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Book Review: Houri by Mehrdad Balali

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When you begin to read Houri, you are descending into Iranian airspace through the voice of Shahed, a man returning to his homeland on the third anniversary of his fathers death. His name means “witness',” and through his eyes, Mehrdad Balali allows you to see his country juxtaposed in a time warp of culture. Shahed left Iran as a youth, running away to America. His father died in 1979, but this pilgrimage takes him back to a Post-Revolutionary Iran, a new world for Shahed. He steps out of the plane into a strikingly different climate upon his return. There is evidence of subjugation and authoritarian rule everywhere. The obvious, bearded men and veiled women. The more subtle changes would only be noticed by a “witness” from the past, missing landmarks, renamed streets, businesses that have vanished.

As a child, Shahed hated his father and often prayed for him to die. His father led a sybaritic life, always seeking pleasure and excitement at times while his family suffered. He chased money and women that led to bitter memories for Shahed. He believes his father’s death was timely for him as the “fun and joy were being clubbed to death in Iran.”

Shahed is returning now to seek closure, perhaps find the answer to his questions and come to understand his father. Shahed experiences the tyranny and oppression under Khomeini, and his reaction is surprising as he yearns for his father. “Suddenly, I began to miss him, the man I’d so intently avoided when he was alive. … The past looked happy, alive and romantic, and the present had the sour taste of a hangover.”

Houri is absorbing and offers a panoramic vision of a country not always defined with such clarity and perspective. With a keen sense of his audience, the author creates the character of Shahed as his voice. This allows for his ability to travel back in time and across continents, adding his personal experiences to enhance and add valuable details.

A reflective, emotional and ironic story that shouldn’t be missed.

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