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Equal of the sun, p.42
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       Equal of the Sun, p.42

           Anita Amirrezvani

  I gave Jalileh’s few belongings to the porter and sent him off to the palace. Then we said goodbye to the old woman and the caravan leader and walked outside the caravanserai together, side by side for the first time. Her gait was rapid, her eyes alive with interest, but they stayed on my face rather than being distracted by the city’s sparkling domes.

  “Where to begin?” I wondered aloud. “Our cousin didn’t—”

  “Our mother wanted—” Jalileh said at the same time. We stared at each other, feeling the weight of all the missing years.

  “Labu! Hot labu!” a vendor called out, and my stomach came alive with hunger as the syrupy scent of beets filled the air. But then I remembered how my sister had hated beets as a child. I looked at her, wondering. There was so much I didn’t know.

  “I love beets,” she replied to my unasked question. “And I am hungry!”

  I laughed and paid for two beets. The vendor served them to us steaming hot in ceramic holders, smiling for no particular reason at both of us. We blew on them and feasted in the middle of the street. Jalileh’s lips and fingers grew purple as she ate. She giggled and wiped her mouth.

  After we finished, we cleaned ourselves, and then there was another awkward silence. What could we say to each other after so long? Jalileh’s eyes were red, and I realized that she needed to rest.

  “Come,” I said. “Let me take you to the palace so that you can see where you will be living.”

  “I am to live in a palace?” She could not hide the excitement in her voice.

  “Yes, you are. And soon you will wear a fine robe and ornaments in your hair, I promise you.”

  “But where will you live?”

  “Nearby,” I said. “I will tell you everything once you are settled. Right now, I want to show you something.”

  We walked together in the direction of the Tehran Gate until we reached the mill. A group of women were waiting in line to have their grain crushed, while others were purchasing the flour sold there. We stood and watched the donkeys turn the wheel that moved the huge stone, which rolled over the wheat and crushed it into flour. Jalileh was transfixed.

  “At home, I had to do that by hand,” she observed. I took one of her hands and brushed my fingers across her rough and chapped palm. She had never written anything about work to me; she had never complained.

  Jalileh removed her hand from mine, pressing her small lips together in chagrin. “If we buy flour, I could make you some bread,” she offered, her voice very small. “I learned all our mother’s recipes from her cousin.”

  Suddenly, it was as if I were back in my family home again watching my mother pull her sesame-sprinkled bread out of the oven, her eyes glowing with pride, while Jalileh and I gathered around to admire the crisp, corrugated loaf and to rip off pieces of it while it was still hot. No baker’s bread had been as good. My nostrils flooded with the scent, and my tongue ached with longing for it.

  “Jalileh, this mill belongs to us. Someday I will tell you the whole story, but for now you can think of it as a legacy, in a roundabout way, from our father.”

  As I said this, I realized how true it was. If our father had not been killed, I would never have served Pari, and if I hadn’t served her, I would never have received the mill.

  “I am glad it is ours,” she replied. “Is that why you were able to bring me to Qazveen?”

  “It is part of the reason,” I said. “Before you were invited to the palace, it was helpful to know that I had a means of supporting you.”

  Her eyes looked pained, and I wished I hadn’t put it that way. She had probably been told all her life what a burden she was.

  “I am grateful for all you have done,” she said. “But is there nothing I can do for you? Nothing at all?”

  A tear of pride welled up in one of her eyes, which she brushed away almost angrily. I saw the loneliness of an orphan there, and her uncrushable spirit, too. I realized what I needed to do.

  “Manager!” I called out. He came forward to greet me, wished blessings upon me and my family, and reported that the mill had been doing even more business than usual.

  “That is good news,” I replied. “Even better news is that my sister is now living in Qazveen. Please fetch a bag of your best flour for her.”

  Jalileh’s smile beamed as bright as the moon on a dark night. Quietly we walked back to the palace, the bag of flour between us.

  The day after delivering Jalileh into the care of one of the ladies at the entrance to the harem, I sought her out in her new quarters. She had been assigned a modest room shared with five other young women-in-training in a large dormitory, and when I appeared early that morning, she looked perplexed at the sight of me within the harem grounds. I invited her for a walk in the gardens. Outside, when she asked what I was doing in the harem, I took a breath and blurted out that I had become a eunuch in order to clear our family name. Her eyes flicked to the middle of my robe, then away. For a moment, she looked as if she could not grab her next breath. She asked to sit down. I led her to a bench in one of the outdoor pavilions and we sat on it side by side, staring at the blooming peach trees. When Jalileh finally looked at me again, I expected to see horror in her eyes. Instead she slipped to the ground, wrapped her arms around my ankles, and laid her cheek on top of my feet.

  “What you have paid in flesh, I will pay in devotion. I swear it!”

  I tried to help her up, but she refused to budge. As her warm tears slid over the tops of my feet, it was as if the deepest rips in my heart were being mended with her tenderness. I lifted her to her feet and embraced her, and the tears in her eyes were matched by those in my own.

  Every day from then on, I visited Jalileh to check on her progress. On Mahd-e-Olya’s orders, she began a rigorous program of apprenticeship to learn how to serve the ladies. Her days began early with lessons on how to greet women of different ranks and in the daily and seasonal rhythms of the palace. I was gratified when the ladies commended her on her handwriting, her quickness, her desire to please, and her ability to face difficult situations with good cheer.

  On our occasional days of leisure, Jalileh made me bread in one of the smaller kitchens in the harem; we ate it together with sheep’s cheese and walnuts, just as we used to do when we were children. It was as if I had never eaten bread before, so great was my satisfaction in sitting beside her and tasting with pride what she had baked. Little by little, we told each other the story of our lives, and with every story a new understanding grew between us. Until we began sharing our histories, I had not realized how utterly alone I had felt.

  Others could argue with a sibling or an uncle and still have more blood relatives to turn to; they could engage in petty fights and avoid speaking for years, relishing their anger while still being embraced by other family members. But Jalileh and I had no one else, and that knowledge made us treasure each other like priceless pearls plucked from the stormy depths of the Persian Gulf.

  While Jalileh labored to master palace protocol, my work continued at the scribes’ office in a routine fashion until one morning, I overheard a court historian explaining to his young assistant how they would undertake the work of writing the history of Isma‘il Shah’s short reign. He told the assistant to deputize a few men to collect details from his closest advisors about his efforts to deal with national and international problems, as well as to interview other nobles about his patronage of mosques and of the arts. The assistant would organize the material and provide it to his master, who would write the official history.

  Once those details had been settled, the assistant lowered his voice.

  “What are you going to write about that sister of his?” he asked the historian in a near whisper.

  “You mean the one who poisoned him?” the graybeard replied.

  “I thought he was poisoned by the qizilbash.” The young man had an offensively bright red mouth and tongue.

  “Who knows? The harem is a mystery. There is no way to be certain about what go
es on in there.”

  “Of course there is,” I said so loudly that the men looked up from their pages. “Why don’t you ask the eunuchs who work there every day?”

  “Why bother? The women hardly do anything at all,” said the young man.

  I stood up. “Are you a fool? Pari Khan Khanoom did more in a day than you do in a year. Compared to her, you are like an old mule.”

  The graybeard looked at me as if I were mad. “Calm down!” he said. “We are only going to write a few pages about her anyway.”

  “Then you will be missing one of the most arresting stories of our age.”

  “You think that way because you served her,” said the young man dismissively.

  Memories of Pari appeared so suddenly that they seemed more real than the men in front of me: her challenges on the first day I had met her, the gleam in her eyes as she dropped the peacock bowl, the ringing sound of her voice when she declaimed the poem that silenced Mirza Shokhrollah, the fearless way she had begged Isma‘il for clemency for the condemned, the strength of her hands against my back pushing me out of the palanquin. I missed her with all my heart. Her great flaws—obstinacy, arrogance, and fervor—had also been her strengths. Why didn’t the historians care enough to find out?

  “Illiterate!” I said to the young man. “Don’t you imagine you have a duty to the truth?”

  He shrugged. Rasheed Khan motioned the young scribe to the other side of the room and told him to get on with his work. From there the scribe glared at me but kept quiet. I realized that not only would the court historians fail to write enough about Pari, but they would not bring her story to life. How could they? They had never breached the royal harem. The women’s daily affairs, political efforts, passions, eccentricities, and quarrels would rarely be charted, and if they were, they would be misinterpreted and misunderstood. Worse yet, Mohammad Shah’s court would no doubt portray the princess as a monster to justify her murder.

  Then and there I decided I must write Pari’s life story, under cover of responding to court letters. Not only would I tell the truth of events, but I would beat away misconceptions and help her live for all time. That was the least that she was owed.

  As the only chronicler who served her closely enough to breathe in her perfume, I knew better than anyone that the princess was not a flawless gem. I never wished to pretend otherwise, in the way that our historians often try to justify the irregular behaviors of our shahs. I knew only too well about Pari’s arrogance, her refusal to compromise, and her temper, but I also understood that her magisterial nature stemmed from the fact that she was more learned and better trained in statecraft than most men. She was right to wish to rule; only the greed and fear of others prevented her from achieving the greatness she deserved.

  I began work on my prologue that very afternoon, after most of the scribes had gone home for their afternoon tea. When it became too dark to see, I concealed my pages carefully in a dusty corner of the library. I realized that I had finally begun fulfilling the fate predicted by my astrological chart. My presence at court was ordained so that I could tell the true story of Pari Khan Khanoom, the lieutenant of my life, the khan of angels, the equal of the sun.


  Pari Khan Khanoom lived from 1548 to 1578. Several contemporary court historians suspected her of poisoning her half brother, Isma‘il Shah, although other theories proposed that he overdosed on drugs or was poisoned by a group of nobles who were disaffected with his rule. A few months after he died, Pari was assassinated by order of her half brother Mohammad Shah and his wife, Mahd-e-Olya.

  After Pari’s death, Mahd-e-Olya was the de facto ruler of Iran for about a year and a half, until the qizilbash nobles tired of her command and assassinated her. The grand vizier Mirza Salman, ever adept at judging shifts in the wind, changed allegiance just before the nobles decided to remove her. A few years later, he was assassinated in his turn by the qizilbash, who resented his power. Strife raged for years to come as tribal groups struggled to dominate one another.

  During Pari’s short life, one of the most powerful empires on earth was that of the Ottomans. Under Suleyman the Magnificent, the Ottomans had conquered territory all the way west to Hungary and had fought frequent battles with Iran and other neighbors on their eastern borders. In 1555, Pari’s father, Tahmasb Shah, brokered the Peace of Amasya, a treaty in which the two powers divided up disputed territories and the Ottomans recognized Safavi Iran for the first time. My novel posits that Pari would have worked tirelessly to maintain this treaty, although I found no specific evidence for this in the sources I used. Not long after Pari’s death, the Ottomans invaded Iran and hostilities resumed again, with devastating consequences including loss of Iranian territory.

  The Safavi dynasty ruled from 1501–1722. The founder of the dynasty, Isma‘il I, declared Shi’a Islam the official religion of Iran, with the result that Iran is now the largest Shi’a country in the world. Despite much political turmoil, the Safavi dynasty was stable and wealthy enough, particularly during its first half, to fund the creation of many of the masterpieces of Iranian architecture, weaving, painting, pottery, and other crafts. Among these is an illustrated Shahnameh commissioned by Tahmasb Shah that is regarded as one of the finest examples of bookmaking in the world. Tahmasb gave the book to the Ottoman Empire in 1567, along with other rich gifts loaded on the backs of dozens of camels, an inestimable loss to future generations of Iranians.

  After years of internal and external power struggles following Tahmasb’s death, an able ruler finally took charge of Iran. The greatest leader of the Safavis would turn out to be Abbas—the second son of Mohammad Shah and his wife, Mahd-e-Olya—who was crowned in a palace coup in 1587 at the age of sixteen and ruled for more than forty years. Shah Abbas finally quashed the fractious qizilbash by uprooting old power structures and elevating new groups, especially converted Georgians, Circassians, and Armenians, who owed their loyalty only to him. Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, is the city of Isfahan, which he declared his capital in 1598 and refashioned with the help of master architects, engineers, calligraphers, and tile makers. The central square that dominates the town and the bridges that traverse its river are among the true crown jewels of his rule.

  The key members of the royal family mentioned in this book were real people. On occasion I made up first names for women whose names were never recorded. The servants of the palace harem, including Javaher, Khadijeh, Balamani, and Maryam, are invented characters.


  In recent years, several scholars have mined original sources and generated new thinking about the political sophistication of premodern Muslim women like Pari Khan Khanoom. Their work has been invaluable in allowing me to imagine the decisions Pari might have made and the life that she might have lived. In particular, Shohreh Gholsorkhi has written an insightful article about Pari’s role in the politics of her day, and Maria Szuppe has written in detail about the extent of the education, wealth, and power enjoyed by some Safavi court women. Szuppe’s work suggested to me the complicated relationships that Pari might have had with her uncle Shamkhal Cherkes and the grand vizier Mirza Salman, and brought to my attention the conflict that occurred over control of the treasury in Qazveen. In addition, Leslie Peirce’s work on premodern Ottoman women has been extremely helpful in illuminating the organizational structure of a royal harem and the tasks fulfilled by the women residing within it. Despite being sequestered, some Muslim court women had much more power, wealth, and influence than they are usually given credit for.

  One of the key primary sources for the historical events mentioned in this novel was a court chronicle written by Eskandar Monshi, who for decades served as historian to Shah Abbas (1571–1629). The first volume of his history sets the stage for Abbas’s reign by recounting the stories of his ancestors. Monshi (which means “scribe”) writes in detail about Tahmasb Shah’s death and about his children’s power struggles: Haydar Mirza’s attempt to take the thro
ne, Isma‘il Shah’s murder of most of his brothers and cousins, and Pari Khan Khanoom’s participation in politics. However, since Monshi provides little information about what Pari did on a day-to-day basis, I invented many such scenes. And although I followed Monshi in recounting key events (coronations, murders, and power shifts), I changed some details and invented others to suit the needs of my story. Readers interested in Monshi’s telling of the events can consult Roger M. Savory’s translation, History of Shah Abbas, vol. 1, pp. 283–342 (see Key Sources).

  The italicized stories that begin each chapter of this novel come from a tale made famous by the great Iranian poet Ferdowsi in his Shahnameh, which was completed in 1010. For my retelling of the tale, I used as my sources the translations by Dick Davis and by Arthur George Warner and his brother Edmond Warner. The ancient story of the blacksmith Kaveh’s rebellion against a foreign tyrant still retains iconic status in Iranian culture today; the “Kaviani Banner” featuring the blacksmith’s apron is a potent symbol of resistance.

  For their helpful comments while this novel was being written, I wish to thank Ahmad Amirrezvani, Ali Amirrezvani, Firoozeh Amirrezvani, Catherine Armsden, Genevieve Conaty, Carolyn Cooke, Laurie Fox, Ed Grant, Tess Uriza Holthe, Marshall Krantz, Katherine Smith, and my agent, Emma Sweeney. Sandra Scofield, my mentor and friend, provided detailed suggestions on an early draft. My heartfelt thanks to Alexis Gargagliano at Scribner for being an old-school editor in the best sense of the term: thorough, thoughtful, and transformative.



  What is known about the lives of pre-modern Iranian court women?

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