From Tehran to Tel Aviv: Of Crime and the Cities

Akashic Noir series continues to serve up delightful and disturbing gems that offer remarkable insights into the world’s great (and not-so-great) cities.

“Reverse-gentrification of the literary world” proclaims the headline banner on Akashic Books’ website.

It’s a fair representation of the bold creativity of this independent publisher, still described as a ‘small press’ despite its growing clout in the literary world. Co-founded by Girls Against Boys bassist Johnny Temple in 1996, it’s expanded into an eclectic publisher of everything from books on race, queer identity, and biopolitics to 2011’s infamous hit, Go the Fuck to Sleep.

For those familiar with early American noir literature – with its prohibition-era gangsters and roundups by the paranoid morality police of Hoover’s FBI – cultural differences between Tehran, Tel Aviv, and New York shrink with remarkable ease when considered from the perspective of the apolitical, hard-scrabble crime-solver. There’s a lesson here: perspective really is everything.

Among the diverse array of books published by Akashic is the ‘Noir’ series: collections of ‘noir’ short story anthologies, each volume of which is themed around a specific city or place. The original release was Brooklyn Noir – fittingly, the location of Akashic’s headquarters – and it proved so surprisingly successful that other cities began contributing collections of their own dark deeds to the series. There are now over 60 anthologies in the series, with dozens more in the works. They span the globe – Mumbai Noir, Paris Noir, Istanbul Noir, even Wall Street Noir. Brooklyn Noir now spans three volumes. As John Wilkins explained in a 2011 UT-San Diego feature, “Publisher Johnny Temple said the idea was to capture the ‘intense diversity’ of that borough by having different writers focus on different neighborhoods.”

Diversity is indeed the hallmark of the series. While ostensibly dark tales of crime and despair, the genius of the series lies in its ability to use such an uncharacteristic point of entry to convey the identity and essence of a place with remarkably poignant accuracy. The books are divided into neighbourhoods and delineated by streets, and the backdrop against which the tales play out offers a more realistic and quotidian view of the city’s daily life – both its sunny and dark sides – than is usually offered by the average novel or literary travel piece.

Further, the noir dimension enables writers to really challenge readers’ perceptions of these cities: instead of overt social criticism, it achieves the same effect via subtly dark and engaging narratives wrapped in a raw and unvarnished depiction of objective reality. From the suffering of homeless refugees to the gossip of conniving neighbours; from corrupt police to seedy shop-owners; the stories work so well because the reader recognizes them as being so real. They offer the reader a very different vantage on cities they sometimes think they know quite well.

Two of the most recent releases in the series provide an apt illustration of these qualities. Tel Aviv Noir was edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron, and features 14 stories spread across the Israeli city. Many of the authors are young, up-and-coming award-winning writers; some are poets, some are journalists whose knowledge and familiarity of the city and its ways are reflected perceptively in the tales they tell. The stories range from standard murder mysteries to almost fantasy-like mystical tales; but all are set in the contemporary streets and neighbourhoods of the city. From a novice investigator struggling to solve the disappearance of a tech entrepreneur, to an Israeli woman whose irrational fear of African refugees becomes overpowering, to an ex-cop who offers crime tours of the city (until his prime attractions start getting murdered), there’s a wide array of plots and styles.

A couple struggles to find unusual sources of meat for their unusually picky canine pet; a gang-war between Israelis and East European mafia is chronicled in all its dramatic turns; Death sits in a café discoursing with a barista as bombs explode outside. The collection reflects much of the daily reality of the city, but not the sort one is likely to read in tour guides. And while the stories are, by virtue of the genre, not at all cheery, they’re not simplistic gloom-and-doom tales, either. There’s a complexity and virtuosity to plot and prose that leaves the reader with a sense of satisfaction and appreciation, despite the typically devastating denouement of the tales.

Even more remarkable is the collection Tehran Noir, edited by Salar Abdoh. Stripped of the sort of politicized rhetoric that often accompanies depictions of Iran in the western world, the stories that emerge offer a truly human portrait of everyday people struggling to survive in a city that is as full of good and evil – and plenty of gray – as any other. Indeed, the most startling thing about the Noir collections is that while they aim to showcase the diversity of the cities they depict, what emerges is an equally powerful sense of the commonalities these geographically and politically disparate cities share. In Tehran, as much as Tel Aviv or Brooklyn or London, detectives struggle to solve crimes while avoiding the wrong type of scrutiny from corrupt senior officers. Investigative journalists struggle to get their stories out with full knowledge of the painful consequences they can invoke in a world where power and wealth often smother truth.

Of course, Tehran is, of all locations depicted in the Noir series, one of the truly unique. As the editor writes in the introduction: “…there really is a difference here. The city may be a hothouse of decadence, a den of iniquity, all that. But it still exists under the watchful eye of the Islamic Republic. The city enforces its own morality police, and there are regular public hangings of drug dealers and thieves. Because of this there is a raging sense of a split personality about the place – the imposed propriety of the mosque rubbing against the hidden (and more often not so hidden) rhythms of the real city.”

As the editor also notes, the city is one of the world’s most significant drug conduits, and despite its teetotalling totalitarianism, it’s not that hard to find a drink if you really want to. All of this forms the backdrop for the collection, whose stories unabashedly tackle the drug trade, misogyny and sexism, and ethnic strife. There is a sort of social commentary here – while never overt or preachy, it possesses a power by simple virtue of unadorned straightforwardness. One of the most powerful and brutal stories is a description of a public stoning, which conveys the horrific consequences of primitive brutality and collective complicity as no objective essay ever could. These are more than just descriptions of decadence and despair: the stories are driven by a split sense of intense love for the city and its people, coupled with an undercurrent of seething anger at the struggles and travails that mark their lives.

The 15 stories in this collection also come from a stellar and diverse cast of Iranian writers. There are Kurds, Armenians and Christians; veterans of the Iran-Iraq War and former prisoners of the Islamic Revolution. Seven of the 15 contributors are women. Many of them clearly draw on personal familiarity with the places and themes of which they write. But again, what they share is a clear love for their city, which emerges in the contradictions of an environment where daily life is subject to dangerous tensions. The protagonist of Vali Khalili’s story Fear is the Best Keeper of Secrets, an investigative reporter like the author, offers a telling reflection.

Half my friends had left the country to work for organizations that beamed news into Iran; they had good lives and good salaries – at least I imagined they did – in places like London and Prague. They got to travel, see the world, and they didn’t have to deal with this maddening everyday censorship. I’d stuck it out here because I knew if I went away I might have that good life, but I wouldn’t be much of a journalist anymore. I’d have all the gadgets and all the audience who hungrily watched Persian-language satellite news coming from abroad. But I’d only be deluding myself. I wouldn’t be a reporter anymore; I’d just be someone else’s mouthpiece. I needed to be in the belly of the beast, so to speak. I needed to be in Tehran – to smell it, taste it, feel it, know its aches and pains and the sadness of its people.

A collection such as this is able to bring Iran to life for the foreign reader in a way other fiction and non-fiction cannot. There’s a different quality to the portrayal of life in a city when the portrayal of life is incidental to the task at hand. Novels that take social struggle as their central theme can accomplish wondrous things, but there is often a certain contrived quality to their presentation. But when a reader absorbs the character and life of the city only as a backdrop – taking it in through peripheral vision, while the mind’s central processing dwells on the crime mystery – it nevertheless communicates that backdrop with an astonishingly visceral power. These depictions of life, rendered more subtle and peripheral to the plot at hand, seem to cling with an even greater power in the mind of the reader.

It’s thus that noir fiction – with its concentration on the grim, the dark, the gritty; death and hard-scrabble struggle – succeeds paradoxically in conveying a great sense of life. As the protagonists weave their way through these stories, pursuing criminals (or dodging authorities), investigating mysteries, covering crime for newspapers, they depict an Iran that is far more dynamic than any news broadcast or documentary could ever convey in the west. Criminals fence stolen goods at teahouses. Activists rally to abolish the death penalty. Journalists hack their way through the internet for information; challenge authorities for failing to do their job. It’s thus that the stories take form.

A raid by state security on a newspaper is treated routinely by the reporters being rounded up; one of them clandestinely slips a cell phone into the pocket of a colleague before being marched off, asking her to check it and carry out an interview while she’s busy being interrogated. For those familiar with early American noir literature – with its prohibition-era gangsters and roundups by the paranoid morality police of Hoover’s FBI – cultural differences between Tehran and New York shrink with remarkable ease when considered from the perspective of the apolitical, hard-scrabble crime-solver. There’s a lesson here: perspective really is everything.

The Iranian Revolution haunts the backdrop to these stories: a veil drawn across a complex and unresolved canvas. Bitter histories boil over: former revolutionaries who fought the Islamic clerics to preserve freedom, and paid for it with years of prison torture, now pursue lives of pleasure and drink themselves to excess. Others betrayed their comrades to save themselves, and are in turn betrayed by those seeking revenge for the ones lost. Others try to forget the past, and find an equilibrium in the present. But that is no easier here, for those haunted by the pain of memories they try but cannot forget, than it is in any other city. The pathos that simmers beneath the cool cynicism of the noir genre is a universal, as much as its source and expression emerge in infinite variation.

Akashic has stumbled onto a truly unique literary phenomenon with its Noir series. Cities like Tehran and Tel Aviv reveal themselves as having more in common than they probably realized, and their differences are made to shine in a very unique – if perhaps chipped and jaded – light. The Akashic Noir collections give a truly alternative and grassroots voice to the cities of the world, and the power of that voice conveys something beyond the noir style that is its medium. If you’ve yet to try them, now is as good a time as any to start – and these two collections are superb anthologies to begin with. Disturbing and delightful at the same time, they’ll leave you looking at your own city with a whole new perspective.