19 October 2009

Insight: Septembers of Shiraz

It was a bit of a shock, and more than slightly incongruous, to see a review of Dalia Sofer's "The Septembers of Shiraz" in the National Yiddish Book Center's monthly newsletter.

However, the universal themes of revolution, Jewish history, refugees, survival, personal experiences cross all cultural boundaries, so I was glad to see it featured.

In case anyone is wondering, there was small Ashkenazi congregation in Teheran until the early 1970s, and there are some Ashkenazi burials in the main Jewish cemetery there (see Beheshtieh.com). However, Sofer's "Shiraz" is purely Persian.

Tova Mirvis' review is good, as is the book. Sofer has put her finger squarely on many characteristics of the Persian Jewish community, both in Iran and in its post-Revolution diaspora.

I sometimes wonder how non-Iranians can really understand books like this. To anyone who has lived within this community, each character is as familiar as the fingers on our own hands. The author says that she drew on her own family, and any one with a fleeting connection to the Persian community will recognize the people they know so well.

Questions for discussion include:
In a biographical note at the end of the paperback edition, Sofer describes the many similarities between her own family and the one portrayed in the book.
Sofer's characters are not unique to her family - they are "community" characters, found in every Persian Jewish family regardless of where they live today.

Among the very wealthy of this community - who tried to leave as quickly as possible before or during the Revolution's early days - characters like Aunt Shahla were common enough. Which family didn't have an Aunt Shahla or many of her type? We certainly did.
...especially her depiction of Isaac’s sister Shahla, a woman so in love with her material wealth and status that she won’t consider the prospect of leaving Iran. “If we leave this country without taking care of our belongings, who in Geneva or Paris or Timbuktu will understand who we once were?”
When social standing and respect were (and are still) judged by the house one lives in, the car one drives, one's furnishings and jewelry, how could people just up and leave it all behind? When people wonder why the remaining Jews do not leave Iran, they need to understand that lifestyle and status is important to this community.

For our impoverished shtetl ancestors from Eastern Europe, immigration was going towards something better, towards success, achievement, a better life. For the Persians, while immigration was considered safer, it was considered a step back in time, status and living conditions. In our family, when we left just a few months before the revolution, I was asked by immediate family members, "Why do you want to leave this Gan Eden? (Garden of Eden, Hebrew). Not long after that exchange, many followed us.

How difficult it would be to leave and start over - in very reduced circumstances - is, I think, very hard for non-Persians to fathom. While others feel this is a foolish attitude and the remaining community members should leave, others - who have left and gone through the rebuilding process - think it is too hard even though they've accomplished it themselves in some ways.

Some who left have even returned to Iran after trying to re-establish themselves in the diaspora. And, there are always those who believe that it would be better to leave, regardless of the consequences, if they could. This very personal decision is an exceedingly difficult one that cannot be decided for anyone from the outside.

Mirvis writes that "The family’s wealth and luxurious lifestyle loom large in the book as a source of envy, with a corrupting power of its own." Personally, I used to call it "living in DisneyWorld." Much of this simply transferred over to the diaspora communities in California, New York and Europe.

Mirvis addresses the ability of the Persian Jewish community to adapt, to go with the flow, to live with the new government. The community has lived through good and bad times for 2,700 years and they still survive by adapting.
Consider the various ways that wealth is described in the book. In portraying Isaac’s sister, Sofer focuses on her obsessive, foolish love of material goods. In what ways does her materialism blind her to the dangers at hand? Is Isaac’s family similarly blinded by their wealth? Is a fellow prisoner correct when he says of Isaac: “Who cares what kind of regime it is, as long as I make money”? Consider too Isaac’s own statement, as the family makes their escape and his family receives better treatment because they have paid more. “Why is it, he wonders, that wealth must always be accompanied by guilt, if not shame.”
Sofer also hits on another aspect of Persian Jewish life and individuality. All Iranians are brought up to understand that what they do as individuals reflects on their immediate and extended families, that the family is the most important element of life. Every aspect of public behavior has the possibility of bringing shame (or honor) on the entire family.

It is, I think, difficult for non-Iranians to understand these aspects of the Iranian Jewish mindset. Having lived within this community for so long - with one foot in each community - I understand it as well as I understand the American attitudes towards the same ideas.

I strongly recommend The Septembers of Shiraz. Sofer has done an excellent job of portraying the community and its personality.

For readers who are interested in the Iranian Jewish experience and community, other books to help round out knowledge are Wedding Song by Farideh Goldin and books by Gina Nahai (Cry of the Peacock and others),Israeli-born Dorit Rabinyan, Dora Levy Mossanen and Roya Hakakian. There are also numerous Iranian (non-Jewish) authors who have written extensively about general Iranian society, post-Revolution.

Each book provides the author's personal insight to what they or their families experienced. Each author went through something different, depending on their age when living in Iran, the city they lived in, the circumstances in which they were able to leave, where they went, and their family's personal experience as new immigrants.

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