Noir as Daily Life
You can see why this is such a go-to phrase, particularly in noir based in the West, as it cues the upending of the relatively easy life and status quo that so many of us take for granted.
Yet when I read this very phrase in the early pages of Salar Abdoh’s Tehran at Twilight, the combined subtlety and power of the novel began to hit me. Up to that point, we had found out that the main character, Malek, was born in Iran and moved to the US when he was young. Shortly after the beginning of the novel, Malek returns to Tehran at the request of his very close friend, Sina, who lives in Iran and who needs Malek’s help with ‘legal matters.’ But Malek quickly discovers that Sina has been working with the reactionary Islamic group, QAF, over the border in Iraq -- “the kind of people who put your father on a death list,” Malek reminds him.
“Nothing made sense, of course. It was the way this place was, a place of nonmeaning. This was what Malek had dreaded, that he’d come here and enter wonderland again.”
This is Abdoh’s genius. Malek is not a character whose quotidian existence is upended, nor is Tehran presented as an exotic locale to effect the same end (as so many spy novels previously set in the USSR and now in the Middle East do).
Instead, “nothing makes sense, of course” is the baseline of daily life for Tehran’s fifteen million people. And yet, as we shuttle with Malek between Tehran, where anything can happen at any time, and the unnamed college in Harlem where Malek teaches journalism (resembling Abdoh’s own alma mater and current employer, City College), we come to understand that Malek’s life is constantly off kilter.
In fact, the novel opens with the description of a gruesome scene where an angry crowd pulled “a man out of a Baghdad liquor shop and set him on fire…” At the time, Malek was an interpreter for journalists there, using his native Persian and the Arabic he learned during his failed PhD in Middle Eastern studies, for “Malek was a bookworm who had found himself in the wrong war at the right time.”
Now, three or four years later, Sina calls Malek and wants him to come to Tehran to help out with ‘legal troubles.’ Sina’s father ran the Vafa company before the revolution, which owned “factories, chains of restaurants, land, sports teams, movie houses, and swaths of forest near the Caspian Sea shore.” Malek assumes the ‘legal troubles’ entail helping his friend repossess some of this fortune, which would mean Sina had struck a deal with the government -- a deal that immediately smells fishy to Malek.
In the train where he speaks with Sina on the phone, Malek sits and looks at the other passengers:
Business travelers. Their lives reasonably comfortable… [N]obody was ever going to ask them to come to a place like
Tehran and get involved in legal matters. What legal matters? Over there, it was their way or the jail cell. But he couldn’t
say no, could he? And once he realized he couldn’t say no, a cloud lifted.
This undercurrent of inescapable obligation is immediately familiar to anyone who has spent time in the Middle East or with Middle Eastern literature, and Abdoh expertly intertwines successive levels of indebtedness until you think Malek has had enough and he is in the process of finally refusing Sina, when the latter gives Malek a gift of such immense worth -- one that changes not only Malek's future but his past as well -- that Malek again cannot say no, and has to see it all through to the bitter end.
While I can't reveal what this crucial gift is without spoiling a major part of the book, it reminded me of the dissertation of Sinem Arcak Casale, Gifts in Motion: Ottoman-Safavid Cultural Exchange, 1501-1618. In her work, Arcak Casale describes how gifts exchanged between the Safavid and Ottoman Empires (based in today’s Iran and Turkey, respectively) became political vehicles and objects vested with “negotiating power.” She then goes on to quote a Venetian account of the Safavids giving a book to Süleyman the Magnificent,
…whose value was said to be 16,000 gold ducats. In exchange, Süleyman gave him double that value [in cash].
By paying the negotiator in return for the book, the sultan not only eradicates the indebtedness that accepting
the gift generates, but also by paying him twice its value the sultan reiterates his superiority and expresses his
power of acquiring the book.
While that may seem straightforward enough, the rub comes when Shah Tahmasp’s envoys present the new Ottoman Sultan, Selim II, with the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, the masterpiece of Persian art of the Islamic period, containing 259 paintings of “superb artistic expression.” The question is, of course, how do you ‘eradicate the indebtedness’ of such a priceless work? Needless to say, despite their superior military might, the Ottomans did not attack the Safavids for a considerable time.
Even as Abdoh’s novel weaves an ever-entangling web of obligations, he also does a superb job of describing the lives of these two friends who were born and spent their early childhood in Tehran but then came of age in the US. Before one of their many talks when you can’t tell how much Sina is lying, he offers Malek Johnnie Walker Blue, which is only available in ‘Iraqi Kurdistan,’ as Sina sits in a long (a large towel) after his shower, playing country-and-western music on an acoustic guitar. “They should have been anywhere except at this address on Orumiya Street in Tehran. Nothing made sense. Sina Vafa made the least sense of all.”
At the same time, back in Harlem, Malek becomes close friends with James McGreivy, who served as a US marine captain in Falluja, and who comes back and, during a panel on the war, says, “Fallujah was bullshit. We took a town of a few thousand half-starved Iraqis and squashed them with everything in our arsenal. It was like taking a baseball bat to a cornered lab mouse…” Here, we have the opposite of the inscrutable Sina, for “Even if a fraction of what James threw at these people was true, there were still things that simply couldn’t be said the way he had just said them.”
Towards the end of the novel, as Malek completes the task that Sina has demanded of him, he thinks, “There was an air of languid nothingness about it all, like this was all make-believe. But it wasn’t make-believe.” This, perhaps more than the twisting, intricate plot and characters, pervades every page of Abdoh’s novel -- the inescapable discomfort of Iran (even when Malek is in New York), and how Tehran’s fifteen million citizens live on the perennial edge of paroxysm, constantly in the twilight between function and chaos.