The Septembers of Shiraz - Book of the Month
by Dalia Sofer
More overtly alert to the changing political climate in Tehran than her husband, Isaac, Farnaz wears her hair covered, drives her Volkswagen Beetle with care, and enjoys her comforting tot of brandy in secret these days. Her house, once known for its hospitality, is now guarded, in speech and in thought as well as against marauders. Born Jewish, but non-observant, she envies the comparative freedom of her servant, Habibeh, who, happy in her chador, believes every word of her Koran. The articles Farnaz once wrote for a travel magazine, describing Limoges porcelain, the Sanga at Seville, or her wanderings through the medieval towns of Umbria, are now banned by the mullahs as touting the virtues of, alcohol, cathedrals and the indecent life.
Isaac is more pragmatic but, since the collapse of the Shah, he has worked long hours at his desk, buying, selling and valuing rare jewels, while quietly amassing as much portable wealth as will support his family in a new life. He is well aware that their safety depends on his ability to prosper in a strange land.
Jews have lived in Persia since a thousand years before Cyrus, and Iran has been home to Isaac and the generations before him. But he was born into a difficult time for Jews, when they were banished to the poorest part of the city. Ironically, it was the Shah's weakness for jewelry and outward show of wealth that bore fruit for the jewellers as the court followed suit. Isaac had prospered, of course he had. He likes London tailoring, and Italian shoes, and he appreciates the integrity and cool incorruptibility of good jewels. He adores his wife and his two children, and he deeply enjoys the company of relations and extended family in his comfortable home. On holiday he awakes to the sound of the sea, and, with Farnaz beside him, Isaac asks no more from life than that.
Had the Shah of Persia been brave and strong and just, or just healthy, the Peacock throne would probably have endured. But, timid and paranoid, he feared his people and trusted no one. He gave his police powers to arrest, torture and destroy anyone even remotely suspected of opposing his rule, and in so doing he bred such resentment, fear and hatred that his subjects danced in the streets as he waited at the airport for the plane to carry him to a sanctuary even more rickety than his throne.
But the dancing stops and the music dies as the Ayatollahs take charge in Iran. As insecure, and every bit as cruel as the Shah, they persecute the people even as they lash themselves and the devout until they bleed. Isaac knows, to his bitter regret, that the time for the dangerous journey has come. But even as he works at his desk, two scruffy men with rifles walk into his office...
Dalia Sofer's beautiful novel, her first, follows Isaac and his family through imprisonment, hardship and betrayal. Despair and suffering are lit by sudden kindnesses and strokes of good luck; there are many days of fear and loss before Isaac at last plays his joker, the least amusing card in the pack.
Read our interview with Dalia Sofer.