The Septembers of Shiraz
Simultaneous with the overthrow of the Shah by Islamic militants, nine-year-old Shirin Amin’s life is thrown into a Kafkaesque decline, as her father Issac is jailed and tortured by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and her mother’s carefree and luxurious life and material trappings are both literally and figuratively torn apart. The prosperous Amin family, Jewish, yet not religious, is guilty of a crime that is unforgivable in Ayatollah-ruled Iran: they had lived a life of luxury, doing business and fraternizing with the aristocracy during the rule of the Shah, rendering them despicable and deserving of punishment in the eyes of the recently empowered Mullahs and their followers.
In The Septembers of Shiraz, Dalia Sofer has, with extraordinary skill, woven together a cast of characters replete with endearing qualities and rife with character flaws and shortcomings. It is through these characters that Sofer conveys the yearning of a people for a country that exists only in their memories of its smells, sounds, and faded photographs. Juxtaposing the experiences and reactions of the Amin family members, the reader sees the plight through the eyes of Shirin, her mother Farnaz, her imprisoned father, Issac, and her teenage brother, who has been sent to New York to study architecture. Along with the unraveling of the life of the Amin family we view the unraveling of the country of Iran.
In this powerful and timely first novel, Sofer brilliantly portrays the impact of having religious fanaticists and extremists control a country. While Sofer’s characterizations evoke great sympathy for the plight of the Amin family, she does not portray them as without fault. Indeed, as part of the privileged few under the Shah’s regime, they had enjoyed the benefits of wealth while often being oblivious to those less fortunate. Sofer’s observations about the tenous nature of our lives and our inability to anticipate our own destiny, while delivered subtly, are quite poignant.
Dalia Sofer on The Septembers of Shiraz
The most challenging thing about writing fiction is ensuring that the world you have created is engaging and cohesive, that all the narrative threads you have introduced early on are carried until the end, and that multiple layers are woven through the story without drawing attention to themselves. All of this should appear seamless to the reader.
For me writing is a release, a device through which I digest thoughts and emotions. The final product—the book—is a vessel that holds all this mishmash for me.
I find myself consistently drawn to ambiguity–in behavior, in relationships, in memory, in history, in governments, even in promises. I am also fascinated by the idea of the wheel of fortune—that life is favorable one instant and seemingly disastrous the next. I find much of my inspiration in these grey areas.
My novel is very much about loss, and everyone can relate to that on some level, regardless of age. Imprisonment is its most obvious and extreme manifestation—the man who had everything loses everything, literally overnight. But the loss is far greater than that: it’s the disappearance of a whole nation as it once was, the annihilation of a way of life. I’ve often thought of this novel as a kind of elegy to what once was.
From the Rohr Judges
Dalia Sofer’s compulsively page-turning first novel is, on the most straightforward level, an account of the travails of one Jewish family in the period after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, centered on the internment of its patriarch, the rare gem dealer Isaac Amin. But Sofer’s achievement transcends the simply political, or brutally narrative. Through its highways and byways that take us to far New York City and into the corridors of memory, the novel’s facets sparkle as brightly as the gems that lie at its heart; its hard surfaces invite us to gaze into the subtle stirrings in their depths.
1. Indifference: As Isaac Amin is arrested, he notices the indifference of the items on his desk “witnessing this event.” The following morning, his wife Farnaz thinks: “That the city is short by one man this morning makes so little difference.” Does one man's suffering or misfortune really affect those around him, or are we essentially alone in the world—whether we are experiencing pain or joy? While we may feel compassion for someone undergoing a difficulty, can we ever truly understand what that person is experiencing?
2. Isaac and Farnaz (as well as Isaac's sister and her husband) are very attached to their belongings. To what extent do the objects that we collect over the years come to define us?
3. The story is told from the points of view of the four family members. How does this affect your experience as a reader?
4. In prison Isaac is picked on because of his materialistic pursuits. His response—that life is to be enjoyed—and his recitation of a poem by Hafez manage to unite the group's opinion in his favor. What do you think of Isaac's philosophy?
5. Are you familiar with the poetic form—the ghazal? If so, where have you encountered this form? Do you have a favorite ghazal that you could share? What do you think of the idea of the ghazal as a symbol for Isaac's situation?
6. Isaac is persecuted because he is Jewish—even though he has led an essentially secular life. His son Parviz, renting an apartment from a Hassidic family in Brooklyn, is denied the love of his landlord's daughter because he is not Jewish enough. What do you think of the ways in which people classify and categorize one another—and set boundaries and differences? Do you think these boundaries are sometimes justified?
7. Isaac's nine-year-old daughter, Shirin, steals files from the basement of a friend whose father is a Revolutionary Guard. How do you understand her actions?
8. What role does memory serve in this novel? As a young man Isaac was a memorizer of poetry, and in prison he memorizes lines from the Koran—a partially calculated act that helps him when faced with his interrogator. But it is the involuntary memory (a term famously coined by Marcel Proust) of each of the characters that surfaces in much of the book. How do these recollections serve the characters, the story, and the reader?
9. Has this book changed your understanding of Iran—its history, its culture, and its people? If so, does this new understanding affect how you perceive the current stand-off between Iran and the United States?