Translated By: Nastaran Kherad
Publisher: University of Texas Press
The Neighbors. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2013 . 409pp. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0292749054.
Volume: 1 Issue: 8
Cynthia Lindenmeyer, Rev. Dr.
American Public University
Charles Town, WVA
What is the human cost of oil production? After reading Ahmad Mahmoud’s The Neighbors, this haunting question resonates in my mind when I drive by gas stations surrounding American suburban neighborhoods. Extremely well written and thought-provoking, The Neighbors depicts a pivotal time in the life of Khaled, an adolescent boy coming of age during the turmoil of Iran’s struggle to nationalize its oil industry. Khaled’s story represents the undocumented accounts of Iranians in the mid-twentieth century who endured social, political and economic resistance to the West. Undoubtedly, much of Khaled’s experiences echo that of the author.
Living in poverty under the shadows of the oil refineries in the small port town of Abadan, Khaled has a somewhat idyllic life amidst the lives of his neighbors, who all share the same latrine, drink from the same water source, and know all the intimate secrets about one another due to such close proximity living. Though Khaled possesses a desire to learn, his father believes that, “a real man is one that, when you pat him on the back, dust rises in the air” (p. 4). Therefore, Kahled’s hunger for knowledge must be fed by his observation of the neighbors and his father’s proverbial sayings about life. However, the deteriorating economy leaves Khaled’s father no choice but to travel to Kuwait for work, creating a void that invites new authority figures to shape his adolescent perspectives.
Khaled seeks work at the local teahouse, owned by Aman Aqa, one of the neighbors who physically abuses his wife, Bolur, who in turn seduces Khaled into exploring his sexuality. His father gone, Khaled desires to help his impoverished family, yet is conflicted with sleeping with the wife of his employer, who becomes like a father figure. Khaled’s daily adventures take a dramatic turn when his close friend, Ebrahim, leaves him to shoulder the blame for breaking a window with a rock, and Khaled is dragged to the local corrupt police station. During his brief confinement, he encounters Pendar, who is networked with those who will change Khaled’s youthful idealization of government.
Working at the teahouse, strategically located on the main road between the town and the oil refineries, Khaled thrives on listening to the customers talk about the idea of nationalizing oil. Meanwhile, political revolutionaries use Khaled as a delivery boy for illegal pamphlets. Intertwined with his growing attraction to women, desire to be a man, and awakening of Iran’s political situation, Khaled realizes
Everything is new to me. I have opened my eyes to a new world. Now, from the sorts of things I hear, I can grasp why the lives of the destitute worsen each day, and why people like my father have to pack up their bundles and go from one foreign country to another in search of work so that they can earn a pretty sum of money (p. 143).
He begins to comprehend that the lives of his neighbors reveal the hardships of the common people of Iran, who are exploited due British control over the oil refineries. The effects on one tiny acre in one small neighborhood in one small town in Iran reveal the oppression; and the neighbors in Khaled’s world echo the lives of those in the working class who are exploited, whether the monopolies involved are land, oil or power. Prayers to Allah at least give hope to some, such as Khaled’s father, while others, such as Aman Aqa, embrace reality and revolt with anger towards loved ones. Meanwhile, a growing number of Iranians, in order to include Pendar, seek to take matters into their own hands and revolt against the government.
When Khaled falls in love with a woman with black enticing eyes, Pendar warns him that he must not develop close relationships, “You should learn, in the course of battle, not to allow your emotions to take over” (p. 237). Then, during a very secretive and dangerous mission, Khaled is caught carrying a suitcase full of propaganda material. Flashbacks echo the present, and remind the reader that Khaled is still a boy, for the novel takes a dramatic turn. The second half of the book depicts a new neighborhood — Khaled’s cell block. Mahmoud details Khaled’s torture and mental transformation extremely well, drawing from his own personal imprisonment.
Linking Khaled’s two communities–his family home and the prison–is Rahim the Donkey Keeper, who is imprisoned for the murder of his wife. When Rahim is hauled to the gallows, Khaled recalls a frightening childhood memory when he saw the stiff bodies of three faceless men soon after a town square hanging. A boy’s distant engraved memory now has a face to it, his neighbor Rahim, and suddenly everyone who hangs is no longer faceless, for they all have a name, a story.
The reader transforms with Khaled, from innocence to embracing the imparity of life; from embracing all the potential youth offers, to possibly believing death is better than life in solitary confinement. So much is taken away from Khaled–his father’s being forced to seek employment in Kuwait, his mother’s being denied jail visitations, and his first love’s never being seen again once he is thrown into prison. In the remainder of the book, the community of the neighbors with whom he grows up becomes the community of the prisoners he befriends. This remains with him as he is released from prison only to witness his best friend from childhood, Ebrahim, being dragged into prison.
Every struggle for power affects people, but what about the communities affected who have neither say, nor power, nor economic advantage? As American-Iranian relations have yet to reconcile from the time period in which this story takes place, Americans would benefit from reading The Neighbors. Perspective is everything; for what if oil were nationalized in some small town in Texas and a foreign power toppled our government and pillaged the profits, resulting in poverty that affected generations? Eurocentric history books in America skip over the thousands of lives that were destroyed as a result of the British and American intervention in Iran’s oil production. Ahmad Mahmoud dares to reveal the turmoil experienced by Iranians; and in some ways, this novel reminds me of the bold writing of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who used fiction to communicate reality.