The nearest pop-culture cousin to Mehrdad Balali‘s Houri I can think of is Persepolis, the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, which, like Houri depicts the fallout of Iran’s Islamic revolution in poignant, personal detail. A few things, however, set these two works apart. The first and most obvious is the medium; Satrapi’s somewhat whimsical illustrations make for a mostly palatable examination of the 1979 revolution, whereas Balali’s prose paints a stark but no less engaging portrait of Iran in the wake of the same event. Additionally, there’s the difference in gender between the narrators of each work, yet even here, there are more similarities than differences insofar as both narrators are simultaneously trying to balance their growing awareness of the political changes afoot in their lives with the equally powerful forces of nature that are making them increasingly aware of the opposite sex. The biggest distinction to be made between these two works, however, is that where Satrapi’s focus is largely on the revolution and its aftermath, Balali’s novel shuttles between pre- and post-revolution Iran with an unrelenting eye for detail. What emerges from Balali’s investigation is (for lack of a better phrase) a tale of two cities, both rife with corruption, each painfully human in its own way.
The novel opens with its narrator, Shahed, returning home to Iran after a number of years abroad in America. While he was gone, his father passed away, and Iran underwent a massive cultural and political shift. As Shahed walks the streets of the “new” Iran, he wrestles with the ghosts of his past. Given the rampant corruption of Iran under the Shah (as embodied more personally by Shahed’s father and the motley crew of stooges he calls friends), any change from the status quo of the narrator’s childhood would seem like a godsend. The only problem is that the revolution has placed too much emphasis on its unforgiving conception of “god,” sending the citizens of Iran into a tailspin of repression and joyless piety.
Throughout the novel, Balali depicts the cultural impact of the Islamic revolution vividly. One notable example of this occurs early in the narrative when the narrator visits a once-bustling amusement park, the walls of which bare “paling images of Disney characters, along with the scars of bullets and tiresome political slogans.” In this image, Balali gives us the past and present simultaneously–the death of fun in the name of religious devotion.
The narrative itself is also complex. In effect, we’re given three versions of Shahed–the young child living in pre-revolution Iran, the sullen expatriate living in America, and the mature narrator striving to understand both of his former selves as their tales intertwine and comment upon each other. Ultimately, the lesson the narrator learns is one of forgiveness: though the crimes of his late father are, from Shahed’s perspective, heinous, the narrative force of the story pushes him toward a realization that to hold on to his bitterness–that is, to refuse to forgive–is to repeat the crime of the repressive revolution he so despises. In order to live, he must at once acknowledge his ambivalence toward his father and, in so doing, forgive his own flaws, which is also to say that he must recognize his own humanity.
Houri is a wonderful novel. Even as it provides valuable and much needed information to Western readers about a world that is, ironically, so present in the headlines and absent in any meaningful way from our collective understanding, it reminds us that humans everywhere have so much in common: greed, lust, yearning, heartache, joy, generosity, and love. And, perhaps most of all, the capacity to forgive.