Dalia Sofer was only 10 when her family fled their homeland of Iran in the wake of the Islamic revolution of the late 1970s, which saw the end of the Shah's regime. Still, despite her tender years at the time of this forced leave-taking and her sketchy memories of the past, Sofer told a local synagogue audience that she drew from her experiences in order to create her highly acclaimed first novel, The Septembers of Shiraz, which follows the trials and tribulations of an Iranian-Jewish family.
The work begins with the imprisonment of the family patriarch, Isaac, who is accused of, among other things, being a spy for Israel.
Just like her character, Sofer's father was imprisoned in the wake of the uprising.
"It wasn't quite as bad as Isaac's situation," she admitted, "but it wasn't good."
From there, though, the similarities between life and fiction cease.
Sofer said that when she ran out of memories, she relied on instinct, as well as accounts of the period she found in books; she drew, as well, from the testimonies of former Iranian prisoners she interviewed throughout the writing process.
Sofer made her remarks on Oct. 15 to a sizable audience at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.
'Difficult to Be a Jew'
Before she spoke, K.I. Senior Rabbi Lance Sussman offered some introductory remarks before Sofer took to the podium.
Despite the current regime's fierce anti-Israel stance and consistent anti-Semitic rhetoric, the Jewish people have a long and illustrious history in the country, Sussman noted; it can be traced as far back as 722 BCE, to what is considered the age of the Assyrians. By the sixth century, the Jews, under Cyrus, had become important and influential members of society.
The Jews maintained a comfortable existence in Iran, continued the rabbi — despite the normal dislocations of history — right up until the time of the overthrow of the Shah.
With the Islamic Revolution, it became, in Sussman's words, "somewhere between difficult and impossible to be a Jew in Iran."
Yet, even now, there's a surprisingly large number of Jews living there, somewhere roughly between 30,000 and 40,000, in Sussman's estimation.
As for Sofer and her family, they fled the country in 1982 — first heading for Turkey, then making their way to Israel for a 10-month-long stay before immigrating to New York City.
The author, who earned an undergraduate degree from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College, began writing the book seven years ago.
"I started other books, and would get to page 50 and realize it wasn't going anywhere. I finally realized that this was the story I needed to tell first. I just needed to be older, wiser and more mature," she said.
Her ties to Iran don't extend far beyond her writing: "I have an uncle who still lives there, but he lives in a bubble, and I have very little contact with him."
Sofer, who still speaks with a heavy accent, hasn't been back during these 25 years; still, at one point, she came to fear a certain backlash for her criticism of the country in the novel.
"I haven't heard any response from Iran, which is a good thing. For a while, I was kind of paranoid I would have to go hide like Salman Rushdie," she only half-jokingly stated, referring to the author of The Satanic Verses, who had a fatwah (death sentence) placed on his life after that novel appeared.
"I certainly don't plan on returning anytime soon," said Sofer. "Nothing could happen or something could happen. It is not worth taking the risk."