Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Materialism as Identity

37. The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer

Only one concept separates this book from a thousand others like it. Unfortunately, persecution is not a new or even relatively rare subject, and so it is often unnecessary to read more than a few of this genre before getting a taste of the pain often personally experienced by authors. The Septembers of Shiraz is fiction, but loosely based on the experience of the author's family.

The year is 1981. The place, Iran. The father of a wealthy Jewish family is imprisoned, innocent of the accusation-Zionist spy. Sofer alternates between the father's musing and experience in prison, his wife's anguishing search, his nine-year-old daughter's thoughts, and the feelings of his nineteen-year-old son attending university in New York. Some of the coincidences are unbelievable, such as that Shirin, the daughter, discovers a file on her uncle at a friend's house and hides it. Sofer stretches credibility unnecessarily, the sheer intensity of her story is enough to carry a plot.

What I never really considered, and has never been thoroughly discussed before (to my knowledge) in a situation like this, is a particular feeling of wealthy people who must leave their country to start over again with nothing. Obviously, they would miss the luxury, but Sofer makes the reader consider how objects can represent a family history, and a cultural, or personal identity. Even something as shallow as a handbag could be an important symbol of a need to control, or moving on to a new chapter in one's life.

Shahla, the father's sister, known for her materialistic indulgences, nonetheless makes a valuable point; "If we leave this country without taking care of our belongings, who in Geneva or Paris or Timbukto, will understand who we once were? (56)"

She invokes the fear and uncertainty of displacement of the self along with the stuff, fear of assimilation, and, though unstated, of the assimilation of one's children and descendents.

I found this even more interesting to contemplate, as my own grandfather and his family escaped Nazi Germany, ceding over their entire estate and business to do so. Undoubtedly, they were the lucky ones, their wealth helped them escape, but they had to start all over again with nothing in the Bronx. This consideration helped me to understand more the feelings of my great-grandparents. My Great Grandma brought over with her an ornate, expensive set of goblets, which were sold one by one to support the family. The last goblet, saved from its brethren's fate due to a chip in the rim, now rests in my family's dining room cabinet and serves as our Elijah's cup for Passover. Every time we glance at it, we are reminded of the hardship of our forebears. Based on that, I would concur with Sofer's thesis, that an object can be more than an object and can in fact make a difference.

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