What is included with this book?
I swear to you on the holy Qur’an there has never been another woman like Pari Khan Khanoom. A princess by birth, a strategist by the age of fourteen, fierce but splendid in her bearing; a master archer, an almsgiver of great generosity, and a protector of prostitutes; a poet of uncommon grace, the most trusted advisor to a shah, and a leader of men. Do I exaggerate, like a court historian writing flowery panegyrics to a leader in the hope of being rewarded with a robe of honor? No such gift is forthcoming, I assure you: I am a man without a protector.
I wrestled over whether to attempt this work, since I am neither biographer nor historian. Despite the danger, the ignorance of the men around me compels me to set down the truth about the princess. If I refuse this task, her story will be misrepresented or distorted to become a tool of those in power. Court historians report only the best known facts about how royal women have led troops into battle, deposed shahs, killed their enemies, and thrust their sons into power. They are forbidden from observing the lives of these women directly and therefore must rely on rumors and invention.
As Pari’s closest servant, I not only observed her actions but carried out her orders. I realized that upon my death, everything I know about her would disappear if I failed to document her story. But I must proceed in the greatest of secrecy. If this book were discovered by the wrong man, I could be executed, for I have committed monstrous deeds and made mistakes that I would prefer not to reveal—although what man hasn’t? Man is flawed by his very nature. His ears hear only what they wish; God alone knows the absolute truth.
Perhaps, now that I think of it, I exaggerate slightly in saying that Pari was the only woman of her kind. She came from a dynasty that bred valiant women, starting with her grandmother Tajlu Khanoom Mowsellu, who had helped elevate her own ten-year-old son, Tahmasb, to the throne; and her aunt Maheen Banu, who advised Tahmasb until she died. By then, Pari was fourteen and wise enough to take Maheen Banu’s place, and she reigned unchallenged as her father Tahmasb’s advisor, above and beyond his wives, until his death almost fourteen years later. But Pari’s deeds outshone those of her foremothers, and her boldness knew no bounds.
When I think of her, I remember not only her power, but her passion for verse. She was a poet in her own right and lavished silver on the poets she admired, keeping bread and salt on their tables. She had read all the classics and could recite long sections from them. Of the books of poetry she loved, a single tome stood out above others: theShahnameh,orBook of Shahs,in which the great poet Ferdowsi recounted the passions and struggles of hundreds of Iranian rulers. During the time I served her, one story from that great book—about the usurper Zahhak and the hero Kaveh—guided our thoughts, directed our actions, and even invaded our dreams, so much so that I sometimes wondered if the story was about us. We turned to it for advice, wept over it in despair, and drew comfort from it in the end. It guides me still, as I celebrate Pari for the sake of generations to come.
A NEW ASSIGNMENT
The way Ferdowsi tells it, Jamsheed was one of the first great civilizers of mankind. Thousands of years ago, he taught the earliest humans how to spin yarn and weave cloth, how to bake clay into brick for dwellings, and how to make weapons. After dividing men into craftsmen, tillers, priests, and warriors, he showed each group their duties. Once they had learned to work, Jamsheed revealed the world’s sweetest treasures, such as where to find the jewels in the earth, how to use scent to adorn the body, and how to unlock the mysteries of healing plants. During his reign of three hundred years, nothing was lacking, and all were eager to serve him. But then one day, Jamsheed called on his sages and announced to them that his own excellence was unparalleled, wouldn’t they agree? No man had ever done what he had, and for that reason, they must worship him as if he were the Creator. His sages were astonished and appalled by his extravagant claims. Back then, they dared not oppose him, but they began to desert his court. How could a leader become so deluded?
On the morning of my first meeting with Pari, I donned my best robe and consumed two glasses of strong black tea with dates to fortify my blood. I needed to charm her and show her my mettle; I must demonstrate why I would be a fitting match for the dynasty’s most exalted woman. A thin sheen of sweat, no doubt from the hot tea, appeared on my chest as I entered her waiting area and removed my shoes. I was swiftly shown into one of her public rooms, which glowed with turquoise tile to the height of my waist. Above it, antique lusterware caught the light in alcoves and mirror work shimmered all the way to the ceiling, mimicking the radiance of the sun.
Pari was writing a letter on a wooden lap desk. She wore a blue short-sleeved silk robe covered with red brocade, belted with a white silk sash woven with bands of gold—a treasure itself—which she had tied into a thick, stylish knot at her waist. Her long black hair was loosely covered by a white scarf printed with golden arabesques, topped with a ruby ornament that caught the light and drew my eye to her forehead, which was long, smooth, and as rounded as a pearl, as if her intelligence needed more room than most. People say that one’s future is inscribed on the forehead at birth—Pari’s forehead announced a future that was rich and storied.
The princess continued writing as I stood there, her brow furrowing from time to time. She had almond-shaped eyes, forceful cheekbones, and generous lips, all of which made the features of her face appear to be writ larger than other people’s. When she had finished her work, she put the desk aside and scrutinized me from head to toe. I bowed low with my hand at my chest. Pari’s father had offered me to her as a reward for my good service, but the decision to retain me would be hers alone. No matter what, I must persuade her I had much to offer.
“What are you, really?” she asked. “I see ropes of black hair escaping from your turban and a thick neck, just like a bear’s! You could pass for an ordinary man.”
The princess stared at me in such a penetrating fashion it was as if she were asking me to reveal my very being. I was taken aback.
“It is helpful to be able to pass as ordinary,” I replied quickly. “In the proper attire, I can be convincing as a tailor, a scholar, or even a priest.”
“It means I am equally accepted by commoners and royalty alike.”
“But surely you cause consternation among the ladies of the royal harem, starved as they are for the sight of handsome men.”
Panah bar Khoda!Had she learned about me and Khadijeh?
“It is hardly a problem,” I parried, “since I lack the tools they crave the most.”
Her smile was broad. “By all accounts, you are good at gathering intelligence.”
“Is that what you require?”
“Among other things. What other languages do you speak and write?” she asked.
Switching from Farsi to Turkish, I replied, “I speak the language of your illustrious ancestors.”
The princess looked impressed. “Your Turkish is very good. Where did you learn it?”
“My mother was Turkish-speaking, my father Farsi-speaking, and both were religious. They required me to learn the languages of the men of the sword, the men of the pen, and the men of God.”
“Very useful. Who is your favorite poet?”
I groped for an answer until I remembered her favorite.
“So you love the classics. Very well, then. Recite to me from theShahnameh.”
She kept her gaze on me and waited, her eyes as sharp as a falcon’s. Verse came easily to me; I had often repeated poems while tutoring her half brother, Mahmood. I recited the first verse that came to my mind, although it was not from theShahnameh. The lines had often filled me with comfort:
If you are a child of fortune, every day is blessed
You drink wine, eat kabob, your skin is sun-kissed
Your beloved hangs on your every word
Your children love you like you are a god.
Ah, life is rich! Your goodness is deserving,
And just as soon as you start relaxing
Like a baby in its mother’s warm embrace
Like a bird in flight soaring at its own pace
Joyous, carefree, fully adored,
The world snatches away what you most loved.
Your stomach burns with shock
Your heart stands still as you take stock.
Me? But I am the world’s special one!
No, my friend, you were never a favorite son
But just another human sufferer, once loved,
Now pierced by sorrow, weeping tears of blood.
When I had finished, Pari smiled. “Well done!” she said. “But is that from theShahnameh? I don’t recognize it.”
“It is by Nasser, although but a poor imitation of Ferdowsi’s world-brightening verse.”
“It sounds like it is about the fall of the great Jamsheed—and the end of the earthly paradise he created so long ago.”
“That is what inspired Nasser,” I replied, astonished that she knew Ferdowsi’s poem well enough to question whether a small section of verse formed part of his sixty thousand lines.
“The great Samarqandi says in hisFour Discoursesthat a poet should know thirty thousand couplets by heart,” she said, as if reading my thoughts.
“From all that I have heard, I wouldn’t be surprised if you did.”
She ignored the flattery. “And what do the lines mean?”
I pondered them for a moment. “To me, they mean that even if you are a great shah, don’t expect your life to proceed unblemished, since even the most fortunate will be tamed by the world.”
“Have you been tamed by the world?”
“Indeed I have,” I said. “I lost my father and my mother when I was young, and I have relinquished other things I had not expected to lose.”
The princess’s eyes became much softer, like a child’s. “May their souls be in peace.”
“I hear you are very loyal,” she said, “like others of your kind.”
“We are known for that.”
“If you were in my service, to whom would you show fealty, me or the Shah?”
How to respond? Like all others, I was bound first to the Shah.
“To you,” I replied, and when she looked quizzical, I added, “knowing that your every decision would be made as the fondest slave of the Shah.”
“Why do you want to serve me?”
“I was honored with the care of your half brother Mahmood for many years, and then I served as his mother’s vizier. Now that she is no longer at court, I crave more responsibility.”
That was not the real reason, of course. Many ambitious men ascended the ranks by serving the royal women, and that was what I wanted to do.
“That is good,” Pari replied. “You will have to be bold to survive in my employ.”
I like a challenge and said so.
Pari arose abruptly and walked to the alcoves in her wall, pausing before a large turquoise bowl whose design showed a black peacock fanning its beautiful tail.
“This is a valuable old bowl,” she said. “Where do you think it is from?”
“Of course,” she scoffed.
Sweat traveled down the back of my neck as I tried to decipher a few hints from the color, the pattern, and the brushwork. “Taymur’s dynasty,” I added quickly, “though I could not say whose reign.”
“It was his son Shahrukh’s,” Pari said. “Only a few pieces of this type have survived in perfect condition.”
She lifted the bowl to admire it, holding it in her hands like a newborn baby, and I admired it with her. The turquoise was so brilliant it was as if the glaze were made of gemstones, and the peacock looked as if it might peck for grain. Suddenly Pari opened her hands and let the bowl fall to the floor, where it shattered into a thousand pieces. A shard came to rest near my bare feet.
“What do you have to say about that?” she asked in a tone as sour as green almonds.
“No doubt your courtiers would say that it was a shame for such a costly and beautiful bowl to be destroyed, but that since the act was committed by a royal person, it is a fine thing.”
“That is exactly what they would say,” she replied, kicking one of the shards with a bored look.
“I don’t imagine you would believe they meant it.”
She looked up, interested. “Why not?”
“Because it is nonsense.”
I waited with bated breath until Pari laughed. Then she clapped her hands to summon one of her ladies.
“Bring in my bowl.”
The lady returned with a bowl of a similar pattern and placed it in the alcove, while a maid swept up the shattered pottery. I bent down and examined the shard near my foot. The peacock’s head looked fuzzy, unlike the crisp lines on the bowl that had been brought in, and I understood that she had broken a copy.
Pari was watching me closely. I smiled.
“Did I surprise you?”
“You didn’t show it.”
I took a deep breath.
Pari sat down and crossed her legs, displaying bright red trousers under her blue robe. I tried to suppress my imagination from traveling to the places hidden there.
“Do you like to start things or finish them?” she asked. “You may not say both.”
“Give me an example.”
I thought for a moment. “Mahmood didn’t care for books when he was a child, but it was my duty to make sure that he could write a good hand, read with expertise, and recite poetry at formal occasions. He now does all three, and I am proud to say he does them as well as if they were his favorite activities.”
Pari smiled. “Knowing Mahmood’s preference for the outdoors, that is quite an accomplishment. No wonder my father recommended you.”
“It is an honor to serve the fulcrum of the universe,” I replied. In fact, I missed Mahmood. After being in charge of him for eight years, I felt as protective toward him as if he were a younger brother, but I dared not claim such feelings for royalty.
“Tell me the story of how you became a eunuch.”
I must have taken a step back, because she added quickly, “I hope you don’t take offense.”
I cleared my throat, trying to decide where to begin. Remembering was like sorting through a trunk of clothes worn by a dead man.
“As you must have heard, my father was accused of being a traitor and was executed. I don’t know who named him. After that calamity, my mother took my three-year-old sister to live with relatives in a small town near the Persian Gulf. Despite what happened to my father, I still wished to serve the Shah. I begged everyone I knew for help, but was shunned. Then I decided the only way to prove my loyalty was to become a eunuch and offer myself to the court.”
“How old were you?”
“That is very old to be cut.”
“Do you remember the operation?”
“How could I not?”
“Tell me about it.”
I stared at her, incredulous. “You want to hear the details?”
“I am afraid the story’s gruesomeness will offend your ears.”
“I doubt it.”
I did not spare her; I might as well find out right away what she was made of.
“I found two eunuchs, Nart and Chinasa, to assist me, and they took me to a surgeon who worked near the bazaar. He directed me to lie on a bench and bound my wrists underneath it so I could not move. The eunuchs positioned themselves on the inside of my thighs to hold back my legs. The surgeon gave me some opium to eat and dusted my parts with a powder he said would relieve the pain. Then he placed himself between my thighs and held up a cruel-looking curved razor. He told me that before he could perform such a risky operation, I must grant him permission in front of two witnesses. But the sight of the gleaming razor in the air unnerved me, and the restraints against my legs and arms made me feel like an animal in a trap. I twisted against the bench and yelled that I did not give my assent. The surgeon looked surprised, but lowered his razor right away and told the eunuchs to release me.”
The princess’s eyes were as round as polo balls. “Then what happened?”
“I considered my options once again. I didn’t see any way of subsisting except at court. I needed to earn enough money to take care of my mother and my sister, and I wished to bring back the luster to our family name.”
I did not tell her that deep in my heart had burned a fierce desire to unmask my father’s murderer. As I contemplated the surgeon’s knife, I imagined myself dressed in shining silk robes, having attained high position at the palace. Such prominence would allow me to expose my father’s assassin and force him to admit to his crime. “From now on, your children will know the sorrow I have endured,” I would say. Then he would receive his punishment.
Pari looked down and adjusted her sash, an evasion that made me wonder if she knew anything about his murderer.
“What happened next?”
“In the end, I told the men to proceed, but added that they should cover my eyes so I could not see the razor and that they should not restrain my arms.”
“Did it hurt?”
I smiled, grateful that now it was just a memory.
“The surgeon tied a cord made of sinew around my parts and asked for my permission. I gave it, and seconds after I felt his hand lift up those parts, the razor sliced through me in a clean sweep. Feeling nothing, I tore off the blindfold to see what had been accomplished. My parts had vanished. ‘That was easy!’ I said, and I even joked with the eunuchs for a moment, until all of a sudden, I felt as if I had been sliced in two. I screamed and descended into blackness. I learned later that the surgeon cauterized the wound with oil and applied a dressing made of the bark of a tree. Then he applied a bandage and left me to recover.”
“How long did it take?”
“A long time. For the first few days, I was not myself. I believe I said broken prayers. I know that I begged for water, but was not permitted to drink in order to allow the wound to heal. When my mouth became so dry that no words could emerge, someone moistened a cloth and placed it on my tongue. My thirst was so great that I begged for death.”
“By God above! I can’t think of another man willing to do what you did. You are very brave, aren’t you?”
I did not tell her the rest of the story. Several days after the operation, I was allowed to drink some water. Nart bustled around me, attending to my bedroll and pillows, but looked strangely nervous. Every few minutes, he asked if I needed to relieve myself. I told him “no” repeatedly until he became tiresome and I begged him to leave me be. When I finally felt the urge, he removed the dressings and the plug and gave me a pot over which to squat. I was now smooth except for a small tube that I had not seen before. I closed my eyes at the sight of that raw, bloody canal.
It took a while, but when I was able to produce, I screamed in pain as the hot liquid shot through my exposed tube for the first time. I thought that I might lose my senses, but as I wanted to avoid falling into my own puddle, I managed to remain upright. When I had finished, I was surprised to see Nart’s eyes shining. He opened his palms to the sky and bellowed, “May God above be praised!” Never had the sight of a man at his business been so pleasing to him, he told me later. My wound had been festering, and he had been greatly afraid that I might suffer the agony of an obstructed tube, a death too ugly for words.
Pari was still waiting for my answer. “How modest you are! Most men would quail at the sight of that razor. I still remember my father’s astonishment when he heard your story.”
Long before I had been cut, I had gone to a tavern and watched a dancer twirl her wide purple skirt over her head while the other men dared me to grope her. She shot me a seductive smile, but after a while, her mischievous flirting began to remind me of the way a boy toys with a lizard. Finally, spotting her large, rough hands, I came to a startling realization: She was a man! My face went hot with rage as the dancer grinned and whirled, and I felt ashamed that I had been duped. But now I was just like that dancer—indeterminate, strange to all, always provoking fierce reactions because of what I had done and what I lacked.
“I was very young,” I said in my defense.
“Not that young.”
“I was inordinately fervent.”
I paused to think about it. “I have learned to moderate my actions.”
“You are perfectly controlled here at court. I suspect you would be ideal for secret missions.”
I bowed my head to acknowledge Pari’s praise with the correct amount of humility.
“What is the difference between men and women?”
I looked up, surprised once again.
“I imagine you must have a better answer to this question than any other man.”
I thought for moment. “They say men want power and women want peace. You know what the truth is?”
“Everyone wants everything.”
The princess laughed. “I certainly do.”
“In that case, in what ways might I be of service to you?” I knew she already employed several hundred eunuchs, ladies, maids, and errand boys.
“I need a man to gather information for me inside and outside the palace,” she said. “His trustworthiness and loyalty must be impeccable, his energy high, his need for sleep and amusement very low. That man will have no desires outside of his work for me. His silence about my activities will be obligatory. For these services, I am prepared to pay a substantial salary.”
She named a figure that doubled what I earned. I felt suspicious: Why was the offer so good?
“By serving me, you will be at the heart of palace politics,” she added. “You must have a strong stomach to be successful. The challenges ahead will be severe, and if you can’t bear them, you will be discharged. Do you understand me?”
I said I did.
“You may begin your duties tomorrow morning here at my house.”
I thanked her and was dismissed. As I put on my shoes, I felt my brain prickling with possibility. After twelve years of service, my work at the palace had finally begun in earnest.
Pari’s thorough questioning and strange beauty made me remember myself as a man, not just as a eunuch. I was, after all, more than a mutilation, in my own eyes. But Pari must never know that I loved and desired the women of the harem in ways that no one would ever expect.
Prior to my operation, I had been lying with a woman named Fereshteh almost every night. The first time had been on the day that my mother and my sister, Jalileh, left the city of Qazveen, traveling by donkey rather than by horse, in so much disgrace that our neighbors dared not look at them. I remember pacing the length of my boyhood home, which had been sold. One cushion remained in the room where my family used to gather for afternoon tea; I perched on it and watched the snow drown the bushes and the fountain in our garden. That night, in a tavern, I drank until my old life disappeared in a fog. My new friends recited poems and were happy to keep me company while I paid for jugs of ruby wine. I banged my fist on the wooden table and called for more to drink, and then more, and sang heartily to every tune. After midnight, I stumbled into the fresh snow and discovered Fereshteh, who was still new at her trade. Her large dark eyes were revealed by the black chador that covered her hair, and she was shivering in the cold. She took me to a room not far away and advised me not to drink. In her arms, I discovered my body for the first time, and I sank into her the way a thirsty traveler in the desert thrusts his head into a spring.
Toward dawn, we whispered our stories to each other in the dark. Fereshteh had been flung out of her home by a stepmother who claimed that she had made advances toward her only son. Her father was long dead, and there was no one to defend her. I told her that I, too, was about to be evicted from the only home I had ever known. Fereshteh comforted me as only a tormented fellow soul could do, and in the weeks ahead, I wanted nothing but to be in her arms. I spent every night with her that I could afford. Ah, that was a time of such fierce pain and pleasure I couldn’t imagine ever experiencing it again.
In the days after my operation, any touch caused my entire body to ache. Pain became an extraordinary armor that repelled even the lightest physical contact so that my body could heal. I longed for the cessation of the pain, which seemed like the greatest possible gift. Once my body had healed, however, the mental torments began. In the morning, I would go to urinate expecting to handle my parts, and suddenly, my hands empty, I would feel as if I were falling. The vertigo was so great I feared I would slip into the latrines. Was I male? Female? What was I?
Then I would remember why I had done it, and I would steady myself, remove my plug, do my business, and emerge still shaken by my changed state.
I wanted Fereshteh, my only lover, to know what had happened to me. I tried to find her, but another prostitute told me she had left town. As time went by, a curious thing began to happen. My lips remembered the softness of Fereshteh’s tongue; my chest longed for the butterfly-wing beat of her eyelashes; my thighs tightened at the thought of gripping her hips. The beauties of the harem started to turn my head. They could show each other all their glories, and why not? No men were around to make them feel uneasy. Secretly, I enjoyed every glimpse, but there was no corresponding rise in my middle. Frustration coursed through me. What good was desire to a gelding?
One day, while soaping myself in the baths, I became aware of a strange new impulse. I was like a man who has lost a limb but believes for a moment that he can leap up and swing his legs over a horse. As I ran the roughkissehover my skin, my groin and lower back buzzed as if I had been grazed by lightning. I gasped, awash in sensations that were more diffuse but deeper than any I had ever felt. It was as if my freshly healed wound had reinvented my capacity for pleasure.
I thought of Fereshteh’s deeply grooved waist, so fine in my hands, and her quick tongue. I yearned for her. Brushing thekissehover my belly, I whooped with joy and growled deep in my throat. The other eunuchs, most of whom had rounded shoulders and soft thighs that made them look womanly, turned their heads in surprise. I felt like a cypress tree ravaged by fire and presumed dead, until one day, by the grace of God, new green shoots sprout from its charred heart.
On my first day in Pari’s employ, I said my morning prayers and walked from my quarters in the harem to her home just inside the Ali Qapu—literally the grandest gate—shortly after dawn. A handful of trusted nobles had been granted homes inside the main palace gate, but Pari was the only woman who enjoyed this honor. Most royal women were confined to quarters deep inside the walled harem and permitted to exit only by permission from the Shah.
It was early; I would probably be the first to arrive. I said good morning to the guards, who lounged in the shade of the massive brick gate. They were at their ease until they unlocked the huge wooden doors and allowed members of the public to stream in to petition the Shah or his men at one of the administrative buildings on the palace grounds.
The princess’s home was located behind high walls. I knocked, and when the door was opened by a servant, I stepped into a courtyard filled with the invigorating scent of pine. A long fountain led the way to a small but elegant building decorated with yellow and white tiles patterned with interlocking hexagons. After entering the house through a carved wooden door, I was escorted right away into Pari’sbirooni,the formal rooms in which she greeted visitors. To my surprise, her staff had already assembled. Dozens of eunuchs and errand boys stood in order of rank awaiting her command, and maids moved in and out soundlessly with trays of tea. I was struck by the taut air of discipline in the room, so different from what I had experienced when serving Mahmood’s mother.
“Javaher, you are late,” Pari said. “Come in and let’s get to our business.” She indicated the place where I should stand and frowned, her coal-black eyebrows darkening her forehead.
Pari’s birooni was more austere than any of the other women’s, who often competed with one another by adding lavish touches to their quarters. She sat on a cushion atop a large dark blue carpet, but rather than displaying golden songbirds or gardens of flowers, it was illustrated with mounted princes pursuing onagers, zebras, and gazelles, as well as bowmen aiming their arrows at lions. In alcoves lay neatly placed reed pens, ink, paper, and books.
A latticed wall at one end of the room permitted Pari to receive male visitors to whom she was not related. A young man in a blue velvet robe was standing on the other side of the lattice. We could see him through the lattice, but he couldn’t see us.
“Majeed, I am pleased to introduce my new chief of information, Javaher Agha,” Pari said, adding the title used for eunuchs. I had asked around about her vizier and learned that Majeed was young but destined for high service. He was from an old Shiraz family, which, like mine, had served the court for generations.
“Majeed is my liaison to the nobles of the court,” Pari added. “Javaher, you are my liaison to the world of women, both inside and outside the palace, as well as to places where Majeed’s nobility would not permit him to go without being detected.”
She might have said the same thing about my own nobility, had my father not been accused of treason and killed. The old shame of it brought heat to my cheeks, and I bristled with the urge to prove myself the better servant.
“Javaher, you will observe me at work. I will deploy you later once you understand what I do.”
“Chashm, gorbon,”I replied, the short form of “by my eyes, I would sacrifice myself for you.”
For the rest of the morning, I watched Pari attend to routine business. Her first task was to check on the progress of the annual celebrations at the palace of the life of Fatemeh, beloved daughter of the Prophet. Women schooled in religion must be hired, food prepared, and rooms decorated. Then one of the Shah’s eunuchs arrived to ask Pari how to process an unusual document because no one else could remember the protocol. The princess rattled off the order of the necessary signatures and named the men who must provide them, without even looking up from the document she was signing. Next, Pari read through a stack of messages and suddenly burst out laughing.
“Listen to this,” she commanded us.
Princess, I wrote forty-eight sparkling lines about your dad
You said you liked them: Are you in fact mad?
If not, please send me what you pledged
A rain of silver to keep me and my children fed.
I humbly beg you to deliver what is overdue
Then I will pen more dazzling gems for you.
“Who could resist such a plea? Go to the head of the treasury and make sure the court poet is paid at once,” she ordered Majeed.
In the afternoon, Pari held her usual public hours and saw palace women with a variety of requests: donations for the upkeep of a saint’s shrine, positions at court requested for relatives, the need for more tutors. At the end of a long day, the princess agreed to see an out-of-town petitioner, even though she was tired and the woman was described to her as unfit for royal company.
The woman was shown into the room holding a sleeping baby, whose breath rasped when it exhaled. Her purple cotton robe was tired from days of journey. Her feet had been bound with dirty rags. My heart filled with pity at the sight of this friendless pair.
The woman bowed deeply and took her place on the visitor’s cushion. She told Pari that her name was Rudabeh and that she had come all the way from Khui, not far from the border with the Ottomans. Her husband had divorced her and banished her from the home she had inherited from her father; he claimed it was his. She wanted it back.
“I am sorry to hear of your troubles,” Pari said, “but why didn’t you take your case to one of the Councils of Justice that aid citizens with disputes?”
“Revered princess, we went to the Council in my town, but the members are friends of my husband, and they said I had no claim. I had no choice but to appeal to someone here in the capital. I came to you because I heard that you are a protector of women.”
Pari quizzed her on the details of her loss until she was convinced that the woman had a strong case. “Very well, then. Javaher Agha, you must escort our guest to a Council of Justice so that she may present her problem, and tell them I sent her.”
“Chashm,” I said. “The next meeting is in a week.”
“Have you any money or any place to stay?” Pari asked.
“I have a few coins,” the woman replied gravely, “and I will make do,” but as she glanced down at her drowsy child, her eyes filled with fear.
“Javaher, take this mother to my ladies and ask them to shelter her and give her plenty of fresh herbs so that milk flows for her child.”
“Thanks be to God for your generosity!” Rudabeh exclaimed. “If I may ever assist you, I would gladly offer my eyes to cushion the steps of your feet.”
“It is my pleasure. After you return home, write to me and tell me all the news of Khui.”
“I promise to be your faithful correspondent.”
When I had first joined palace service, a eunuch from the Malabar coast of Hindustan asked to train me. Balamani was a charcoal-skinned fellow with a big belly and dark circles under his wise old eyes who spent his day in casual conversation with maidservants, gardeners, physicians, and even messenger boys. He had an easy laugh and an avuncular manner that made his people feel that he cared about them. That is how he learned everything about the day-to-day news of the palace: who was jealous of whom, who was in line for promotion, and who was on his way out. His informants would tell him about things like the bloody contents of a noble’s chamber pot long before anyone else realized the man was dying. Balamani’s currency was information, and he traded it like gold.
Balamani told me to memorize theTanassour,a book that listed the proper titles used to address every type of man. I had to learn thatmirzaplaced after a man’s name, as in Mahmood Mirza, indicated that he was a prince of royal blood, whereasmirzaused before a man’s name was merely an honorific. When I made mistakes, Balamani sent me back to the book: “Otherwise the nobles will flay your back until it resembles a red carpet.”
Once I knew how to address all the palace inhabitants, Balamani taught me the art of gathering information from them in such a clever way that I appeared to be dispensing it, as well as how to pay for it when necessary and how to use it as political capital. “You have no jewels between your legs or on your fingers,” he said once, “so make sure to acquire currency in your mind.”
Balamani called every bit of information a “jewel”—javaher—and asked me daily if I had any for him. The first time I offered a gem to Balamani, I earned my nickname. After shadowing an errand boy who served one of the Shah’s ministers, I discovered that he was delivering messages to an unsavory book dealer. It turned out that the minister was trying to sell a priceless gold-illuminated manuscript he had intercepted before it reached the court treasury. When Balamani informed the Shah, the minister was dismissed, the book dealer was disciplined, and I was reborn with a new name. “Javaher” was normally used for women, but it became my badge of honor.
I loved and respected Balamani like a favorite uncle. Now that he was older, I nursed him when he had bladder complications, probably due to the removal of his male parts, which caused a susceptibility to painful infections. I also did his work when he was too sick to do it himself. As second in command to Anwar, the African eunuch in charge of the harem, he had plenty to do.
Working for Pari, I used all I had learned from Balamani to forge deeper connections with people close to the women of the royal household—maids, ladies, and eunuchs. Of special interest to the princess were those wives and consorts of the Shah who had adult sons. She wished to know their aspirations for their boys, particularly if they sought to place them on the throne.
One afternoon, I returned from an errand and chanced upon Pari and her uncle, Shamkhal Cherkes, talking quietly together. Shamkhal was an unusually big man, broad of shoulder, with large hands and forearms the width of a mace. His face was sun-browned from riding, and when he talked, thick muscles bulged in his neck. His enormous blue and white turban, fashioned of two fabrics twined together, made him appear even bigger than he was. Pari looked as fine as a vase next to him, as if she had a different maker altogether.
“. . . prepared for what happens after . . .” I heard Pari saying.
Pari began naming kinsmen and Shamkhal replied either “with us” or “not with us.” A few times, he said, “I don’t know.”
“Why not?” asked Pari each time, until finally she became exasperated and said, in a tone that brooked no argument, “We must know these things or we will fail.”
“I promise to have more information the next time I see you.”
His deference toward her surprised me.
A few days later, I found a way to ask Pari about which man she planned to support for the throne. I told the princess that I had been hearing rumors about how Sultanam, the Shah’s first wife, had been searching for a suitable wife for her son Isma‘il, even though he was imprisoned. She suspected that Isma‘il’s lack of male children might be the result of a curse placed by enemies, and she had been consulting herbalists about how to open the gates of his luck.
Pari drank in this news. “Good work.”
“The speculation is that she intends to make him the next Shah,” I added.
“So does every mother of a prince. We will have to wait and see. But we must be ready.”
“For whatever happens, so we can rally behind whomever my father designates as heir. The nobles have shown themselves to be divided, and I want to avoid another civil war at all costs.”
“How will you do that?”
“By making sure that the heir gets all the help he needs to be successfully crowned shah.”
“And who is that?”
“My father hasn’t announced his selection.”
“Some say Haydar is the best man,” I said, trying to gauge her reaction, “although he has lived all his life in the palace.”
“He is untested.”
“And some think Isma‘il is better, because he was such a brave warrior.”
Pari’s eyes were sad. “He was my hero when I was young. My heart has ached for him in his exile. None of the royal family has been permitted to write to him or receive his letters, except for his mother.”
“Do you think he would govern well after an absence of so many years?”
“Choosing an heir is my father’s concern,” Pari replied sharply. “Ours is to ensure that a strong network of supporters is in place well before it is needed. Do you understand?”
“Yes, esteemed lieutenant,” I answered, “but I would have thought you might advocate for your brother, Suleyman.”
Pari’s mouth flattened. “I am not a sentimentalist. He is no match for the men he would have to rule.”
So Pari was planning a decisive role in the succession! I suspected that a large batch of letters she had recently sent were intended to rally support, but for whom?
For me, it wasn’t merely a matter of curiosity. If Pari’s star fell with the Shah’s death, mine would plummet.
After entering palace service, I had begun making friends and had asked those close to me to help me find out more about my father. Mahmood’s mother had been too young to remember him, and as a slave, she did not have connections to leading families who might know more. Khadijeh had asked Sultanam once on some excuse, but Sultanam knew nothing about what had happened. Balamani and Anwar had pleaded ignorance.
I had also tried to obtain access to the court histories to examine them for information about my father’s murder. Each time, I was told that a servant of my station was not permitted to lay eyes on confidential court documents. Years passed without progress. I had yearned to rise up through the ranks so that I would have access to powerful men who possessed the information I sought.
After Pari hired me, I went to the office of the royal scribes to introduce myself as the princess’s new chief of information. The scribes worked in a large room illuminated by light streaming through tall windows. The men sat upright on cushions, their wooden desks over their laps, or wrote on top of chests made of inlaid wood that contained their supplies. The room was as quiet as a grave. The reed pens the men used hardly made a sound. The scribes who wrote letters for the Shah worked side by side with court historians who documented every breath of importance in the realm.
I made the acquaintance of the head of the guild, a venerable old master named Rasheed Khan, who wore a black turban, a long white beard, and had wise eyes that looked red and tired from too much close work. He was known for the clarity and beauty of his handwriting, and had trained many of the men who now worked for him.
My new employer has a scholarly bent, I told Rasheed. Once in a while, I might need to look at the court histories, perhaps even one currently being written about Tahmasb Shah’s long reign. Would that be a problem? Oh no, I was assured, any business required by the favorite daughter of the Shah would be treated with the utmost respect. All I would need was a note of permission written by Pari. Manuscripts could even be borrowed if she so wished, so long as they were not currently being worked on.
Praise be to God! The princess’s name worked like a magic spell.
In the middle of the night, there was an urgent tugging at my bedclothes, as if a jinni of ill fortune were disrupting my dreams. He was small, with large dark eyes and a crooked smile, and he would not let go. He tugged and tugged, and I batted his hand away, trying to lose myself in the blackness. But the tugging grew more insistent until I opened my eyes and, in the moonlight, perceived Massoud Ali, the nine-year-old errand boy Pari had placed in my service. His face was unwashed, and he hadn’t wrapped his head in the tiny turban that he was usually so proud to wear.
“Wake up! Wake up, by God above!”
I sat upright, tensed for attack. Balamani, who was a heavy sleeper, turned over on his bedroll in the small bedchamber we shared.
“What is it?”
Massoud Ali leaned close to my ear and whispered, as if it were too terrible a thing to say out loud, “Alas, the light of the universe has been extinguished. The Shah is dead.”
There was fear in his dark eyes.
“Balamani!” I called. He mumbled that I was the son of a dog and rolled over.
“Wake him gently,” I told Massoud Ali.
I threw off the bedclothes, slammed my arms into a robe, and shoved my hair inside my turban.
Tahmasb Shah, who had ruled for more than fifty years, dead? He who had survived several poisoning attempts and a grave illness that lasted nearly two years? It was as if Canopus had been extinguished, leaving all of us mariners struggling to navigate in darkness.
Only a few weeks before, the Shah had granted me the boon of serving his favorite daughter. “Do not forget, no other child is dearer to my eyes,” he had said, stabbing his finger at the air to emphasize his point. “You must swear to sacrifice your very life for hers if need be. Do you swear it?”
I rushed into the gardens near my quarters, which bloomed without shame in the early dawn. Birds sang in the cedar trees, and the purple and white petunias were in full flower. A wave of vertigo assailed me; everything at the palace would now change—the ministers, women, eunuchs, and slaves the new shah favored. What would happen to Pari? Would she retain her role as a favorite? And what would become of me? Who would survive?
I found Pari in a dim room illuminated by flickering oil lamps. Her eyes were red with weeping, and her face looked drawn and old. Two of her ladies, Maryam and Azar, attended to her, holding her hands and dabbing at the tears on her cheeks with a silk handkerchief.
“Salaam aleikum,esteemed lieutenant of my existence,” I said. “My heart sheds tears of blood over your loss. If I could take away the poison of your pain, I would consume it with as much joy as if it were halva.”
The princess beckoned me to approach her. “It is the worst heartbreak of my life. I accept your condolences with gratitude.”
“How could this have happened so quickly?”
Pari’s eyes looked like glass. “I went to his side yesterday evening as soon as I learned he had a fever,” she replied in a voice thick with grief. “He told me his problems had started at the hammam. After his manservant coated his lower limbs with a depilatory, he felt a stinging pain, but ignored it until he noticed that his legs had turned bloodred.”
How like the Shah to want his body to be spotless when it was time to pray.
“He leapt up from his bedroll and jumped into a pool. His manservant, who had been fetching sliced cucumbers, followed him into the water fully clothed, ripped off his turban, and used the cloth to wipe the sticky cream off my father’s legs. By then, they were already badly burned.”
“May God save us from harm!” I said.
Pari took a sip of her tea and cleared her throat. “Naturally, he suspected poison and instructed his chemists to examine the depilatory. His physician applied a soothing balm to his legs and told him he would recover. My father continued about his daily business, although he said his legs felt like poles of fire. By evening, he could no longer stand without agony, and he took to his bed. That is when he called for me.”
She took a long breath and sighed deeply, while her ladies murmured soothing words. “When I arrived, I applied cold compresses filled with rosemary to his forehead, but his fever continued to mount. In the darkest hours of the night, it was as if his brain were boiling like a stew. Before long, he lost his ability to speak or to reason. I prayed and tried to comfort him, but his crossing into the next world was racked with anguish.”
“Revered princess, no daughter could do more! May his soul be in peace.”
“For this I hope and pray.” Pari wiped the tears angrily from her cheeks. “If only I could just grieve!” she cried.
A look of understanding passed between us. If she had been anyone else, she would have visited her father’s grave site every day for forty days and watered it with an ocean of tears. But Pari did not have the luxury of woe; she must get to work on the succession. I pitied her.
Shortly after dawn prayers, I arrived at the mourning ceremony in Sultanam’s quarters, where the royal women had gathered to lament the loss of the Shah. The Shah’s first wife was known by her honorific, which meant “my Sultan.” Her home had an open-air sitting area on the ground floor with views of the rose gardens, and the guest rooms were furnished with pink silk carpets and embroidered pink and white velvet cushions. Today the rooms were filled with the plaintive wails of the women.
I entered a large sitting room and put out my hands to accept the sprinkles of rose water offered to me by a servant. In the center of the room, an old woman seated cross-legged on a wooden platform was reciting the Qur’an from memory. The words flowed out of her so easily that I guessed she knew the entire blessed book by heart. The ladies seated on cushions on the floor around her wore black robes, and their hair was uncharacteristically loose on their shoulders, uncombed and wild. They wore no kohl on their eyes, no armbands, no earrings. Adornment was prohibited by grief, and its absence made them look more vulnerable than in their ordinary courtly attire.
Sultanam greeted a new arrival and accepted her condolences. Upright, she seemed to consume the space of two women. Her layered robes made her appear even wider than she was, despite her tiny feet and ankles, which looked too small to support her. Her curly white hair fanned out like a pyramid from her tea-colored face and slanted eyes, and it was easy to imagine her as a proud horsewoman of the Mowsellu tribe, which she had been long ago. Her face did not bear any of the puffiness that comes from sincere weeping, nor did tears well up spontaneously in her eyes. I imagined that nothing could be more joyous to her than the possibility that her son Isma‘il would be released from his confinement—and perhaps even crowned shah. But that was the kind of loyalty you would expect of a mother. Who knew if after nearly twenty years of prison, Isma‘il was fit to rule?
Close at hand was Sultanam’s plump maid, Khadijeh, whose face glowed like the moon. My heart sped up, but I forced myself to turn away as if she meant nothing to me.
The room was crowded with dozens of women who had been favored by the late Shah during his long life. His three other wives, Daka Cherkes, Sultan-Zadeh, and Zahra Baji, had claimed the best places close to the reciter. Next came eight or nine adult daughters of the Shah and their children—too many to count—followed by several consorts and their children, and finally, a much larger circle of women who had never shared his bed.
Pari was sitting close to her mother, Daka Cherkes. The two women had wrapped their arms around each other, and their heads were leaning together in sympathy. Daka was known for having a mild and placating personality, quite the opposite of her daughter, whom she often tried unsuccessfully to rein in. Copious tears watered Daka’s cheeks, and I suspected she was concerned about what the Shah’s death would mean to Pari’s future.
Sultan-Zadeh, the Georgian mother of Haydar, began tearing at her fine camel-colored hair. The older women disliked her because she was one of the few who had ensnared the Shah’s heart, and they had done everything they could to thwart her attempts to gain status. No wonder the tears in her green eyes looked real.
Pari whispered something in her mother’s ear, arose, and disappeared down a corridor. I followed her into one of the side rooms, where women were comforting one another in smaller groups. My blood froze at the thought of the Shah lying silent and cold in his death room in the palace. Something started to loosen in my own breast, and I concentrated on quieting myself as I scanned the room. Pari was sitting with Maryam at her side. Her walled-in silence was far more awful than the shrieks and cries of sorrow from the others.
I crouched down beside her and whispered, “Lieutenant of my life, is there any service I can provide to you right now?”
“Watch them all in the main room,” she replied, “and when this terrible day is through report everything you have seen.”
The women in that room had not moved except to keen. But behind them, servants were whispering to one another as if bursting with news, and Balamani was talking to a slave; he had a disturbed look in his eye.
As the reciter’s voice rose high and sharp, the women filled the air with terrible moans, and the space grew hot and thick with the smell of rose water and sweat.
When Balamani stopped talking to the slave, I walked toward him softly. He didn’t notice, so I tugged his robe to get his attention. He jumped like a cat about to pounce, his big belly bouncing.
“It is me,” I said soothingly, “your doctor.”
The gray skin under his eyes looked darker than usual. He smiled slightly and said, “If only you could cure me this time.”
“I can see that something new ails you,” I replied.
“Ah, friend of mine, if only you knew what I know.”
I felt a twinge of disappointment that he had won this skirmish.
“What is it?”
“Who will it be, then?”
“That is just it,” Balamani whispered, an edge of terror in his voice. “No one knows how to proceed.”
“What does the chief of protocol say?”
“Saleem Khan? He says nothing.”
He leaned closer to my ear. “There is nothing to say, because there is no will.”
A loud expostulation escaped my lips, and I bent my head and pretended to be overcome by a fit of coughing. No will? Who would tame the Shah’s ferocious sons, each of whom probably dreamed of being ruler, not to mention the sons of the Shah’s brother Bahram? My vertigo returned for a moment.
“May God save us all! How will the heir be decided?”
“If all goes well, the nobles will agree on the new shah, and the other Safavi sons will accept him.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“They will ally behind different men and throw the land into chaos.”
“What do you expect?”
I resumed my post and watched every gesture like a hawk in search of prey. A few of the women were reading from copies of the Qur’an, but most were so involved in their grieving that they were not moving or talking much. From time to time they drank from vessels of melonsharbatserved on large trays, or nibbled at halva to keep themselves strong. They would need to be strong.
The reciter had begun recounting stories of the blessed Prophet’s family. Her voice surged high with pain as she described baby Ali-Asghar, whose throat was struck by an enemy arrow and who drowned in his own blood. Pinpricks stung my eyes. I remembered the dirt falling onto my father’s body, the screams of my mother and sister, and my own anguish. Now was a respectable moment to vent my grief, for my father, for the fate of my mother and sister, for the dead Shah, for Pari, and for the future of us all. Pari’s eyes caught mine, and I saw sympathy there. For a few hours, there was nothing but unity in the room as we recalled and relived the sorrows we had known on this earth.
It was late afternoon before the Shah’s eldest female relation, Fatemeh Beygom, made her ceremonial appearance at the proceedings, dressed in proper court attire.
“Good women,” she said to the crowd, “you have mourned with your hearts full and shed all the water in your body in the form of tears. Now it is time to halt this river of suffering and return to your private grief. To God above we give our trust, from God above we beg for protection.”
The room became very quiet. The women began wiping away their tears, smoothing their hair, and gathering their things, all rather slowly, as if they were reluctant to leave the safety of shared mourning.
As the royal women began to say their goodbyes, a group gathered around Sultanam. Even the tallest among them looked like frail reeds near her broad body. One of the first to leave was a consort of the Shah’s who had two young sons and could be expected to throw her weight behind one of the adult contenders. I watched Sultanam kiss her with gratitude. No doubt she would rally the support of her allies behind Isma‘il.
Women were also lingering around Sultan-Zadeh, Haydar’s mother, ostensibly to console her. Her face was red from the exertion of honest weeping, yet there was a spark in her eyes. The Georgian women approached her; then Gowhar, the late Shah’s eldest daughter, gave Sultan-Zadeh a goodbye kiss on each cheek and whispered into her ear. Sultan-Zadeh brightened. Gowhar said a perfunctory goodbye to Sultanam, wrapped herself in her black chador, and departed.
The room was emptying rapidly. Pari paid her respects to Sultan-Zadeh, and both women uttered condolences about the rewards in heaven for a life well lived.
“Everything will be different now,” Sultan-Zadeh added, her pretty mouth pursed as if she were about to plant a kiss on Pari’s cheek. “May I hope for your support of my son Haydar?”
I knew Haydar as a spoiled pleasure-seeker who had never made a serious study of the business of governing. But when had that ever stopped a prince from believing he deserved the throne?
Pari drew back. “How can you ask now, when my father is so newly—?”
Sultan-Zadeh’s lip curled slightly, as if she were a small starved animal baring its teeth.
“I mean no disrespect. I suppose you would understand if you had your own sons.”
Pari ignored the slight. “No matter how eager you are for your son’s advancement, you should not breach the established traditions,” Pari replied. “There is a procedure to follow when there is no will. Do you know what it is?”
“The elders meet and discuss who is the best candidate. That is what happened when my father was selected. In times of uncertainty, procedure is all we have.”
“But, Pari, let me tell you why my son—”
“Not now,” said Pari, moving away from her.
Sultan-Zadeh frowned, and her pretty green eyes looked hard.
Pari crossed the large room to kiss Sultanam. The two women talked politely for a few moments, even though Sultanam had never approved of Pari because she dominated her husband’s attention.
As the princess took her leave, the somber, grieving face that Sultanam had shown Pari transformed, and her strong white teeth flashed in a nakedly victorious smile. As soon as we left the building, I told Pari what I had seen.
“How they delight in the idea of squelching my power!” she said as we walked past the garden of red and pink roses. “Until today, they didn’t dare be so bold. Now I expect to bear the brunt of all their aspirations. My mother will plead with me to marry and be safe, but a life of safety is not what I desire.”
I was struck by how different Pari was from everyone else. A desire to protect her surged through me.
“I promise to fight to keep you secure.”
“I thank you,” Pari said, resting her hand for a moment on my arm.
I heard footsteps behind us and turned around to see Massoud Ali speeding past the rosebushes toward us. He was panting, but that didn’t prevent him from trying to tell us something.
“What is it, my little one?”
“All the noblemen have left their mourning ceremony and are gathering for a meeting at Forty Columns Hall,” he said, almost out of breath.
“About the succession?”
“You must go,” said Pari.
“Chashm,” I replied. Since the royal women could not show themselves at the men’s meetings, I would be Pari’s eyes and ears. I told Massoud Ali to wait for me while I walked Pari back to her house. As we entered the gate to her courtyard, she was making plans. “As soon as you return from the meeting, we must review the details for the public mourning ceremonies for my . . .”
I was shutting the heavy door behind us when her voice trailed off. Pari stopped moving and her shoulders slumped dangerously. For a terrible moment, I feared that she might drop to the ground.
“Princess,” I said softly, rushing to her side, “I know all too well what oceans of sorrow drown your heart.”
Her eyes filled. To my astonishment, she draped her arms on my shoulders and clung to me like a child, her head against my chest. Sobs shook her long, thin body, and hot tears soaked the front of my robe. I tried to stand as firm as the famous cypress in Abarkuh that has witnessed three thousand years of human sorrow.
When her sobbing had subsided, Pari begged me for a handkerchief. Her eyes were bloodred, her nose wet with mucus. I handed her the cotton handkerchief that hung from my sash and watched her dry her eyes and her face.
“My heart is breaking over the loss of my father,” she said.
“I understand. I have shed the same bitter tears.”
“I know you have. Thank you for allowing me to steady myself upon you”—here she noticed my stained robe—“and make you wet.”
We were alone, so I decided to take a risk. “I am honored to be your human handkerchief. Never fear, it was like bathing in a river of diamonds.”
I glanced at the gleaming mucus on my robe.
Pari managed a smile, then could not prevent a small, sad snort of laughter, after which she had to dab further at her nose. She tossed the handkerchief back to me.
“Here, you need this more than I do.”