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.
- I am not sure I have ever read a book set in Iran.
- There is a lot of history which is still very relevant considering current events
- Women are well-represented as writers and subjects of Iranian fiction
- The covers on many Iranian novels are sensational and pretty much irresistible
Not knowing quite where to start, I have put in an Amazon order for two of the novels from the fantastic selection available. The cover of The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia
Sofer immediately called out to me and on reading the synopsis I decided it would be an excellent introduction to one of the country’s most significant events – the Islamic Revolution. The novel begins a couple of years after the overthrow of the shah in 1979 and looks at the impact it had on one Iranian family. Personalizing the story like this is always a winner for me.
The revolution is a defining point in Iran’s history, and is constantly referred to in any analysis of present day Iranian society and politics. And as it also helps our reading of the novels if we have an understanding of the history behind them, here’s a quick breakdown of events.
The Iranian Revolution – At a Glance
- In the 1970’s Iran was led by a pro-Western shah – Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlav
- He faced opposition from the left and right – those who thought he wasn’t reforming fast enough as well as those who believed westernisation was wrong for Iran. There was also general criticism of his autocratic style, and corruption in his government
- Dissatisfaction in his rule grew during the 1970’s
- At the same time support grew for the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Shi’ite religious leader living in exile in Paris
- In 1978, thousands of young people took to the streets both from the secular left and the religious right. Many people were killed by government forces. There were more protests….and an ongoing cycle of violence.
- There was growing religious fervor and in the evenings people in Tehran called out the revolutionary rallying cry Allāhu akbar (“God is great”) from their rooftops.
- On January 16, 1979, the shah left the country, with Khomeini taking over
- On April 1, Khomeini declared Iran an Islamic republic. He had the overwhelming support of the public. Islamic codes of dress were enforced and the informal religious militia, the Revolutionary Guard, worked with clerics to suppress political opposition and Western cultural influence.
- Many of the Western-educated elite fled the country.
Have a look at this History Channel clip with some great footage from the time.
The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther
My second choice of novel (you never know, I might not like the first one and I like to have my bases covered!) is The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther, and is set many years later. It is the story of Maryam who left Iran after the revolution, settling in England. Many years later, after a severe falling out with her adult daughter which had tragic consequences, she returns to her childhood Iranian village to try and make sense of the past.
This books seems a good follow-up to Septembers of Shiraz, giving us the later perspective. But I will let you know what I think once I have read them both.
Come join us…
Let us know in the comments below what you are planning to read, and that is also a mighty fine place to leave a link to your review once you have finished….
I can’t wait to see what else you all discover.
UPDATE: You can now read the reviews of The Saffron Kitchen and Septembers of Shiraz here.
Enjoyed this post? Have a look at our other World Party Reading Challenge selections.