Septembers of Shiraz (Sofer)

The Septembers of Shiraz 
Dalia Sofer, 2007
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780061130410

In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, rare-gem dealer Isaac Amin is arrested, wrongly accused of being a spy. Terrified by his disappearance, his family must reconcile a new world of cruelty and chaos with the collapse of everything they have known.

As Isaac navigates the tedium and terrors of prison, forging tenuous trusts, his wife feverishly searches for him, suspecting, all the while, that their once-trusted housekeeper has turned on them and is now acting as an informer. And as his daughter, in a childlike attempt to stop the wave of baseless arrests, engages in illicit activities, his son, sent to New York before the rise of the Ayatollahs, struggles to find happiness even as he realizes that his family may soon be forced to embark on a journey of incalculable danger.

A page-turning literary debut, The Septembers of Shiraz simmers with questions of identity, alienation, and love, not simply for a spouse or a child, but for all the intangible sights and smells of the place we call home. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio 
Where—Tehran, Iran
Reared—New York, New York
Education—B.A., New York University; M.F.A, Sarah
Currently—New York, New York

Dalia Sofer was born in Iran and fled at the age of ten to the United States with her family. She received her MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College in 2002 and has been a resident at Yaddo. In March 2007 she was the first recipient of the Sirenland Fellowship, given each year to an unpublished author to attend the Sirenland Writers Conference in Positano, Italy.

She has been a contributor to NPR's All Things Considered, Poets & Writers magazine, the National Poetry Almanac of the Academy of American Poets, and the New York Sun. Her essays, "Of These, Solitude" and "A Prenuptial Visit to Chartres" were included, respectively, in the anthologies Yentl's Revenge: The Next Wave of Jewish Feminism (2001) and France, a Love Story (2004). She lives in New York City. (From Barnes & Noble, courtesy HarperCollins.)

From a 2007 interview with Barnes and Noble editors:

• "My first job was in retail in a clothing store on Madison Avenue. (It was the most ruthless job I've ever had, because I experienced, firsthand, the raw rudeness of people. Nowhere else can you find the sordid depths of the human soul than you can as a shop clerk on Madison Avenue!)

• "I like to take very long walks in the city—sometimes as long as seventy or eighty blocks. Walking shakes things up inside me. It is the best mood stabilizer.

• "I am fascinated by religious iconography. This began in Assisi, Italy, where I spent some time many years ago."

• When asked about what book influenced her most as a writer, she responded:

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. When I first read this book, in high school, I found it to be a simple but beautiful account of the lackadaisical spirit and eventual malaise of the 1920s. It was years later, on subsequent readings, that I took note of the many layers that make it such a rich and satisfying novel. Nick Carraway, the narrator, discovers Gatsby's story bit by bit - some parts true, others lies - from overheard gossip or from Gatsby himself. Flashbacks intersect with the present story of the summer of 1922, filling the gaps as the plot continues to move forward. In the end the pieces come together like those of an intricate puzzle. I was struck by Fitzgerald's use of symbols, such as colors. When Nick first sees Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker they are both wearing white dresses, which were "rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house."

This points to the women's innocence, but also to their lack of substance. Gatsby wears silver and gold when he goes to visit Daisy for the first time after five years, and the green light at Daisy's dock, which taunts Gatsby, symbolizes the simplified version of the American dream. Another prominent symbol is the vigilant pair of eyes over the "valley of the ashes," signifying the witnessing of the waste and purposelessness of the 1920s—a reference perhaps to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. The passage introducing the valley is filled with images of dust and smoke, and it is in this valley that carelessness finally ends with a death. I love, too, how Fitzgerald weaves the inevitable passage of time throughout the novel: Gatsby believes that time does not alter things. When he meets Daisy at Nick's house for the first time after five years, his nervousness makes him knock the clock over. Later, Daisy's child becomes a physical representation of the passage of time, and in the end Nick Carraway notes that it's his thirtieth birthday—a sobering realization that the "roaring twenties" are over. Like a hand-woven fabric that seems simple and straightforward at first glance, this book is constructed of multiple, delicate layers—only noticeable on close inspection. This, I think, is how a great book should be." (Author interview from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
The Septembers of Shiraz is a remarkable debut: the richly evocative, powerfully affecting depiction of a prosperous Jewish family in Tehran shortly after the revolution. In this fickle literary world, it's impossible to predict whether Sofer's novel will become a classic, but it certainly stands a chance.... Sofer writes beautifully, whether she's describing an old man's "wrinkled voice" or Shirin's irritation at wearing a head scarf, imagining "there are tiny elves inside...crumpling paper against her ears all day long." And she tells her characters' stories with deceptive simplicity. Every member of the Amin family attains a moving, and memorable, depth and reality. Although their crises—and the philosophical questions they raise—are of the greatest urgency and seriousness, The Septembers of Shiraz is miraculously light in its touch, as beautiful and delicate as a book about suffering can be.
Claire Messud - The New York Times

Like Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's graphic memoir about the same period in Iran, this book's strength lies partly in Sofer's ability to characterize Iranians in any epoch: the obsession with saving face, the moments of sweetness between strangers, the interplay between Muslims and Jews that can be ugly or tender.... The Septembers of Shiraz rises above being an ethnic novel about an intriguing place. It does not exoticize the Middle East or focus unduly on tempting targets such as women being forced to cover themselves or the persecution of Jews. These things exist, but they are part of a panoply of strangeness wrought upon everyone regardless of religion, gender or class. Instead, the book is about how people, in any country, live mostly without thinking about the political implications of their choices, and how they are taken by surprise when revolution or war crashes in. And how, even after the soul searching and the questions about whether they have led their lives the right way, they still care mostly about family, work, love and money. They are still, in the end, themselves.
Tara Bahrampour - The Washington Post

Sofer's family escaped from Iran in 1982 when she was 10, an experience that may explain the intense detail of this unnerving debut. On a September day in 1981, gem trader Isaac Amin is accosted by Revolutionary Guards at his Tehran office and imprisoned for no other crime than being Jewish in a country where Muslim fanaticism is growing daily. Being rich and having had slender ties to the Shah's regime magnify his peril. In anguish over what might be happening to his family, Isaac watches the brutal mutilation and executions of prisoners around him. His wife, Farnaz, struggles to keep from slipping into despair, while his young daughter, Shirin, steals files from the home of a playmate whose father is in charge of the prison that holds her father. Far away in Brooklyn, Isaac's nonreligious son, Parviz, struggles without his family's money and falls for the pious daughter of his Hasidic landlord. Nicely layered, the story shimmers with past secrets and hidden motivations. The dialogue, while stiff, allows the various characters to come through. Sofer's dramatization of just-post-revolutionary Iran captures its small tensions and larger brutalities, which play vividly upon a family that cannot, even if it wishes to, conform.
Publishers Weekly

In Sofer's debut novel, Isaac Amin, a Jewish businessman in Tehran, is imprisoned following the Iranian Revolution. As Amin attempts to survive his brutal treatment and convince his captors that he is not a Zionist spy, his wife, young daughter, and son (a college student in New York City) find various ways to cope with the radical change in their way of life and the knowledge that they may never see Amin again. This is a story that needs to be told, as a reminder of how political and religious ideologies can destroy individuals, families, and societies. Yet the Amins are not portrayed as innocent victims but flawed human beings who closed their eyes to the injustices of the monarchy under which they benefited. The family and political issues raised in the book are timely and ripe for discussion; this should be a popular book club choice.
Christine DeZelar - Library Journal

An Iranian Jew waits wrongly accused in prison while his family slowly crumbles in Tehran and New York. In the wake of the Iranian Revolution, as the Ayatollah Khomeini's Republic is first being established, gem dealer Isaac Amin is arrested near his opulent Tehran home. Technically accused of being an Israeli spy, Isaac's real crimes are his religion and his personal wealth. As his interrogators try to break him with physical abuse and neglect, Isaac is most tortured by the memories of his family, with whom he is allowed no contact. On the homefront, the situation is similarly bleak. Isaac's beloved wife Farnaz tirelessly seeks information about her husband, and in doing so, begins to question the loyalty of the family's trusted maid, Habibeh, whose son (a former employee of Isaac's) has become an ardent member of the Republic. Isaac and Farnaz's precocious young daughter, Shirin, decides to take matters into her own hands, risking the family's lives when she steals confidential files from a classmate's home in the hopes of saving her uncle from the same fate as her father. And, an ocean away, son Parviz feels the strains in different ways, when both information and money from his family suddenly stops. He takes a room and job with a welcoming Hassidic man in Brooklyn, and, against his better judgment, falls in love with the daughter, Rachel. Eventually, Isaac triumphs over his accusers by bribing his way out of prison with a gift of his life savings. But the family's troubles are hardly over, and as they try to make their way out of the country to reunite their family overseas, young Shirin's well-intentioned plan threatens to curtail all their efforts. Sofer's characters are immensely sympathetic and illustrate plainly and without pretense the global issues of class, religion and politics following the Iranian Revolution. As intelligent as it is gripping.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
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?
(Questions provided by the publisher.)

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