Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Emancipating the wonderful men of the Middle East

Does every Middle Eastern man have to be a wife beater in their stories?

by mahbodseraji

On one of my recent trips to the Middle East, a friend and a business associate, Hesam, invited me over to his house for dinner. I eagerly accepted.

The dinner was plentiful, the host and the hostess extremely gracious, and as the tradition goes, some relatives, including Hesam's parents and his wife’s two sisters and their husbands, were also present. Everyone was dressed in western-style clothing except my host, who was wearing a long while dishdasha. The house was sumptuously furnished with European sofas and chairs, artworks from the surrounding Gulf countries, expensive Persian rugs, and lavish, beautiful curtains, which dressed the bay windows that faced the Persian Gulf across the street.

The conversation during dinner focused on Rumi and Hafiz and other Persian poets whose works my hosts admired. The literary discussion grew livelier and I couldn't help but mention that I had written a novel, which was about to be published in America, called Rooftops of Tehran.

For a moment, an unusual silence filled the room, before a torrent of congratulations rained down on me.

"How lovely," the wife said.

"My mom and dad are avid readers," said Hussain, my host's son who attended the University of Michigan and was home for a break.

"They'll be the first to buy and read your book," Hesam's beautiful eighteen-year old daughter, Leila, who had just graduated from high school and was admitted to Stanford, assured me.

Both kids spoke English fluently.

But my host said nothing.

I was a bit surprised and unsettled by Hesam's delayed enthusiasm, but kept my discomfort to myself. Later that night, after we had Turkish coffee and deserts, and played a game or two of backgammon, which my friend won, he invited me to take a stroll along the shore of the Persian Gulf. I noticed how he refrained from referring to the Persian Gulf as the "Arabian Gulf," as most Arabs do.

It was a damp, hot night, but a nice breeze was blowing from the north. The stars were visibly shining in the skies and the sound of crashing waves on the beach brought back countless memories of my nights on the other side of the waters in my own homeland in Iran.

"Is your story going to become an international bestseller by making the Middle Eastern men look wicked and evil, like so many others have?" Hesam asked me with a pleasant smile.

The confused look on my face made him chuckle. Then his tone turned soft. "My father, whom you met tonight," he said as he pointed toward the house behind us, "is almost eighty years old. My mother is seventy five, may they both live to be one hundred-twenty, Inshallah --- God willing. Did you know that he can't read or write, but that he has most of the Holy Koran memorized?"

"Wow," I whispered still anxious to know where the conversation was leading, suspecting a link to the delayed reaction to my book announcement.

"My grandparents lived in a tent," he continued. "So did my father, until he was ten years old. But you know, my father has never beaten my mother. I have never beaten my wife, and I swear I'd kill the man who would raise a hand to my beloved Leila, the light of my eyes."

I remained silent as we trudged our way forward through the sandy beach.

"They portray us like animals," he complained. "Ugly, heartless, family hating, wife beating misogynists. Why do they do that? Why do they paint us all in one stroke? All in one color? Made of the same cloth? Why?"

I shook my head.

"Does every Middle Eastern man have to be a wife beater in their stories? Don't they know that there are men here who would give their lives for their families? In some ways I am glad that my father can’t read. They have marred and tarnished the reputation of real men like him, like my decent in-laws, whose warmth and pleasant temperaments make them great proud fathers, compassionate considered brothers, lovable husbands and partners for life."

He stopped momentarily. I could see under the moonlight that his face had turned red.

"I don't deny that such men exist in our culture but that's not how all of us are. Do you think people understand that?"

I nodded and he continued telling me of the sacrifices his father had made for his clan as a young man, of the love he himself had for all of his family, and of his dreams for Hussain and Leila. I listened without interrupting, as I wanted to hear him out.

Later that night, his wife accompanied us as Hesam drove me back to my hotel. She didn't want him to have to drive back alone. She insisted that she take the back seat.

"The two of you have things to talk about," she said adamantly. "You take the front seat with my husband."

I couldn't help but think that an American wife would have been unlikely to do that; not that I was passing judgment, only making an observation of our cultural differences.

It wasn't until I was on my flight coming back to the States that I realized I had forgotten to tell my friend that my story didn't depict the Middle Eastern men in the bitter way he had described. At first I thought of writing him an email but I decided to wait.

A few months later when Rooftops of Tehran was printed, I mailed him an advance copy of the book. He immediately acknowledged receiving it and promised to read it right away. A week later I received an email from him. It only contained four words. "Thank you my friend."

I knew exactly what he meant.

Mahbod Seraji is the author of Rooftops of Tehran. This blog was orginally published ReadingGroupGuides.com.


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