Writers & Company

Dalia Sofer draws on her family's escape from revolutionary Iran 

In conversation with Eleanor Wachtel, the Iranian-American author talks about how the legacy of a revolution informs her novels The Septembers of Shiraz and Man of My Time.
Dalia Sofer is an Iranian-born American writer. (Anthony Rhoades)

The work of Iranian-American novelist Dalia Sofer reflects her engagement with moral complexity — at both the political level and through the personal choices of her characters.

Drawing on her family's experience in Iran both before and after the revolution of 1979, Sofer's new novel, Man of My Time, chronicles the life of a young revolutionary who ends up becoming a prison interrogator. Exploring questions of responsibility and forgiveness, the novel spans 40 years of turbulence — both in Iran and in the heart of its protagonist. 

Sofer was born in Tehran in 1972. After the revolution, her father, an electrical engineer, was imprisoned and tortured by the fundamentalist government. Two years later, the family escaped Iran and settled in New York City, where Sofer now lives. Her acclaimed first novel, The Septembers of Shiraz, was inspired by her father's story. 

Sofer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from her home in New York City. 

Escaping Iran

"On the day we escaped, we woke up early in the morning. We made our beds as usual. We got dressed. We met friends who were going to drive us north to a town called Tabriz. From there, we were joined by smugglers who then took us over the border to Turkey. 

"It was a long process, but we arrived in Turkey the following morning at dawn. We then took a bus to Ankara, and then to Istanbul. We checked into a hotel and, slowly, we got ourselves together.

I was deeply aware that this was something that was going to mark my life — that there would be a before and after.

"I was a child, but I was fully aware of what was happening because we had been preparing for it for some time. Although we couldn't really talk about it to many people, I was deeply aware that this was something that was going to mark my life — that there would be a before and after."

Devastation comes later

"For the young girl Shirin in The Septembers of Shiraz, the devastation of leaving Iran would come later. I think the awareness was there, but there is a numbness that sets in because I think it's so big that it's hard to process. 

"I'm not sure what I would have been like, had I been an adult. I think numbness would set in regardless but, as a child, that devastation would certainly come much later. 

"But the sense of loss was there. I remember a few nights before it happened, I was standing outside with my sister thinking, 'You know, this is going to be it.'

There was also this sense of deceit that you're leaving without telling very many people.

"There was also this sense of deceit that you're leaving without telling very many people. There is just an attachment to place, even as a child, and an anticipation of the unknown."

Family history

"My father originally came from Iraq. He left Baghdad in 1941. This was after the Farhud, which was a two-day uprising against Jews. 

"The year before, Rashid Ali al-Gaylani had come into power through a coup and his government was very pro-Nazi. During that time, a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment had been stirred. When the British defeated his government, there was this power vacuum and a lot of people felt the Jews had sided with the British. 

Our life was, prior to the revolution, just a regular life. It was peaceful: family, school, vacations. That kind of thing.

"For two days, there was this uprising. I think 180 people were killed, although the numbers are not specific, and many were injured. My father, as a young man, fled Baghdad and came to Iran. He settled there and met my mother. I was born decades after that. 

"Both my parents were originally of Iraqi Jewish heritage. Our life was, prior to the revolution, just a regular life. It was peaceful: family, school, vacations. That kind of thing."

Trapped by history

"Every individual's actions have an effect on his or her future and the future of everyone else. Other people's actions also have an effect on that individual. There is no such thing as a solitary act, in family or in history, because we are all constantly affecting each other whether or not we know it. 

"In Man of My Time, Hamid Mozaffarian makes decisions that affect himself, his family, and later his daughter and the society at large. Hamid says in the book that he's been undone by history — and that maybe someday history will send back an apology. 

Every individual's actions have an effect on his or her future and the future of everyone else.

"But Hamid also implicates himself in this history — he does acknowledge that he is both signatory and receiver of that apology letter."

The Iranian Islamic Republic Army demonstrates in solidarity with people in the street during the Iranian revolution, circa 1979. (Keystone/Getty Images)

The real Iranian Revolution

"I initially believed the common portrayal of the Iranian Revolution: that it was a movement that was largely created by the leftists — and that it was hijacked, at the 11th hour, by the clerics.

"The more I thought about it and processed it, I realized that this binary understanding of it isn't entirely accurate. It's really more complex. It wasn't really 'religious versus secular' — religion itself was seen by many as a vehicle to social justice. So the argument before the revolution wasn't, 'Do we want to be secular or religious?' 

I initially believed the common portrayal of the Iranian Revolution: that it was a movement that was largely created by the leftists — and that it was hijacked, at the 11th hour, by the clerics.

"The reality is that people, at least some people, wanted to create a movement that was completely new, completely part of their culture and completely consistent with the context in which they lived. They didn't just want to repeat the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution — they wanted something with a new vocabulary and a new way of being in the world. 

"So that impulse, for me, became important. I thought it was something to be valued, even if what happened afterward may be regrettable to some."

Dalia Sofer's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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