The Increment: A Novel

Imagine a gaudy boulevard descending a hill, like a swath of icing dripping down the inside of a coarse earthen bowl. The broad street is lined with department stores and little shops; it pulses with neon signs shouting the brand names of cell phones and airlines and fast-food restaurants. But the commercial thoroughfare is grimly punctuated every few blocks with hand-painted banners commemorating the blood of the martyrs.

This is Vali Asr Avenue, the spine of North Tehran. The avenue rises in the burly districts of downtown, where rage against the unbelievers is nurtured and sustained every Friday at prayers, and it ascends mile by mile till it reaches the heights of Jamaran, where one might think, to look at the Parisian fashions and big German cars, that the unbelievers are everywhere. But that is wrong: atop these hills are the secrets of modern Iran, a nation whose very identity is in some ways a fabric of lies. Nothing along this avenue is quite what it appears to be. That is the warning, and the temptation. Even the name of the street is elusive: officially it is Vali Asr, but the smart set like to call it by its pre revolutionary name, Pahlavi Avenue.

Tehran plays tricks this way. It is the cockpit of the Islamic revolution and the capital of a nation that lives by reckless taunts, yet the police here insist that drivers wear their seat belts. The mullahs summon pilgrims to the holy city of Qom, but not too hastily; the highway patrol have radar guns to catch speeders. It is forbidden, of course, to watch the foreign television channels of the infidels. So everyone pays a small bribe to the local militiamen known as the basiji not to notice the satellite dish atop the roof. The spine of this noble city is pliable; like the nation, Tehran bends so that it will not break.

Our story begins along Vali Asr Avenue, with a young scientist who lived in an apartment down near the bottom of the street, in the neighborhood known as Yoosef Abad, but who was blessed to work up at the magisterial summit in Jamaran. He spent his days shuttling between these two worlds, a child of privilege and also of anger—not at the unbelievers, but at the people who presumed to rule over them. This is the story of his decision to abandon one idea of what is right and good in favor of another. Like all accounts of young men struggling to find their paths in the world, it is a story of fathers and sons. You could say that it is a story of betrayal, and also of fidelity.

On the morning the young Iranian scientist made his decision, he awoke to find the sheets wet under his body. He had sweated through the night once again in his anxiety, and he was ashamed as if he had pissed in his bed. That was the moment he knew he must act. He could not continue waking up with the feeling that he was a coward. It would be better to step across the boundary and embrace his fear than to tremble before it any longer. It was like any other decisive break—a divorce, or leaving home, or refusing to pray. You did it, really, because you had no choice. If there were another way, less painful, who would not take it?

The young man had been reading the night before from a book of poems by Simin Behbehani, an Iranian woman who was his nation’s most beloved modern writer. His father claimed he had known her when