Never mind that all writing is political; Keret wanted to talk about the art and craft of it instead of what it all meant. The moderator, Rick Moody, was eager to oblige. Yet, somehow, the first question he asked was about the role of censorship in the Tehran stories. 

“Tehran Noir” is the love child of author Salar Abdoh, an Iranian-born New Yorker who spends part of each year in Tehran. He handpicked the contributors and translated the works from the original Persian with uncanny precision into English. It starts with an introduction by Abdoh and ends in Los Angeles, with my story “The Gravedigger’s Kaddish.”

“Back in the day,” Abdoh writes in the opening lines of his introduction to the anthology, “so my mother tells me, on the rare occasions when my father took her along to one of the cabarets of old Tehran, the tough guys — the lutis — the bosses, the knife brawlers, and the traditional wrestlers, would lay out their suits and jackets on the floor of the place for my mother to walk on. It was a gesture of supreme respect for one of their own. And it says a lot about a Tehran that simply doesn’t exist anymore.” (“Tehran Noir,” p.15)

Abdoh was born to Muslim parents, but he knows more Hebrew than I can muster. He lost more to the revolution than most of us can fathom, but he’s managed to make his peace with the past, maintain a connection with the place and harbor the faith that, no matter how hopeless the current circumstances may seem, this, too, shall pass. 

An unemployed young man on Tehran’s Mowlavi Street decides to go into the drug trade because he’s “tired of watching everyone get ahead except me.” An Afghan refugee working in a mansion in Tehran’s Shahrak-eh Gharb is visited by a ghost from his past as a “corpse thief.” A serial killer pays an undertaker to wash and prepare his victims’ bodies for a proper Muslim burial. At their best, these stories capture the lowest common denominator in the patchwork of humanity that populates the city’s landscape; bring together the high-and-mighty and the down-and-out; begin, in the words of James Ellroy, as a “sure thing” and “inevitably go wrong.”

That’s a very Iranian quality — this presupposition that, no matter how sure the “undertaking,” it’s going to end badly. So is the fatalism that is born of faith in destiny and in the uselessness of fighting it. So, too, is the understanding that morality is often in the mind of the beholder. Noir may be a literary genre to Wikipedia, but to many Iranians, it’s a usual state of mind. It’s born of having lived long enough — say, 2,000-plus years — to know that every star will someday fade and every empire will eventually fall. It doesn’t mean we don’t try. God knows we’re as good as any nation in aspiring to rebuild the old empire. You have to have a capacity for denial, or hope, to last as long as we have. 

Almost, but not quite, like, “Next year in Jerusalem.” 

“Tel Aviv Noir” was edited by Israeli writers Assaf Gavron and Keret, and translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan. They reveal, in Keret’s introduction, “the concealed, scarred face of this city that we love so much.” 

“Don’t get me wrong,” Keret begins, “Tel Aviv is a lovely, safe city. Most of the time, for most of its inhabitants.” Yet despite “its outwardly warm and polite exterior, Tel Aviv has quite a bit to hide.” 

A defense attorney-turned-pimp on the Beach Hotels Strip falls in love with one of his own prostitutes. A novice private detective from Dizengoff Center is called on to find a missing executive in a startup tech firm. A childless couple adopts a dog to love only to discover that it has a tendency to kill humans. 

If you want to know a country, I’ve always thought, read its stories. Not the ones invented for the history books by every mad dictator or megalomaniacal president with a political agenda; there’s too much fiction and too little reality in those. The only truth they divulge is that power corrupts and time degrades. But those other tales, whether new or inherited, spun from everyday existence or uncommon fantasy but that reveal, almost as subtext, a people’s psyche — those are the most accurate renderings of a nation and a time.

By this measure, Tehran and Tel Aviv have a great deal in common. They’re both new old cities: Modern Tehran encompasses and has absorbed the ancient city of Rey; Tel Aviv was founded on the site of the ancient port city of Jaffa. They’re both magnets for people of every race and background. They were once friendly and may be again, someday. Where they differ is in their inhabitants’ existential idea of what the future will look like. 

Early in the conversation at the library, Moody asked Keret and Gavron what, exactly, they thought was so “noir” in their anthology, as nothing especially bad happens to any of the characters. 

“What could possibly be dark about our sunny city,” Keret says in his book’s introduction, “a city nicknamed ‘The Bubble’ due to its complete separation from the violent, conflicted country in which it is situated? Compared to Jerusalem — torn apart, exploding with nationalism, xenophobia, and religious zeal — Tel Aviv has always been an island of sanity and serenity.” 

By contrast, the Tehran of the anthology is a city already in the process of devouring itself and its own: “There is something of both the absolutely spectacular and positively disgraceful about Tehran … a juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty that breaks the heart,” Abdoh writes in his book’s introduction.

There’s an almost universal hopelessness in Tehran, a nearly palpable air of entrapment, a sense that everything that could have been tried has been tried — and failed — that the Tel Aviv stories lack. Then again, we’re nothing, we Iranians, if not willing to soldier on. 

Moody’s last question for Abdoh was whether he is at all optimistic about the future for Iran’s artists. 

“I have hope,” Abdoh said on stage. He followed that up with an email the next day, addressed to Moody, the Israeli writers and me: “Hopefully,” he wrote, “[we can do this again], some day, in Tel Aviv and Tehran.”

Gina Nahai’s latest novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

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