Ali Araghi’s debut novel, "The Immortals of Tehran," spans four decades of Iranian history — from what would prove to be the nation’s final shah taking power to the 1979 revolution. It’s a sprawling family saga, with a dose of magical realism and a few surprising twists. Who would believe the surprising role meddling cats played in Iran’s tumultuous 20th century?
Araghi is an Iranian-born translator and writer, but he’s spent the last four years living in St. Louis, where he is a Ph.D student of comparative literature at Washington University. He explained on St. Louis on the Air that he was inspired to incorporate cats after a chance encounter on the streets of Tehran.
“I was walking home, and I saw a cat,” he said. “Street cats are a very common thing to see in Tehran — kind of like squirrels here, with a little bit more character. So you would see them on walls, under cars, in ditches, ripping open garbage bags. Usually, when they see you, they run away. But this one specific cat was walking towards me, on the sidewalk, not even looking at me.
“At that moment, it felt to me that this cat was kind of making a statement that, ‘You and me have the same rights to the sidewalk, if not the city. We’re equal citizens.’ The thought kind of snowballed: What if these cats that I’m seeing every day in the city — what if they’re up to something?’”
From there, “snowballed” is the only word for it. Explained Araghi, “The novel implies that whatever happened in contemporary Iranian history is the doing of cats.”
But the cat-driven revolution isn’t just whimsy. It also offers a sly commentary on historical writing.
“A historical text uses very similar narrative strategies as fiction,” he said. “You take events out of the continuum that is life. You put a beginning to it, you put an end to it, you write about one person, a certain event, so there’s a theme to this historical piece of writing. This is something that fiction does.
“So, some of the questions are, ‘What is this frame doing? What is it leaving out of that narrative? Is there something that we’re not taking into account, something that is misrepresented?’ Hopefully, these cats raise some of these questions for some of the readers.”
Araghi said St. Louis is now the third U.S. city he’s lived in, following stints in South Bend, Indiana, and Ames, Iowa.
The small Midwestern communities where Araghi began his American journey were a “huge shock,” he acknowledged, after growing up in a city of more than 8 million. When he first arrived in South Bend in the winter of 2011, he recalled, “There was snow, and there were some squirrels. I was like, ‘Where are people?’ It was very empty.”
He said that he has not yet made it to New York City, but just being in a bigger metropolis has been in some ways a relief.
“This is the biggest city I’ve lived in outside of Iran,” he said. “I’ve been joking that St. Louis has been like my New York in the States so far.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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