By Susanna Huth
Joobin Bekhrad is the founder of Reorient magazine, an acclaimed online publication that celebrates contemporary Middle Eastern arts and culture. He is also the author of a new translation of Omar Khayyam’s poems into English. Kayhan London recently caught up with him to discuss his debut novel Coming Down Again – a nostalgic coming-of-age tale about a dreamy schoolboy and his love of rock and roll.
KL: What is Reorient magazine, and why did you set it up?
JB: Reorient is a publication about the contemporary arts and culture of the Middle East and the surrounding region. It is a non-political, non-religious, and [largely] non-commercial endeavor made possible by the voluntary efforts of contributors around the world.
I founded Reorient in 2012 on a whim, as I felt the need for a platform that could introduce and celebrate the arts and culture of Iran and the Middle East in a serious yet accessible way. I also really wanted to run my own publication. As writing and Iranian culture have long been my chief interests, I thought I’d combine the two to see what could happen.
Kl: What impact has it had on the Iranian community?
JB: Through Reorient, many Iranians are becoming better acquainted with their own culture. Just because someone is Iranian doesn’t necessarily mean that they know about the history of wine in Iran, about the world’s oldest windmills in Khorasan, or about masterpieces of Iranian cinema.
Many Iranians have reached out to thank us for the work we’re doing – although it must be said that at the same time, I’ve received quite a bit of hate mail from various Iranians who think that we’re somehow presenting a false image of Iran. There’s also been hate mail directed towards me.
KL: Your novel Coming Down Again was released recently. For those who haven’t had a chance to read it yet, how would you describe it?
JB: It’s a work of fiction, but definitely not a typical one. I actually did two drafts. The first one was more what was expected of me, but I ended up scrapping that, as I really wanted to focus on the mood and emotion of the character.
There isn’t specifically a plot. I did this on purpose: I really wanted to capture the mood and feeling of this teenage boy. The book reads like a diary. You get to experience the character’s thoughts and fears.
KL: Where did you get inspiration for the characters?
JB: I would say it was a combination of the trips to Iran in my childhood and the long summer days there. I remember these long, hot summer days filled with TV and awful music videos. I guess it had an impact on me.
I really wanted to blend fiction with some of my memories. I didn’t want my writing to be artificial. I really wanted to highlight the love-hate relationship I have with Tehran – without falling into the trap of the ‘adult in the West that hates Iran and its oppressiveness.’ So I’d say my inspiration came from that relationship with the city, as I lived through those days and those feelings of hopelessness.
KL: Coming Down Again is jam-packed with references to pop culture and rock and roll. Did these elements influence your life as much as they did the character Asha’s?
JB: Definitely. These were the artists I grew up with. Asha is definitely an aspect of me. I mean, I didn’t dress up in my Mom’s clothes and wear her makeup, but I definitely relate to him.
KL: Is novel writing something you want to continue?
JB: Yes, definitely – this is just the beginning for me. This year, I will be publishing a collection entitled With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes. It’s a set of stories and essays – mostly about Iran – that I wrote in the past two years. The stories explore Iranian arts and culture, identity, the diaspora and other such subjects, but ultimately I’d say it’s a sort of autobiography.
I will also be releasing a book of poems. The poetry book (whose working title is Lovers of Light) is a collaboration between a Syrian artist and myself. I’ve written the poems, and she’s providing the illustrations. The poems are heavily rooted in Iranian mythology, and have much to do with Zoroastrianism and the ancient Iranian god Mitra (Mithras).