Equal of the Sun, p.15Anita Amirrezvani
But had my father really been a rebel? The more I investigated, the more the truth seemed to recede from my grasp.
I resolved to look again at the History of Tahmasb Shah’s Glorious Reign, taking notes on all the accountants who had served the Shah during my father’s time, as well as all those leaders who had been the Shah’s closest confidants. I didn’t dare approach them outright, but I would try to piece together the picture by collecting all the tiny shards of information I could find.
The next day, I awoke early and discovered that Balamani was already gone.
As I was dressing, Massoud Ali came in with a letter for me. His sleeve fell away, revealing large purple and yellow bruises.
He shrugged and looked down. It took quite a bit of prompting to get him to admit that Ardalan, the errand boy, had pummeled him after being bested again at backgammon. I made a mental note to reprimand him, and I told Massoud Ali that I would send him to a tutor for lessons on combat.
“But right now,” I added, “I want to tell you the most important story you will ever hear. It is a long one, so I will tell it to you in parts. At the end of it, you will know how to stand up to bullies like Ardalan.”
Massoud Ali’s fingers went to a bruise as if to soothe it.
I sat down on my bedroll, even though I had much to do. “Once, long ago,” I began, “there was a ruler named Zahhak whose evil knew no bounds. The way Ferdowsi tells it, all the world’s problems started when he decided to usurp his father, who had been a just leader. One day, with some help from the devil, he . . .”
Massoud Ali hung on every word, his eyes wide. When I got to the part about how Zahhak had destroyed Pormayeh, he jumped up angrily as if he wished to save the cow. I promised that I would help him learn how to defend those who needed his help.
It was late, so I sent Massoud Ali off on his duties and rushed to the hammam. Many other eunuchs had already gathered there to clean themselves before Friday prayers, and the sound of their voices echoed throughout the room. Balamani was in the largest tub, pouring bowls of warm water over his bald, charcoal-colored head.
“Aw khesh,” he said in satisfaction as the water coursed over his broad, smooth body.
After greeting him, I soaped myself, rinsed with buckets of water, and slid into the tub, where he was scrubbing a callus on his thumb. Before I had time to adjust to the heat of the water or to tell him what I had learned the night before, he asked, “How is your health?”
“God be praised,” I said. “And yours?”
“From your cheeriness, I can tell that you haven’t heard the news.”
When I shrugged and admitted defeat, his black eyes twinkled merrily. In the business of gathering information, Balamani was still the master, I the student. Since it was impossible to know when trifling details would become valuable, he collected them all. If you pick up a few shards of colored tile, he explained when I had first joined the palace, you have nothing, but gather enough shards and you can piece together a mosaic.
Balamani poured another jug of water over his head, then wiped his face. “Hossein Beyg Ostajlu was captured yesterday trying to leave the city. After hearing about that, I decided to go to the home of one of the Ostajlu nobles to quiz his eunuchs about the tribe’s status at court. Not far from the palace gates, I noticed a number of fine tents had been torn down, stomped on, and soiled. A man was rummaging under one of the tents trying to collect abandoned items. He told me that a few days ago, the Shah sent a message to the Ostajlu in the form of an arrow. It had been lodged in one of the palace’s plane trees during their invasion, and its arrival at the Ostajlu camp chastised them for entering the palace grounds and attacking royalty.
“On the morning of the coronation, the Ostajlu pitched their tents and sent a written reply. ‘We recognize we are in disgrace,’ the message said. ‘We can’t take another breath on this earth without pleading for forgiveness. We beg you to tell us our punishment so that we may one day fill our lungs with the sweet air of royal grace.’”
“What was the Shah’s response?”
Balamani raised his eyebrows. “He sent a group of soldiers to tear down the tents, and looters walked away with silver platters, embroidered pillows, silk robes, and even carpets.”
“What a humiliation! Have the Ostajlu been welcomed back?”
Balamani grimaced as he scrubbed at the tender flesh below his callus. “We will see,” he said. “They have been ordered to present themselves today.”
“On a Friday?” I asked, incredulous. The late Shah had never conducted business on the holy day.
Balamani stopped scrubbing. “The meeting is at Forty Columns Hall. Shall we observe it together?”
“Of course,” I replied.
By the time we arrived, the hall was already packed with men sitting cross-legged knee to knee. The heat from the bodies made the room seem suffocating, and the acrid smell of sweat hung in the air.
I couldn’t help but look at all of them with a new eye. If Looloo’s guess was right and my father’s murderer was alive, could he be here? I stared at men with long gray beards and creased foreheads as well as those in the prime of youth with thick black mustaches and smooth, sun-browned skin. Might I be looking at him?
Near the portable throne that marked the Shah’s place sat most of the qizilbash leaders, as well as the Circassians including Pari’s uncle Shamkhal, who looked uncommonly ruddy and well. Mirza Shokhrollah sat closest to where Isma‘il would emerge. The leaders of the Ostajlu, the Georgians, and the Kurds sat clumped together in disgrace behind all the others for having supported Haydar. Hossein Beyg Ostajlu looked as frightened as if it were the last day of his life.
Balamani and I claimed a cushion at the back of the chamber. Saleem Khan called the meeting to order in a more sober tone than usual. The Shah entered and sat in front of a mural that showed his grandfather mounted on a horse, thrusting his spear at a warrior who had tried to resist the establishment of his rule. The Shah was wearing a pale blue robe and olive green trousers, colors so complementary to those in the painting that it was as if he had stepped right out of the battle scene. His mouth was set in an angry grimace, and the pillows under his eyes made me suspect that he had not slept enough the night before.
“You may plead your case,” he said to Sadr al-din Khan.
“Oh glorious light of the age,” said he, “we the Ostajlu gave our lives with enthusiasm during the wars fought by your father and grandfather, supporting their reign in every way. We support yours, too. At some junctures, though, your servants take the wrong path. We are guilty of having rallied behind the wrong man, but please understand that it came from a desire to keep the Safavi throne intact. We beg your forgiveness and wish to perform any punishment you require to be reinstituted into your good graces.”
“You say this now,” he replied, “but this is not the tune you were singing a few weeks ago. Hossein Beyg, stand up.”
Hossein Beyg got to his feet and faced the Shah. I remembered how fierce he had looked when he led the men into battle, but now he appeared small inside his robe and trousers.
“By all accounts, you were the leader of the soldiers who stormed the palace. Is that true?”
“Yes, defender of our faith, it is true.”
“How dare you support my opponent?”
“O merciful Shah, I am not the only one. There were many who did not understand that your star was ascendant. If you arrest me, you might as well arrest most of your court.”
“That is true,” replied the Shah, “but you were the one who led the invasion and desecrated the sanctity of the women’s quarters. How can you expect such a violation to be forgiven?”
“O light of the universe,” said Hossein Beyg, with the ferocity of a man who knows he is fighting for his life, “it was a time of lawlessness and uncertainty. We acted with the intention of protecting the royal grounds, and we were not the only ones who did so. A large group of—”
“Clemency makes a man loyal,” Hossein Beyg replied in a quiet tone. “Kindness is answered with greater kindness.”
“Your words are empty; they don’t convince me,” said the Shah. “Why shouldn’t I execute you? You are a conniver and a plotter.”
Hossein Beyg bowed his head respectfully, speaking to the ground near the Shah. “Your own father was faced with insubordination many times. He showed mercy by imprisoning his enemies—even members of his own family whom he suspected of rebellion.”
Others would have fallen to their knees, cringing and begging. His bravery filled me with admiration.
“Don’t dare to compare yourself to me!” replied the Shah. “Nothing you have said mitigates what you have done. If you had been successful, I wouldn’t be here, and I see no reason to trust you. I therefore order your execution, to be carried out tomorrow morning.”
He gestured to the guards. “Remove him from my gaze.”
The guards grabbed Hossein Beyg and dragged him toward the rear door. He turned back to the assembly and stared directly into the eyes of the Shah in violation of every rule of respect and protocol. I was astonished to see a man daring to behave as if he were the Shah’s equal. The faces of the men around me were transfixed with horror.
“May God punish you for this first of your sins!” Hossein Beyg shouted, his words falling on the room like a curse. “May you fear for your life every day you are Shah. May your children be murdered without mercy, just as you have condemned me. Men of the court, take heed! You will be next if you don’t root out this viper in your midst.”
The guards pummeled him so hard in the face and chest that he fell to the floor with a thud. They forced him to his feet and pushed him out of the room, but the expression on his face remained stoic and dignified.
I was appalled. Hossein Beyg had pled his case well before a man who had been a prisoner himself only a few months before. I thought the Shah should have treated him with more mercy.
After his removal, the room was so silent that you could hear the flapping of birds’ wings outside. Rather than being the gentlest of sounds, it was like listening to a beating.
“Sadr al-din Khan, your men are the cause of this disorder,” added Isma‘il Shah. “There is nothing you can say to redeem yourself for what you have done. However, I am indeed merciful, and therefore I order you merely to be imprisoned along with your accomplices.”
He named five men, two of whom were governors, and the guards lifted each man to his feet and pushed him toward the door.
I thought about the terrible warren of palace prison cells, which stank of mold and grief. They were always bitterly cold, even on the hottest days of summer.
The Shah scowled as they were led away, and twisted restlessly on his cushion. “Those of you who remain in this room, look around you. Do you notice anyone missing from your ranks?”
I checked the room, annoyed that I had not thought to do so earlier. Balamani had a knowing look in his eyes.
“Kholafa Rumlu,” he whispered.
Balamani could look around a room and see more than any other man. He could recite every noble family’s lineages and their proper titles until day turned into night.
“Perhaps you have noticed the absence of Kholafa, which you may find surprising since he was one of my greatest backers. The news about him will freeze your blood.”
No one had been a greater devotee!
“Not long ago, I offered Kholafa a new post in our government, which required him to give up his existing position. He refused to relinquish his title. Then I suggested that he be put in charge of the royal zoo.”
I suppressed a horrified laugh. Overseeing the zoo was an insult to a man of Kholafa’s rank.
“Kholafa refused to respond to my royal command. For his pride and disobedience, he too will pay the price of his life.”
I heard a low expostulation from Balamani. My heart felt as if it had stopped beating.
“As you ponder the fate of Kholafa and Hossein Beyg, don’t forget that your fate could be the same. Tell them, Saleem Khan.”
“God is great, and the Shah is his deputy here on earth. The punishment for disobedience is death,” said Saleem Khan.
We replied in unison, “We pledge submission to the light of the universe.”
But the Shah hadn’t finished yet.
“And another thing, while I am on the subject of violations of the royal person and palace. It has come to my attention that a number of courtiers have continued to call upon those who are most dear to our honor. I am certain you would agree that there is nothing as important as honor—nothing. Visiting them is absolutely forbidden.”
If he had objected, why hadn’t he said so earlier? No doubt he had been afraid of Pari’s power.
None of the courtiers dared to say a word; they bowed their heads, hoping Isma‘il would not demand accountability from them. I stared at Shamkhal but could detect no surprise in his expression, nor did he utter a single word in support of his niece.
Mirza Salman asked permission to speak, which I thought brave under the circumstances.
“O commander of all that is pure, in your absence, many of us were concerned about the security and safety of the palace. We thought that no one could guide us better than a close descendant of your revered father. We sincerely hope that we haven’t erred.”
Isma‘il looked pleased by this pretty speech. “In such a situation, when the palace is in chaos and no Safavi prince is present to make decisions, you did well to listen to a member of the family,” he replied. “But everything is different now. I am here to lead you, and therefore no such ministrations are required—or allowed. Do you understand?”
“Perfectly,” replied Mirza Salman.
The Shah signaled to Saleem Khan that the meeting was over, and that was that. In Tahmasb Shah’s time, the discipline of malefactors would have been mitigated with rewards to those who had provided good service, or something else that would have relieved the sorrow we felt over the death and imprisonment of men we all knew. How different things had become.
When the Shah arose, we stood at attention as he walked to the door, followed by the pillars of state and by the guards. After he left, the courtiers who had survived the ordeal began speaking together in quiet but fervent tones. Some wiped their brows, while others muttered prayers of thanks that they had not been taken. I heard Ibrahim Mirza speaking too loudly to one of his friends.
“I would say this is cause for celebration,” he said in an ironic tone, “that is, for those of us who are still breathing. Why not join me for refreshments at my home? I’ve commissioned a new book, and I would like to show you some of the illustrations.”
The prince was beloved among artists and calligraphers for spending so much of his fortune on books. He must have been trembling on his cushion over his support of Haydar, though he was making light of it now. Why, I wondered, had the Shah spared him?
His friend didn’t have the heart to celebrate. “Maybe later,” he said. “Right now, I am going to the mosque to give thanks to God.”
Balamani turned to me and said, “It could have been worse.”
“Isma‘il had to show the stone in his fist. If he hadn’t punished his enemies, the moment the meeting ended, groups of courtiers would have started plotting to bring him down. Now they will think twice about the consequences.”
“But why Kholafa? Isn’t it excessive to kill your ally because he didn’t care for his new posting?”
“Vagh-vagh,” said Balamani, imitating an angry dog. “All that was just an excuse. Kholafa was responsible for making him shah. No ruler wishes to be so obligated to a mere man.”
His words were like a dagger in my heart. I suspected that a shah like Isma‘il would wish to be obligated to a woman even less.
“You look as if you have seen a jinni,” she said. “What happened?”
“The Shah has shown his wrath by ordering the executions of Kholafa and Hossein Beyg,” I replied in a rush, “and has imprisoned Sadr al-din Khan and other supporters of Haydar.”
“Voy!” Pari replied. “That is much too harsh!”
“Esteemed princess, he has also demanded that the courtiers refrain from attending meetings with the royal women.”
“For what reason?”
“He said it was an insult to the honor of the Safavis.”
“Of course he would,” Pari replied angrily. “It is the easiest thing to say because no courtier can protest such an accusation. What he can’t say is that his sister is better at governing than he is. I can’t remain silent when those men are about to be executed, especially Kholafa. I will go plead with him immediately.”
Pari picked up her pen and wrote a letter to Sultanam demanding Isma‘il’s ear. It said, in part:
Now that you are queen mother of Iran because of my key
I beg your help in unlocking your son’s clemency.
Throw open the doors to his generosity
And remember: One day, you might need aid from me.
Sultanam replied with a message telling her to come to her quarters in the late afternoon, when she had tea with her son. When we arrived, we were shown into a small guest room with fine carpets. Sultanam and Isma‘il sat very close to one another, drinking tea spiced with cardamom and eating sugar crystals brightened with saffron. With her broad frame and wedge of curly white hair, Sultanam looked twice as big as Isma‘il, who was still thin despite the richness of the palace diet. Pari saluted Isma‘il as the lord of the universe, thanked him for inviting her into his presence, and inquired after his health. The formalities done, Isma‘il did not delay.
“I know why you are here,” he said. “The answer is no—no more morning meetings.”
This shah, I thought, did not understand the first thing about diplomacy.
Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes