The Septembers of Shiraz

by Dalia Sofer

Ecco, 352 pp., $24.95

"What an illusion [is] the idea of an ordered, ordinary life," writes Dalia Sofer, an Iranian-born New Yorker who, in 1982 at the age of ten, fled post-revolutionary Iran with her family.

Her brave and humane first novel, The Septembers of Shiraz, based on the time of her father's detention and torture in Tehran's Evin prison, begins with the arrest of Isaac Amin, an Iranian Jew suspected of spying for Israel. There, at his work desk--with his "scattered files, a metal paperweight, a box of Dunhill cigarettes, a crystal ashtray, and a cup of tea, freshly brewed, two mint leaves floating inside," the "indifferent items" of personal freedom "witnessing this event"--life as he has known it comes to an end. Sofer negotiates with pity and an absence of illusion between the personal and the historical, the short view and the long, and in such a way as to illuminate both, often quite hauntingly, in a single image.

The history of the world and the story of one family come together disquietly here, as in her description of the absurd and doomed, self-forgetfully fierce act of love of an ordinary woman who, faced with the arrest of her husband and the sudden knowledge that she may never see him again, persists in making him a cheese sandwich, complete with parsley and radishes, before he is taken away.

One of her husband's captors snatches the sandwich from her hands and devours it "in three or four bites," saying, "Thanks, Sister. How did you know I was starving?" There is the banal brutality of the way in which a false ideology plays out in real lives. But here, as elsewhere in the novel, it is the sometimes-threatened but ineradicable love between human hearts that retrieves its own meanings from the rubble of historical shift.

The prisoner Mehdi, whose infected feet have been flayed so viciously during routine torture that he will probably lose them both, stubbornly applies himself to the making of a little wooden shoe, a present for his child, whom he may never see again. Isaac's daughter Shirin steals prisoner files from the house of a friend whose father is in the Revolutionary Guards and buries them in the garden, hoping, with a child's magical thinking, to save the lives of the persons whose names appear there--one of whom is her uncle Javad, Isaac's brother.

At her own peril, Farnaz, Isaac's wife, gives $10,000 to the ne'er-do-well Javad so that he can flee Iran because she knows Isaac would do so, saying it is the hope for a new life he is lending. When the Amin family later receives a letter from Paris written in code--"The children have grown up"--to let them know that Javad has made it to safety, the heart lifts with theirs in gratitude for all the charming and irresponsible people we love whose virtues are not always discernible by ordinary light, but whose irreplaceable value can sometimes be seen by the few intense rays of a dark time.

In a prose style made powerful by virtue of its quiet restraint, Dalia Sofer documents the forced conversion of an entire vibrant civilization to the strictures of a black-and-white totalitarianism: "Movie posters and shampoo advertisements"--the minor gauderies of autonomy--are "replaced by sweeping murals of clerics" and "once-dapper men and women," against their will, "become bearded shadows and black veils."

She draws the necessary contrast between the religious fascism of Iran's ruling mullahs and the restrictive, faith-based, yet joyful (because it is freely chosen) life of the Hasidic family who befriend Isaac's son Parviz, stranded in New York during the time of his father's captivity. On the night of Isaac's deliverance, twin sons are born to the Mendelson family, as if the sound of an infant's first helpless, self-insistent cry is an answer, the only one that makes any sense at all, to what "jars [Isaac] out of sleep" in prison--"not the sound of the bullet itself, but the thump of the body falling to the ground a second later" and the silence that always follows.

Unsentimental about the fate of the shah, described here as both "the beacon of the Middle East" and "the tyrant who had crushed anyone who dared speak against him," Sofer conflates his fall with the loss of Shirin's baby tooth--the adults preoccupied, she finds it under her pillow the next morning just as she left it--a radical parallelism of events large and small that is always necessarily true. And in a remarkable dual image containing all fear and hope for the world, Sofer describes the footsteps as he plays on the stairs of the young son of Isaac's interrogator, a man once so severely tortured by the shah's secret police that the existence of the boy is thought to be a miracle.

The presence of the unseen, unknowable child--who will he grow up to be?--comforts Isaac in his despair, and yet with such a heavy inheritance of hatred, the angel may well become the monster of future nightmares.

It is a sorrow to be reminded that, even after the revolution, Iran remains a country of families who love one another, who "want hot coffee, cool breezes, clean sheets, good love," who, even as Isaac does in his cell, must feel in their still-free hearts sequestered within captive bodies, that "a man has a right to want to live." In America, with another exile from home, Parviz listens to a cassette, the "deep, precise" voice of the man's cousin singing gazals, the singer having been executed the year before in Iran. In prison, a classical pianist, a friend of Farnaz's who once performed at the opera house, calls out Isaac's name just before he is shot, "his final audience a firing squad."

The music of the silenced plays through The Septembers of Shiraz, the notes exquisite and profoundly moving, meant to be exiled from the world and yet somehow still here, as when Isaac Amin's son Parviz, in a New York pizza shop, catches the strains of Frank Sinatra singing a "mellow song" that carries him back home, that "place in one's bones," to his father's study, on a peaceful Sunday morning in Iran.

Ann Stapleton is a writer in Ohio.

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