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The good neighbor
A film on the life of novelist Ahmad Mahmoud

February 25, 2005

When I received e-mail from my friend at the local Iranian Cultural Society regarding their upcoming event featuring the documentary Ahmad Mahmoud: A Noble Novelist directed by Bahman Maghsoudlou, I was thrilled. As always when I get excited, I forgot to read the rest of the e-mail.

My mind went back to when I was about ten years old and I had managed to borrow the book Neighbors from an older friend so I could be cool by knowing the content since his name was often brought up as a brave and great writer.

As young as I was, I felt the rebelliousness of Bloor Khanoum in her own way but I also was angry at how she was at the mercy of her husband. I was too young to sort out the emotions I was feeling but I knew one thing for certain that Ahmad Mahmoud was pro-women. He was my kind of hero.

By this time I was a veteran reader for two years! In my young and impressionable mind I could spot a man who thought women were smart, but society wanted to treat them as second class.

Years later I tried hard to find his books but I was not successful. When the internet was invented and I began to order books through an Iranian website, I did not come across Mahmoud's books either.

In my college days, I had seen pictures of Maghsoudlou and read some articles about his work in cinema which reflected his travels and interviews with great film personalities in different countries.

I was about 22, and a college graduate, when I saw Maghsoudlou on a cultural program on Channel 2 in Tehran. The program showed a serious person who was very knowledgeable and well informed about his craft even though he did not seem that old!

On Saturday, I had a tight schedule: I was having lunch with an Iranian friend and rushing to buy evening clothes for the upcoming Noruz party. At about 6:30 I drove back home like a maniac and ran up the stairs so fast I frightened my neighbors. I had only 5 minutes to change. I got to the university a few minutes before the program started.

I just said hello to my colleague in charge of the program and took my seat on the second row. The host gave a small presentation about Bahman Maghsoudlou's and his accomplishments which were hard to keep track of.

Then I realized the man with white hair sitting in front of me was the director. I was really impressed with his few minutes of introduction because to me he had always been a larger than life figure (and you all know a person has to be damn impressive for me to even acknowledge him or her).

The opening scene on the documentary evokes a range of emotions. Seeing the great writer with the tubes which provide oxygen, makes one feel a great deal of compassion but the writer's mischievous look in his eyes immediately fills the heart with warmth and the real soul comes through. An instant bond is formed. Watching the original house where the characters from Neighbors were created was beautiful and so befitting.

Mahmoud talks about his childhood, his difficulties and his inspirations. He has a great sense of humor and admits to having respiratory problems yet the cigarette never leaves his hands. In one scene he smokes, then puts the tube back on and smiles. The rebellious soul is there for the viewer to see.

Watching the writer walking with his cane among his immense collection of books (my kind of place) is a great reminder of how well read is this writer who never finished college because he could not afford it.

Ahmad Mahmoud's sincerity comes through the camera. He speaks about the war which broke out in 1980 and Iraqi's occupation of Abadan/ Khorramshahr. His pain is evident when he talks about other Iranians mistreating fellow Khuzestanis in calling them "war-stricken" and even in some instances throwing hot water at them to discourage them from entering their cities. (To this day, I have contempt for those cities and have vowed to never spend any money or visit their unkind people.)

As the documentary reaches its end, it leaves one with a hunger of wanting to know more about the writer and his personal life. I loved his definition of love even though he had a traditional marriage to a close relative. I wanted to ask so many questions.

The film ends with the writer going slowly to his upstairs library as a portion of Neighbors is read by him . It beautifully makes the viewer understand that despite the fragile health and the old body, the heart is very much filled with love and emotions of a young man longing with desires.

After the film, Maghsoudlou came back on stage and gave a short presentation about Iranian cinema and his projects, including documenting the lives of great Iranian artists. He also mentioned that the DVD of Ahmad Mahmoud: A Noble Novelist, will have two additional hours of interviews featuring more personal aspects of the great writer's life.

I was amazed at how approachable and warm Maghsoudlou was to everyone who spoke to him. I am always impressed with people I consider "Iranian treasures" when they are humble and easy to reach. Maghsoudlou definitely is one of our treasures and I look forward to reading his two books and seeing the entire documentary on DVD. I am also grateful for his referral to find the great writer's books so I can read them now and understand the rich characters and the unique backgrounds surrounding the stories.

I also recommend seeing Silence of The Sea, a movie by this great director which I saw a few months ago in an International Film Festival. A great and very different movie about the Diaspora and identity crisis. The characters are profound and stories reflecting their struggles are thought provoking.

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Azam Nemati

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