Fic­tion

The Sep­tem­bers of Shiraz

By – November 9, 2011

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 régime, 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.

Paula Lubin is a human­i­ties teacher at the North Shore Hebrew Acad­e­my Mid­dle School. She has writ­ten for a vari­ety of pub­li­ca­tions, most recent­ly the New York Health­care Law Update.

Discussion Questions

From Harper­Collins

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? 

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.