Excerpt: Love on the Eve of the Iranian Revolution

Rabeah Ghaffari's debut novel To Keep The Sun Alive

Iran, 1979. The country is on the brink of a revolution that would change everything. In the northeastern city of Naishapur, a retired judge and his wife, Bibi, tend an ancient orchard and provide the linchpin for an extended and contentious family whose personal divisions reflect the growing fault lines in Iranian society of that time.

This is the setting for Rabeah Ghaffari's remarkable debut novel To Keep the Sun Alive, a compelling, richly woven story about a family swept up in the currents of Iranian history — both ancient and contemporary. Here is a brief excerpt:


To be cut loose in the heart of a city in the throes of a celebration was almost overwhelming to the two young lovers. Without a word they ran together down the street as though they were physically testing the boundaries of their new freedom. As the crowds swelled Madjid slowed his pace and took Nasreen’s hand. They walked side by side. The sounds of actors and singers wove through the murmur of conversation, the calling of vendors.

They sat together on a crate inside the fruit warehouse watching the barefoot American troupe create a magical world of rabbits and mushrooms and disappearing cats. Drinks that made Alice shrink and cakes that made her grow. Alice was dressed in nothing more than patchwork rags — and yet she was fussy, spoiled, lost, the real Alice. They were mesmerized. Was it the play alone? Or their being together in public?

Perhaps both. They held hands for every minute of the show.

After the curtain call, they erupted into applause, clapping until their hands stung, Madjid blowing whistles between claps. It was a cool night and the scent of coals and kebab wafted through the air on the street. They sat at a plastic table outside a shack and ordered a platter to share, then washed it down with Coca-Colas. Nasreen was still electrified by the play they had seen. “Have you ever seen such a thing?” she said. “They were all so good. It was just, so, oh, Madjid, wasn’t it magic? Didn’t you see the place, the animals, really see it?”

“I did. I really did.”

“They did it with nothing more than their bodies and voices. Pure magic.”

“I liked how they stepped into each role then stepped out.”

“Yes! And how they didn’t use lighting tricks or costumes to transform themselves. This is what I long to do, Madjid.”

Madjid watched her face so full of passion. He thought of the train ride and the way in which she was able to sing a song, tell a story, or act out a scene, moving effortlessly from one character to the next with her whole body and voice. “You will do it. You already do.”

They finished their meal and headed back onto the main street, walking slowly now with Madjid’s arm around her shoulder. Nobody paid them any mind. Nobody cared that an unmarried couple so brazenly walked the streets, their bodies touching. It was nearing midnight when they arrived, and they made their way to the Hafezieh to listen to Persian music.

The Hafezieh was the tomb of the poet Hafez, and was surrounded by an open-air marble pavilion and lawns. A makeshift stage was set up in front of the tomb for a performance by four musicians, a setar player, a dombak player, a kamancheh player, and a singer, who played the daf drum. People were scattered on the grass quietly conversing, and hushed as soon as the music began. Madjid lay on his side resting his head on his hand looking up at the moon. “There is a full solar eclipse coming next month,” he said. “The moon will completely block out the sun.” Nasreen brought her face over Madjid’s, blocking his view of the sky, and said, “Like this?” They laughed then held still for a moment, to mark the anticipation before a kiss.

The music went on and on. People came and left. Shopkeepers pulled in their wares. Porters folded chairs and swept the stairs. Actors, directors, dancers, and singers dressed for a night out gathered at restaurants and bars. Hotel lobbies hummed with guests. Street sweepers collected garbage and street performers strapped their props to their backs. The show, at last, was over for the night.

And just beyond, just out of sight of the newsstands and hospitality kiosks, the makeshift stages, the concession stands, the restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, the journalists, paparazzi, press conferences, scholars, intellectuals, theater troupes, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, tourists, beyond the floodlights and the streetlights, in the vast darkness that spread across the plains stood a nation on the brink of revolution.


 From To Keep the Sun Alive by Rabeah Ghaffari, courtesy of Catapult. Copyright 2019, Rabeah Ghaffari. 

About the Author

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.