Torn apart in Tehran’s religious tempest
IN the same way that Khaled Hosseini’s wildly successful The Kite Runner illuminated a human tale within the persecutory Taliban regime in Afghanistan, The Septembers of Shiraz , Dalia Sofer’s debut novel, exposes intolerance, corruption and deprivation in postrevolutionary Iran. Bold in her political scope, Sofer does not weigh down her readers with rhetoric or propaganda; she is a gentle storyteller, writing with great lyricism and rhythm. This is a troubling, moving and astonishingly assured novel that, in spite of the heavy subject matter, is ultimately a celebration of life, imbued with hope and possibility.
Isaac Amin is a rare-gem dealer in Tehran. It is 1981; Iran is two years into its Islamic revolution. Life under Ayatollah Khomeini is, to a Western reader, one of forfeiture and tyranny. Sharia has been enforced: women must cover their hair, men are forbidden to wear shorts. Drinking alcohol has been outlawed, along with the broadcast of non-religious music on radio and television.
Property is redistributed and businesses, like Isaac’s, are ransacked by Revolutionary Guards. Every day Iranians go missing, some into exile, others imprisoned. Many dissidents are mur- dered in their homes and on the streets.
Isaac and his family, cultured and affluent, are in danger. The Amins enjoyed great prosperity during Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s reign: they were even guests, on occasion, at royal ceremonies. The family is also Jewish, a minority status that never fuelled discrimination under the secular rule of the shah. In postrevolutionary Iran, however, a non-Muslim life is literally worth less than a Muslim one.
One afternoon, Isaac is arrested. Falsely accused of being a Zionist spy, he is imprisoned outside Tehran. He shares a cell with a number of men and a teenage boy. The prisoners establish friendships, of sorts, and with this a sense of egalitarianism. Isaac is offered no telephone call; he can speak to no lawyer. He is occasionally taken away for questioning, during which time masked guards torture him with cigarette burns and whippings. Such punishments are dealt arbitrarily; Isaac’s fate depends on the mood of the guards. Isaac’s separation from his family facilitates reflections about his relationship with his wife and children, and about the more general political and social upheaval in Iran. Isaac and Farnaz, who have each felt estranged from the other since the beginning of the revolution, evaluate the dynamics of their marriage, the successes and the failings: ‘‘ It occurred to [ Isaac] that his wife’s distress might be caused more by the deterioration of their love than that of their country.’’