As people take to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt, it is impossible not to compare the situation with Iran. (PLEASE NOTE – THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN EARLY FEBRUARY, 2011)
While there are many differences – perhaps one of the most important being that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have so far not been driven by Islamist movements, though this will most certainly be an element in the aftermath – there are also similarities. In all three countries we are looking at autocratic leaders who have been in place for decades, and populations who are fed up with economic hardship, cronyism and corruption.
And whenever there is dramatic political change like this (as I write Egyptians are gathering for a massive protest in Tahrir Square and President Hosni Mubarak is still clinging to power) there is huge uncertainty, as well as the risk of retribution and suffering to follow.
I loved this book, despite its dark subject matter. It is Tehran in 1981, a couple of years after the Revolution, and Isaac Amin is not popular with the new guard. He is a successful businessman, a Jew, and is perceived as having had a life of privilege. Things don’t bode well for Isaac and he is arrested by the Revolutionary Guard. (I am not giving anything away here, as it happens on page one!) For the rest of the novel we follow Isaac and the members of his family as they attempt to deal with his imprisonment and decide what they must do to protect their own safety.
There is a beautiful light touch to Sofer’s writing which immediately drew me in. From the opening scene I delighted in the detail. As Isaac is being arrested he “looks down at his desk, at the indifferent items witnessing this event – the 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.“ And as the story develops, I became increasingly fascinated by the world Sofer presents.
This novel does not focus on the Revolution itself, but on the aftermath – and the chaos and confusion that takes place in uncertain times. Given that we know what lies ahead it is easy for us to look in from the outside and silently beg the characters to just get up and leave the country, but at the same time we can understand their unwillingness to leave everything they have worked for over a lifetime. And would you go if it meant leaving someone behind? An ageing parent? An imprisoned spouse?
There are many occasions in Septembers of Shiraz in which we are taken back to times before the Revolution, giving us a glimpse of what life in Iran was like then, for those with money. This was a ‘Westernized’ Iran in which women had far greater freedoms and religion was a choice, quite different from the country it is today.
We get some idea of the landscape around Tehran “…when the snow-covered Elburz Mountains slowly unveiled themselves in the red-orange light” as well as some brief visits to other places such as Isfahan, Shiraz and Persepolis. But this is a novel which concentrates more on Iran’s history than giving specifics about the locations themselves. And Sofer manages to bring the history alive with detail such as “Farnaz walks through the narrow street, framed on both sides by short brick walls, along which is a row of bloody handprints – a common site, nowadays – the stamp of revolutionaries displaying their sacrifice and their willingness to die.”
My only disappointment with this novel was the ending. It felt rushed after the gentle flow of the rest of the book, and did not hold the tension it needed. But other than that I would highly recommend Septembers of Shiraz for anyone wanting to know a little more about the changing face of Iran.
Having survived the aftermath of the Revolution, I turned to Yasmin Crowther’s The Saffron Kitchen, set in contemporaryish London and Iran, with extended flashbacks to what is likely to be the early 1950’s (I don’t think dates are actually mentioned in the novel but some of the historic events date back to that time).
This novel did not work quite as well for me, there was some bothersome issues with the plot and Crowther does not have as elegant a turn of phrase as Sofer.
From a Packabook perspective it does not really give as much of a view of modern Iran as I would have liked, as the bulk of the contemporary scenes take place in a very small village which, like villages just about everywhere, cannot be seen as an accurate representation of the country as a whole.
This is the story of Maryam, the teenage daughter of one of the Shah’s generals, who is desperate to escape the fate of her mother and older sister, refusing to marry the man her father has chosen for her. She wants to be “useful”, to train as a nurse and see something of the world – all of which she does, but not quite in the way she had hoped.
Some 40-odd years later we find Maryam in London, with an English husband and a grown-up daughter of her own. Without giving away too much of the plot, she has lived most of her life away from Iran, disowned by her father and disconnected from her culture – and when an argument with her daughter leads to tragedy, she makes her way back to Iran to reconnect with her past.
While the young Maryam is sympathetic, her older incarnation is less so – I found myself annoyed with her self-obsession while at the same time understanding her desire to find the great love of her youth. And you cannot help feeling that Maryam doesn’t quite appreciate just how good she has had it compared to what would have been her likely fate had she stayed in Iran.
Much of the action takes place in Iran’s second largest city Mashhad, far off to the east of the country, close to the borders of Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. And from there we move to what I imagine is a fictional village – Mazareh. I enjoyed the descriptions of the landscape around Mazareh – it truly felt remote, and it was not hard to imagine the snow-covered mountainous terrain.
This is a far more insular novel than Septembers of Shiraz, much more about Maryam’s relationships, both with real people as well as her culture and past than actual events. While it did not engage me as much as I’d hoped, it did give me yet another perspective on a country I still feel I know so little about.
So how did you go with your own exploration of Iran in January’s challenge? I’d love to hear what you have been reading – so why don’t you head over to the main January post and leave a note in the comments. It is also the best place to find a bit more history of the Iranian Revolution and to give us a link to your own review…
For February, we are in much more familiar territory for many of us – England!
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.