Friday, March 15, 2013

The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer

The Septembers of Shiraz covers the experiences of one wealthy Jewish-Iranian family in the year between September 1981 and September 1982. The father, Isaac Amin, is one of many people who flourished under the shah's regime but then are imprisoned in the post-revolutionary period. The tedium of prison, the relationships that develop with other prisoners, the frustration of being asked the same questions day after day, the horror of hearing people shot outside the cell, the post-torture suffering, the debilitating fear of not knowing what will happen--all are explored in the sections of the book told from Isaac's perspective.

Isaac's sections alternate with those told from the perspectives of the other members of the Amin family. Farnaz, Isaac's wife, is dealing with her own problems: her own and Isaac's families;  family servant Habibe, who is beginning to spout revolutionary rhetoric and may be stealing from Farnaz--yet Farnaz can not fire her because she can't run the household without Habibe; the looting of the family business by former employees, led by Habibe's son; searching of their home by the Revolutionary Guard; and concern for her husband and children. Parviz, an architecture student in New York, lives with a Hasidic family in Brooklyn; unable to pay his rent when his parents stop sending him money after his father's arrest, he is forced to work at his landlord's hat shop. Feeling isolated at his university, Parviz falls in love with his landlord's daughter--but a relationship is impossible because he is a nonpracticing Jew. Shirin, Isaac and Farnaz's daughter, is only nine, but she too is affected by the political situation. Her friend Leila's father is a member of the Revolutionary Guard; playing at their house, Shirin finds investigation folders and steals several, hoping that she can save some other men from being arrested. When Leila's father discovers files are missing, Leila protects Shirin because "No one came to my house as often as you did."  I won't reveal what happens to the Amin family (though I will complain that Parviz seems to be left out of the resolution).

Isaac and Farnaz are not particularly sympathetic characters--they benefited from a regime that terrorized many Iranians; indeed, they seem unaware of the extent of the repression under the shah. Ironically, one of Isaac's tormentors in prison was a victim of the Savak, the secret police under the shah. Yet he feels no compunction about treating others as badly as he was treated. Parviz and Shirin are truly innocent victims of the situation, and their stories are touching.

Sofer writes gracefully, and her descriptions appeal to all of the senses. Perhaps because I could not identify with Isaac and Farnaz, I did not love The Septembers of Shiraz, but I have a greater appreciation for Iran and the hardships created by the revolution of 1979 as a result of reading this novel.

Favorite passage:
The task numbs him, half-formed thoughts emerging from his mind like the vapor rising from his steam machine, and vanishing just as quickly. Time moves slowly here, like those agonizing hours spent in mind-numbing high school classes . . . And yet something has changed in him so gravely that he now actually enjoys these slow indistinguishable hours which pass him by, demanding so little of him, no more than fish swimming in an aquarium.

Standing on the stoop, he tucks his gloveless hands in his pockets and looks out onto the dark street. How unyielding is that space between connection and interruption. One false move, one misspoken word, and you find yourself on the wrong side of things.

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