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Equal of the sun, p.13
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       Equal of the Sun, p.13

           Anita Amirrezvani

  “Look at his jewelry.”

  “If you had half as much, you would be rich!”

  The elephant let loose a steaming pile of dung, and shouts of laughter erupted throughout the room. It had been months since anyone had felt free to celebrate, and the excitement seemed almost hysterical.

  Although Pari had told me she would be there, she had already left. I pretended that she had instructed me to wait for her, so that I could watch the other women.

  Sultanam sat near Khadijeh, her new daughter-in-law, and held her hand on her day of motherly triumph. Sultanam seemed to have expanded in width so that everyone in the room appeared insubstantial beside her. Khadijeh, who was seated on a cushion at her right, looked as ripe as a peach. I couldn’t deny that her marriage agreed with her. When she saw me, her lips curved into a tender smile.

  I had never before seen Khayr al-Nisa Beygom, Mohammad Khodabandeh’s wife, who lived with him in Shiraz. She had small, stern features except for her mouth, which was so large that it seemed to overpower her whole face. As she watched the ceremony, she kept adjusting her legs on her cushion as if she couldn’t get comfortable.

  “How my head aches!” she complained, her voice loud and high-pitched.

  Sultanam offered her rose water, herbs, and cool compresses, but Khayr al-Nisa rejected all of them.

  “Look!” said Khadijeh. “He is arising to take his leave.” Through the latticed windows, I saw Isma‘il mount his horse and canter in our direction, while all the men bowed low.

  Sultanam leaned toward Khadijeh like a conspirator. “So now it is official. After nearly forty years of waiting, the bird of hope has stirred in the ashes of my heart and taken flight! How sweet the beat of its wings! How my heart soars!”

  Khayr al-Nisa’s lips turned down, but she kept her eyes carefully averted from Sultanam’s. If not for her husband’s blindness, she would have been queen of all Iran.

  Sultanam didn’t seem to care how she felt. She put a hand lightly against Khadijeh’s flat belly. “Is it too much to ask that I should also be grandmother to the next shah? May God forgive me for entertaining this hope on a day when my other hopes have been realized—but may he also look kindly on my desire.”

  Khayr al-Nisa’s torso twitched as if she had been struck. At that moment, a maid offered her saffron rice pudding on a silver tray. She reached out her hand as if to accept, but then, with an almost imperceptible flick of the wrist, she sent several bowls flying to the floor. They landed with a great crash on the carpet, the embroidered pillows, and on her, the sticky pudding clinging in great white clumps.

  “Forgive me!” wailed the maid, her face twisted with fear. Khayr al-Nisa glared at her. Servants rushed to clean the spill.

  “Ah, ah! How clumsy you are. I must go change.”

  “Yes, I suppose you must.” Sultanam dismissed Khayr al-Nisa from the room with a condescending look.

  “What a spoiled child!” she said to Khadijeh after Khayr al-Nisa had left. “It is lucky for the rest of us that she is not queen.”

  Two grand celebrations were planned for that evening in the birooni and andarooni. Pari was obliged to join a celebration for the women organized by Sultanam, and she sent me to attend the festivities at Forty Columns Hall. My stomach rumbled in anticipation of the rich dishes that would be served, giving us our first taste of the new Shah’s generosity. But even more than that, I hoped that Mahmood Mirza would be there. Ever since he had left, I had had to train my heart. I told myself I had no claim over the boy, other than as his teacher. Yet you cannot spend eight years with a child without feeling as if he were a member of your own family. Mahmood was just two years older than Jalileh, and I knew him better than my own sister. I missed him and wanted to find out if his new life suited him.

  Forty Columns Hall glittered in the night. Servants had decorated it with so many hanging lamps that its arches and painted ceiling glowed, and the hall was flooded with golden beams. Bouquets of freshly cut flowers bloomed in the corners of the room and spilled their perfume into the air. The doors opened onto the large garden, illuminated on this night with torches so that all of nature seemed part of the celebration. Heaping platters of fruit and nuts hinted at the lavishness of the meal to come. Balamani found me so that we could feast together, and we took a seat on one of the cloths that had been laid out in the garden under a sky thick with stars.

  When Isma‘il entered Forty Columns Hall that evening, everyone stood up. He was wearing a saffron-colored robe, the color of gaiety itself, and had put a jaunty blue feather in his turban, despite the recent death of his father.

  “I have prepared a special indulgence tonight,” Isma‘il told us. He sat down on a jewel-encrusted portable throne, and all of us sat with him. Then he raised his hand, and a servant ran out of the room to do his bidding. After a moment, from a nearby room, the high, sweet sounds of a three-stringed kamancheh filled the air. I turned to Balamani, surprised. In my twelve years at court, I had never heard festive music in the palace. After Tahmasb Shah had become devout, years before my arrival, he had fired the court musicians and dancers. The court had become a sober place, one that favored learning, effort, and religious devotion.

  The musicians entered the room and sat down on cushions placed near the Shah. The orchestra consisted of the kamancheh, a reed flute, a six-stringed tar, and a daf drum with metal rings that gave percussion such a rich sound.

  All of a sudden, a voice emerged from the other room that seemed to be pouring directly from the singer’s heart. I sat riveted, held still by wonder. A voice! Singing! It filled the palace with its deep longing, bypassing all objections, cutting straight to the soul. The singer entered the room, his arms open wide to the Shah, and sang lines of poetry about the heart’s search for the gates of spirit and how he would gladly sacrifice himself for a glimpse of light under the gate.

  When the song ended, the group of musicians changed its tune. The daf marked out the beat clear and strong, and then the lively, sweet sounds of the kamancheh took over. The vocalist began singing about the joys of love everlasting. I felt my feet begin to move, and I could see from the flutters in Balamani’s robe that the rhythm had moved him, too. I didn’t think it possible to dance at the palace, but my body strained against my robe like a lion against his cage. Around me, a surge rippled through the men’s bodies, and they began to move faintly, with longing.

  The Shah tilted his head as if he was listening deeply. I watched his bare foot begin to tap in time to the music, softly and then more emphatically until it was pounding against the carpet. Suddenly he sprang up and thrust his hands in the air. He began stamping to the beat, and with his arms held high, he formed powerful rosettes by twirling his hands. That was all he needed to do before two small boys ran to join him, unconstrained by the majesty of the royal person. The children swayed to the music, their faces transfixed with pleasure.

  Some of the nobles jumped up and lifted their arms, circling their hands in time with the beat. At last I need resist no longer! I leapt up and pulled Balamani with me, stamped my feet as if to destroy the floor, raised my arms, and snapped my fingers to crack the air with noise. Balamani’s kind old eyes shone as he paraded his big belly, and I could imagine him as an impish young man, full of life. We eunuchs looked different from women when we danced, more like proud cypress trees than swaying rosebushes, but with our arms lifted high in the air, our hearts were wide open.

  “Not only music, but dance, too! The late Shah would have his head for this!” Balamani whispered as he stamped by me, his face beaming with glee.

  “But what harm?” I replied. “Only the impious can’t listen to music for fear of what it will make them do.”

  “The late Shah would have had your balls, too!”

  I laughed as lustily as if I still owned such treasures.

  The tune ended and we sat down for a rest, as did others. Everyone looked as if they could not believe what had actually happened, and a touch of embarrassment cou
rsed through the room.

  When the musicians took a break, all the men returned to their places, out of breath, and wiped their foreheads with silk handkerchiefs. Isma‘il dropped to his cushion and grabbed a confection from his wooden box, which always accompanied him, and swallowed it without chewing. I searched for Mahmood Mirza, but it was crowded and I didn’t see him.

  Late in the night, a grand feast was served, and we ate richly from silver platters laden with roasted meats, vegetable stews, rice brightened with saffron, fresh greens, and sheep’s yogurt, as well as platters of dates and halva, pastries, and flagons of drinks. Then we all arose and danced again. The merriment only increased as the evening progressed and dancing girls emerged and entertained the men. For the first time since Isma‘il II had been crowned in Qazveen, pleasure invaded every spirit and hope took root in every heart.

  Before I thought it possible, I heard the first call to prayer, signaling the approach of dawn. It seemed as if I had just closed my eyes when Massoud Ali tugged at my bedclothes and told me that a visitor had asked for me. I arose, heart racing. We entered one of the palace buildings near the Ali Qapu that was used to greet visitors. A young man who had his back to me was observing a mural on the wall. When he turned, I saw it was Mahmood Mirza.

  “Esteemed prince!” I exclaimed. “Your visit brings joy to this eunuch’s heart. What may I do to increase your comfort? Massoud Ali, bring tea and sweetmeats for our honored guest!”

  The boy scuttled out of the room.

  “I came to town for the coronation,” replied the prince, “and I am about to ride home, but first I thought I would stop in and see my ostaad.”

  “Blessings upon you, my child! Your heart is made of diamonds to remember your old teacher. How you gladden me with your joyful presence.”

  Mahmood sat on a cushion, begging me to join him and be comfortable. I asked for his news with as much excitement as if I had been his older brother.

  “How are things in Shirvan?”

  “It is a minor posting, but I like it. Several of my father’s trusted servants advise me about how to govern. I love the open plains and the animals so thick they travel in caravans. There are more animals than people in the province, which suits me well.”

  His eyes gleamed as he leaned forward, warming to his subject. “You know, the province is teeming with wild horses. Sometimes I am able to catch one of them, and lately I have been experimenting with interbreeding them with our mares. I never knew how much I would enjoy living outside the confines of the palace. There it is just me, my men, the animals, and the sky above. It is a fine life!”

  He opened his arms enthusiastically as if embracing the wild spaces that he loved so well. I understood for the first time how constrained he must have felt by life in the palace, and I was glad he had broken free of it.

  “My good prince, you have always had a loving touch with animals. Your skill with horses even as a boy astonished everyone. Thank God above you have found your calling! But I am sure you are destined for even greater things.”

  “Greater things?” he said, a question in his voice. “To me, God is great, and so are the gifts He gave to man. Those are all I need. I was never good at books. You did your best with me, though, and I am grateful for how hard you worked to shape this poor vessel into a better form.”

  He smiled a big, boyish smile, and my heart lurched.

  “A rose could not be cultivated unless it contained the heart of a rose.”

  He accepted my compliment and reached into a saddlebag. “I brought something for you.”

  Mahmood handed me a parcel, which I unwrapped slowly. It was a copy of the Shahnameh written in an exquisite hand, its margins decorated with gold leaf. Although I had studied the book and had memorized parts of it, I had never been able to afford my own copy to read whenever I wished.

  “This is a small gift for all the years you worked with me,” he said. “After I left, I came to realize how much you had done. Without your determined training, I never would have been qualified to be a governor. You instilled an appreciation of learning in me, despite myself, and for this I shall love and respect you always.”

  I could no longer speak. I knew it was presumptuous of me, but he was the closest I would ever come to having a son. I loved him.

  “My esteemed prince!” I finally said, straining to keep my tears at bay, “how you fill your old master’s heart with joy. I am proud of you. May your way be blessed, may God put sweet fortune into your path, and may your burdens always be light.”

  “Insh’Allah,” Mahmood replied, his eyes dancing. He stood up, and I noticed that he was dressed for riding.

  “I have a long journey ahead of me, and I must go,” he said. “I will call on you the next time I come to Qazveen.”

  He said his farewells and promised to return soon.

  Massoud Ali came in to ask if I needed anything. He appeared to be in an uncommonly good mood.

  “What makes you so happy, my little radish?”

  “I have never seen you smile before!”

  After sending Massoud Ali to bed, I decided to report to Pari’s quarters for duty since I was already awake. In one of her antechambers I found two old women waiting for the princess, unsupervised. How negligent all of Pari’s servants had become during the festivities! One of the women had a wrinkled face, with lines radiating away from her eyes and mouth, and her back was hunched. The other’s hair and eyebrows were frosted with gray. Both wore humble cotton robes, but there was an air of insolence about them.

  “Who are you?” I challenged.

  “We wish to see the princess,” said the hunched one in a gravelly voice. “Only she can redeem us.”

  “We need money, a place to stay, something to eat, and her blessings. A little jewelry would be nice, too,” added her gray-haired companion.

  Both women burst out laughing, and I realized I had been duped. The one with the gray locks was Pari.

  “Princess, what a transformation!”

  “It is all Maryam’s doing. She made the clothing and painted our faces and hair. Then we went to a gypsy encampment and watched the women dance. How pretty their voices are, how bright their robes!”

  A gypsy encampment? If Isma‘il discovered they had slipped away, he would have their heads. But how had they gotten out of the palace? All the doors from the harem were heavily guarded.

  “Next, I will make you a gypsy outfit with beads and coins,” Maryam promised, a wicked gleam in her eyes.

  “If I like it, perhaps I will dance for you,” Pari teased back.

  “Were you recognized?” I asked, thinking ahead to the need for an alibi.

  “Not at all!” Pari was overcome with delight. “We even got close enough to look at the gypsies’ wares, and we bargained hard for a few necklaces.”

  “If we hadn’t, they would have known something was wrong,” Maryam added.

  “What a different life those gypsy women live; they are like birds compared to us,” Pari said.

  Their cheeks were bright with color. I had never seen them so carefree and happy.

  “Did the palace guards look the other way?” I asked incredulously, still trying to discover how they had escaped. Women were not allowed to leave the harem except under carefully defined circumstances. They could accompany the shah wherever he wished to take them—to one of his other palaces, on a hunting trip, or to a picnic. With permission and with escorts, older women could travel to visit the households of their sons. Other cases were decided as the need arose.

  “Ah, Javaher! You can’t expect me to reveal all of my secrets,” Pari replied with a toss of her snowy hair.

  The expression on my face sent Maryam into fresh fits of laughter.

  The coronation celebration was a masterstroke on the part of the Shah. He had finally thrown us a crumb of joy, and we gobbled it up as if it were a whole meal. It was followed by three days of leisure, during which Sultanam invited her son and all the women of the harem to a
picnic in the countryside. The women immediately began preparing and packing luxurious foods and games, excited by the rare outing. The whole household was busy until Friday morning, when we set out right after morning prayers. I left the palace with a group of eunuchs armed with daggers and swords as part of the advance party; we rode for about an hour until we arrived at the palace’s favorite picnicking spot near a river, and eunuch guards were posted around a huge perimeter so that no men would accidentally wander into the women’s sphere.

  It was a clear, hot day, the hawks zooming overhead as if racing with the clouds, the mountains bluish in the morning light. The day before, servants had staked large tents to provide shade and laid down mats and cushions. Archery targets had been set up, and games like chess and backgammon, as well as balls for the children, were placed a safe distance away. Fires had been laid for barbecuing meat and boiling rice, and an oven dug in the earth to bake bread.

  A cloud of dust announced the arrival of those royal women who were adept at riding. The army of Arabian horses, so beautiful in dappled shades of white, tan, and brown, bore hundreds of chador-wrapped women on embroidered saddles with red, yellow, and silver fringes. Some rode sidesaddle, but Pari rode like a man, leading the pack with the grace of a soldier.

  Older women and children followed not long after in carved wooden palanquins that had left the palace earlier in the day. Isma‘il had ridden separately, with his own guard, and when he approached the site, he sent his guards far away. Then the ladies shed their head and face coverings, revealing bright short-sleeved robes, padded trousers, and low boots.

  We breakfasted on tea, cheese, nuts, fruit, and puffy bread fresh out of the oven. Pari and her mother jumped up and began strolling arm in arm near the river, talking animatedly. Other women followed, their girls in tow; the herbalists among them collected plants. Boys kicked off their shoes and dared each other to get wet in the river; others played with balls or wrestled. Massoud Ali observed them, his shoulders sagging. I called him over to the games area and taught him the rudiments of backgammon. He picked it up quickly, and when I praised him, I was rewarded with a shy smile. I found another novice player for him to test himself against and watched their young foreheads pucker with concentration as the game deepened.

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