Revolution Street (Novel)
Fattah is middle-aged and unmarried. A former hospital janitor who became rich working as a torturer in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, he now moonlights as an uncertified backstreet doctor specializing in ‘honour surgery' for unmarried young women. Fattah has nothing but contempt for these women; that is until the beautiful Shahrzad lands on his operating table, and soon he is dangerously infatuated.
Undeterred that she is promised to - and in love with - another man, the younger and less affluent Mostafa, Fattah sets out to win Shahrzad by any means. Robbed of his bride, the jilted and furious Mostafa launches a desperate plan to move her beyond his rival's reach by falsely reporting her as an opponent of the regime, a mission that takes him deep into Tehran's underworld of criminals and provocateurs.
Revolution Street By Amir Cheheltan06 March 2014
Revolution Street begins with a sobering description of a young girl having her vagina clamped and stitched up in an underground clinic in Tehran. The male surgeon calls her a whore as she bites down on her lip to avoid moaning in pain, while the nurse screams insults at her.Set in the Eighties in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, the novel exposes the oppression suffered by women in a society where girls are forced to undergo hymenoplasty to preserve their virginity, rape victims are called sluts, and women whipped for not wearing hijab.
The novel also reveals the double standards of a male-enforced Islamic regime that penalises sexually active women while permitting men to be as promiscuous as they please.
Dr Fattah, the middle-aged surgeon who performs a hymenoplasty on the young girl, falls victim to his own prejudices when he becomes besotted by his patient. Determined to win her hand in marriage from the man she is already promised to, he becomes embroiled in a dark underworld of criminality to try and ensnare her.
But while the novel is set against a rich backdrop of historical and social change, its storytelling does not live up to the dramatic events that shape its plot. Dr Fattah's quest to marry the young girl, Shahrzad, fails to read like the exciting thriller that the book sets itself up to be.
Throughout the novel there is a frustrating sense that we are being told, rather than shown, how the Iranian Revolution impacted the main characters' lives. The book's numerous characters feel more like types than fully formed people. We are told that Dr Fattah is a middle-aged man with a paunch and stale breath, but few other details are given to feel we understand his psyche.
Shahrzad is nothing more than a limp, lifeless character. We are never privy to her thoughts about being forced into marrying a man 20 years her elder, which seems to go against the novel's aim to expose voiceless women living under sharia law.
The sex scenes also undermine the plot's intention. While not many male authors would be so willing to tackle the subject of reconstructed hymens, Cheheltan seems to shy away from describing sex in detail. In one scene the act of penetration is described as "crossing the threshold".
While it's clear the novel seeks to address big issues, the means with which it does so ultimately leaves it feeling flat.
Schahrsad - apparently indifferent - is carried forth by the events. No outcry, no protesting.… All her energy ends in motionless enduring that has no tomorrow, no conscience of guilt, no sense of self esteem. … Characterising the young woman Cheheltan succeeds in reflecting the mental state of Iranian society in an impressive manner. Captivated between tradition and today, faith and superstition and brutally oppressed by a government apparatus firmly established in society, escape appears nowhere.
With the worldwide first edition of his last novel (in German language) the Iranian author gives us a vivid, exciting and well rounded portrait of postrevolutionary Teheran. … From the first lines on the appeal lies within the composition of exact observation and critical description together with an irony that merciless hit out at the hypocrisy of the religious revolutionaries. This method of narration and the intrinsic sympathy, some parts humorous, description of human destiny on the background of world events make the reading a gripping, depressing but although entertaining experience – with all biting criticism behind.
It is literature beyond ideological fixation and programmatic purpose; it tries to fulfil the logic of describing the world which is her subject out of herself. Hereby she comes so close to her that she is hardly to discern like an indivisible plastic film. To the reader she becomes a burning-glass, the most unintelligible and remote becomes clear. As a reader you do not want to identify with any character in the novel of Cheheltan, but in the end unresistingly you will with all.
Uncensored and unflinching, Amir Cheheltan’s firebrand tale of power, corruption, and love, set against the roiling aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, opens an unforgettable trilogy of novels about everyday lives in contemporary Tehran.
Moral surgery: Amir Hassan Cheheltan’s Novel of Iran
Fattah is a middle-aged, unmarried doctor whose specialty is what in the scientific literature is called “hymen repair”: for the past several years—in Iran and elsewhere in the Islamic world—a blooming branch not of cosmetic surgery, but of moral surgery: the patching up of girls’ hymens deflowered before marriage. However, it’s not his clinic that has made him rich, but his erstwhile activities as a willing helper of the Iranian Revolution. In the notorious Evin Prison, in the time of the political purges at the beginning of the eighties, he was among those who administered the fatal gunshots. At weekly visits to a bathhouse, he meets two companions of those days—partly engaged in the same business—where, after they’ve drunk the required amount of vodka, they reaffirm their self-righteous Islamic ethos.
In this closed world, the important thing is not to act in conformance with the spirit of Islam, but to scorn any other political persuasion, to suppress every deviation. All of the characters into whose souls Amir Hassan Cheheltan peers are characterized by maximum faithfulness to the regime. These people are not the regime’s henchmen, they are the revolution itself—they embody it. The mentality is reminiscent of Germany in the late phase of the Nazi regime, and anyone who wishes to profoundly understand what is happening in contemporary Iran won’t be able to avoid this book. That, however, doesn’t make it one iota less true, great literature.
Amir Hassan Cheheltan has been known to the readers of this newspaper for years as a courageous reporter on the ongoing monstrosities in Iran. Born in 1956, he is one of the outstanding writers of the middle generation in that country. The political vertigo since the fall of the shah is written into his biography. But how, as a writer, to find the right expression for the monstrous? Cheheltan is a student of Houshang Golshiri (1937–2000), who gained fame in 1969 with Prince Ehtejab, his psychobiography styled as interior monologue of the last Qajar prince. This novel represents a literature that transcends ideological commitments and programmatic intentions; it tries to do justice to the world it depicts (and it is always this monstrous world) from its own logic, and in the process gets so close to it that, like an invisible film, it can hardly be told apart from it. But to the reader it appears as a transparent lens—things that seem impossibly remote and incomprehensible become clear. The reader doesn’t want to identify with any of the characters from Cheheltan’s novel, but in the end, he can’t help but identify with them all.
The girl whose honor Dr. Fattah patches up at the start of the book is named Scheherezade, like the narrator of 1,001 Nights. Unlike her famous namesake, she isn’t given the slightest chance of telling stories herself in order to save her own life. Fatally, she resembles the pop diva Googoosh (who really exists), whom Fattah in his youth desired and who remained unattainable, although he managed a glimpse of her towards the end of the shah’s era upon delivering alcohol to a pool party in one of Tehran’s wealthy districts. In the course of his obsession, he stalks her, rapes her (“if you want, I can sew it back up again”) and asks for her hand in marriage. Cheheltan manages to give even this disgusting character human traits—he doesn’t caricature him.
But Fattah isn’t the only suitor. The other one, Mustafa, is almost a generation younger, a child of the revolution, also from a simple background, but no less fanatical. He works in the women’s section of the notorious Evin Prison. Scheherezade’s family is not completely convinced by this suitor. In order to check out Mustafa’s status and seriousness, an uncle from the provinces—there is no father—is to visit Mustafa’s workplace to learn more about him. Clueless, the uncle has no idea where he has landed; he is both impressed and deeply shocked, and tries, sitting across from Mustafa’s arrogant supervisor, to maintain at least some of his dignity, a grotesque and yet moving scene that further illuminates the inhumanity of the system.
Mustafa appears to be powerless against Fattah’s insistence and his promises of greater material comfort, but Mustafa is the one Scheherezade wants. He reports her as an opponent of the regime and has her arrested by the special unit and put in his prison, in order to flee with her from there. But, once these kinds of powers are unleashed, this Iranian sorcerer’s apprentice can no longer contain them.
The book contains not a single line against Islam, against the government or the rule of the mullahs. But it shows how a system that has blocked all public and democratic control mechanisms must, due to the egotism of its executors, undermine itself. The great metaphor of this state of affairs is fatherlessness, in Persian also a four-letter word for those born out of wedlock. Fattah, Mustafa, and Scheherezade have all lost their fathers. The psychological consequence is a loss of consciousness of justice and the law.
If newly reelected President Ahmadinejad really means what he says about putting a stop to despotism and corruption and reestablishing true Islamic morality, he would have to allow the publication of such a book immediately. Instead, the book is appearing for the first time in German, in the masterly translation of Susanne Baghestani. And before it is anything else, it is world literature.
STEFAN WEIDNER, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung