As average Americans, on most ordinary days, we wake each morning in a far away place. There might be a transvestite singing gospel right outside our window, there might be an unfortunate day ahead of us―we might lose our jobs or miss old lovers, we might be alcoholics or cripples, we might be sad or broke, hungry, heart-broken, lost, but these kinds of troubles all seem internal luxuries when held up to the government sanctioned horrors that inhabit many faraway worlds. Rarely do we imagine that a bad day might entail a band of revolutionary guards walking into our offices as we are sitting over our coffee, and taking us away to be tortured or killed.
In an impressive first novel by Dalia Sofer, we are told the story of Isaac Amin, a wealthy Jewish man, who, like many of his kind, is wrongly imprisoned during the years following the Iranian revolution after the fall of the Shah. We absorb the full picture of Isaac’s disappearance at four points of a delicate constellation: a child in Tehran, a young man in Brooklyn, a father in prison, and a woman left to answer for all of them. This of course describes a family, of which each member is at once deeply connected by the ties of blood and history, yet utterly disjointed by these very same elements, as the event of sudden upheaval plummets them into a state of disintegration, within a nation itself in violent flux.
Isaac’s wife Farnaz is perhaps most poignantly aware of this sudden change in her family’s life as a conflict within a conflict:
“…Farnaz cannot reconcile the normalcy of the world around her with the collapse of her own. That the city is short by one man this morning makes so little difference―stores still open their doors, schools ring their bells, banks exchange currency, grass-green double-decker buses―men on the bottom, women on top―follow their daily routes.”
But the state of “normalcy” in Iran (as in many nations) is a condition under continuous reformation and affliction, spawning a nation of people that grow more desensitized to chaos with each extremist movement. Sofer does not comment on the current state of affairs in her native land, but rather injects us into an earlier historical moment of drastic change, as Iran undergoes not only a transference of power, but a brutal metamorphosis from monarchy to Islamic Republic. The Septembers of Shiraz is set in the aftermath of a revolution, which in the spectrum of world history, is deemed by many to be equal in measure to such mammoth cornerstones as the French and Bolshevik revolutions. With the fall of the Shah in 1979, (a leader criticized by many Muslim nationalists as an extravagant dictator attempting to “westernize” an ancient eastern culture), an insurgence of socialist guerilla groups emerged throughout the nation, fighting against the economic and cultural infiltration of non-Muslim foreigners. Thousands of upper and middle class (and their money) left Iran in the late seventies out of fear of persecution and imprisonment. In The Septembers of Shiraz, the Amin family fall victim to the same nomadic fate.
Ms. Sofer, a surprisingly young writer for the voice she wields and the subject she tackles, fled Iran herself at the age of ten, and presumably draws upon the history of her own family’s plight in The Septembers of Shiraz. As readers, much of what we learn in this book comes to us through the mind and reasoning of a nine-year-old girl. That is, we view a revolution in part from a child’s eyes, a creature only half the height of a man, forced to both understand and participate in a very complex struggle. By this device Sofer reminds us of a world to which we are all prisoner, activists, bystanders, and children alike― in which history itself is the villain.
Refreshingly, this book does not delve too deeply into politics, but rather focuses on the inherent chaos of simply living in a nation with a perpetually changing set of ideologies. The Amin family comprises a group of people little involved in the government, but outwardly classified by their financial means and religious identity. To put it plainly, they are rich Jews living in a predominantly Muslim nation that struggles with poverty. The book does not blatantly side with any one ideology or group, but seemingly attempts to tell the story of one family (a fairly secular, wealthy and removed one), that essentially must give up its national identity in order to survive.
The title of the novel does not allude to a city or a time in which it takes place, but reminisces back to something the protagonists have left behind. Shiraz is the place of Isaac’s youthful summers, when he was still a starving poet, scaling the walls of Mausoleums and reciting poetry, in love with his young wife. As he flees the country with his family, clambering through the mountains in the dark, Isaac is reminded of those times, not the city of his home now lost: “The Septembers of Shiraz, unlike this September, held the promise of return.”
In many ways, one might say, that for the characters that inhabit it, this book describes one big reality check. When a fragile web of people is suddenly broken apart, it seems only natural that this experience position them to contemplate the moments of their lives when they were still in tact―as if they are facing one long visceral glimpse just before death. Thus the Amin family is inevitably led to re-evaluate many things―not least of all their relationships with each other. But perhaps less of a given, is that they are led to re-evaluate their relationships with their country. Isaac himself is trapped in a floating corridor between nostalgia and torture. He is literally forced into the experience of being removed from his life, utterly clueless as to whether it will end or continue with each passing moment.
“…They are all the same here, he realizes, the remnants of the Shah’s entourage and the powerful businessmen and the communist rebels and the bankers and bazaar vendors and watchmakers. In this room, stripped of their ornaments and belongings, they are nothing more than bodies, each as likely as the next to face a firing squad or to go home, unscathed, with a gripping tale to tell friends and family.”
Structurally, we are moved back and forth through the channels of memory that have brought each character to this moment. At one instant we are remembering an exotic vacation in Istanbul or recalling a wedding day, at the next we are strolling through central park on a snowy day with a pretty girl. But in reality we are burying secret files in household gardens, shredding papers, hiding jewels, living isolated in basements and prisons.
Sofer creates each of these contrasting scenes with equal poignancy and skill. As a writer, she sticks to traditional forms, but successfully examines a very controversial moment, and thus brings us a work of historical fiction that is inherently wrought with literary daring. The Septembers of Shiraz both captivates and edifies. It escapes first novel syndromes of contrived beauty and grants us entrance to a written world whose motive lies somewhere between East and West.