Tehran is like a bad marriage one keeps getting trapped in,” according to Issa, the protagonist of Salar Abdoh’s thrilling new novel, A Nearby Country Called Love (Viking, Nov.).
Speaking via Zoom from Marrakesh, Morocco, which Abdoh was visiting for a research project, the 58-year-old journalist, essayist, and translator acknowledged that he, too, has a complicated relationship with his native Iran, where he lives half the year. “Nothing is easy in that country,” he says. But he keeps going back.
In many ways, A Nearby Country Called Love—Abdoh’s fifth novel, following The Poet Game (2000), Opium (2004), Tehran at Twilight (2014), and Out of Mesopotamia (2020)—is both an ode to Iran and an exploration of the author’s ambivalence toward the country where he was born and raised until the Iranian Revolution of 1979.
He then spent two years at an English boarding school before his parents brought him and his older brother, Reza, to the U.S. Abdoh returned to Iran in 1990, after graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in Near Eastern studies. He was young and wanted to see the world, and to continue to study Middle Eastern literature in the Middle East.
“I also wanted to have a reckoning with the revolution,” he says. “This move was arguably the foundational step of my life. I could have stayed away like so many exiles and lived a strictly America life. Very deliberately I chose not to.”
Many of the geopolitical issues of the past 40-plus years, Abdoh contends, stem from the Iranian Revolution, which toppled the monarchy, led to the establishment of the Islamic Republic, and changed the balance of power in the Middle East. “As someone who wanted to be an adventurer even more so than I wanted to be a writer,” he says, “I thought, where else but Iran!”
Tehran, the sprawling city of 15 million where much of A Nearby Country Called Love is set, is portrayed as a place of infinite contradictions. Pollution, traffic jams, overflowing garbage, and precarious construction sites are parts of everyday life. Modesty squads patrol the streets, fining or arresting women for “improprieties” such as not wearing hijabs. There is a steady stream of news about women who choose to burn themselves to death rather than continue to be beaten by husbands, fathers, or brothers for perceived acts of defiance.
At the same time, Abdoh’s Tehran is a cosmopolitan city brimming with cafés, culture, and well-educated locals who frequent concerts, galleries, and literary readings. There is also a vibrant underground network of gay bars and drag clubs.
But no matter the neighborhood or occasion, there are some constants in Tehran. Among them, and reflected in the psyches of Abdoh’s characters, is dread. “While it’s not quite the quotidian oppression outsiders imagine, there is the sense of always being on edge,” he says. “That dread has become innate, part of our very character.” And yet, he adds, “at some point folk figured out that rather than fighting the authorities to keep them out of their lives, they can simply disregard and ignore them, which creates a schizophrenia that you learn to live with, though at a cost to your mental and physical well-being.”
A Nearby Country Called Love, which PW’s review called “a moving and nuanced study of gender and sexuality in contemporary Iran,” follows Issa as he reluctantly returns to Tehran from New York City and attempts to come to terms with his brother’s death. As the novel opens, Issa and his friend Nasser are on a mission to avenge the suicide-by-burning of a wife whose husband, the pair believe, drove her to that fate. While Nasser, a fireman who moonlights as an appliance salesman, revels in the testosterone-fueled vigilante mission—their second—Issa, a former soldier, knows there is nothing noble about what they have set out to do. He is also reminded of the persecution his late brother Hashem faced in their neighborhood due to his sexual orientation.
Violence threads throughout the novel, as do Issa’s questions about the nature of masculinity and what is expected of a man living in contemporary Iran.
“My father was a boxer and a soldier,” Abdoh says. “Machismo was part of the fabric, part of the molecule of everything that I grew up with. But my brother Reza was into theater and the arts. At an early age, he knew he was gay, and my father viewed him with shame. I was always in the middle, being pulled in both directions. I modeled Issa’s brother on my family experience, and on what Reza endured and accomplished before he died of AIDS in 1995.”
Issa lives above the dojo his father ran until his death. His brother Hashem was a revered queer artist in Tehran’s underground—and their father did everything he could to scare Hashem straight. After enduring bullying and beatings by schoolmates and his father, Hashem learned to be defiant no matter the price. His death devastated Issa and prompted him to learn more about the community of friends, lovers, and artists who embraced his brother.
Issa starts by reading authors Hashem cherished: Beckett, Auden, Proust, and Rilke. Soon, he’s attending parties and performances with people in his brother’s circle. Boundaries melt away. Eventually, Issa becomes romantically involved with a man. For Issa, though, this is a process of self-discovery—and even a way of honoring his brother.
References to various Western literary works are sprinkled throughout the narrative, as are mentions of Perso-Arabic classics. The latter, Abdoh says, “cast a huge shadow of influence for me because many of those writers and mystics were always after the ultimate questions. Ontology—the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being—was their bread and butter.” The same can be said for Abdoh, whose work probes the nature of belonging, masculinity, and the self.
And while Abdoh set the novel in Iran and many of its plot points are unique to that country, he also wanted to address the global question of “how to be a man in this day and age,” he says, “when the paradigm of who we are supposed to be has shifted and none of us really knows how to behave, to respond.”
Leigh Haber ran Oprah’s Book Club for 10 years. She now owns and operates her own editorial and consulting business.