From the author of the internationally bestselling The Blood of Flowers comes a compulsively readable and gorgeously crafted tale of power, loyalty, intrigue, and love in the royal court of sixteenth-century Iran.
Legendary women—from Anne Boleyn to Queen Elizabeth I to Mary, Queen of Scots—changed the course of history in the royal courts of sixteenth-century England. They are celebrated in history books and novels, but few people know of the powerful women in the Muslim world, who formed alliances, served as key advisers to rulers, lobbied for power on behalf of their sons, and ruled in their own right. In Equal of the Sun, Anita Amirrezvani’s gorgeously crafted tale of power, loyalty, and love in the royal court of Iran, she brings one such woman to life, Princess Pari Khan Khanoom Safavi.
Iran in 1576 is a place of wealth and dazzling beauty. But when the Shah dies without having named an heir, the court is thrown into tumult. Princess Pari, the Shah’s daughter and protégé, knows more about the inner workings of the state than almost anyone, but the princess’s maneuvers to instill order after her father’s sudden death incite resentment and dissent. Pari and her closest adviser, Javaher, a eunuch able to navigate the harem as well as the world beyond the palace walls, are in possession of an incredible tapestry of secrets and information that reveals a power struggle of epic proportions.
Based loosely on the life of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom, Equal of the Sun is a riveting story of political intrigue and a moving portrait of the unlikely bond between a princess and a eunuch. Anita Amirrezvani is a master storyteller, and in her lustrous prose this rich and labyrinthine world comes to vivid life with a stunning cast of characters, passionate and brave men and women who defy or embrace their destiny in a Machiavellian game played by those who lust for power and will do anything to attain it.
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Anita Amirrezvani is the author of The Blood of Flowers, which was longlisted for the Orange Prize, and a former staff writer and dance critic for the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. She is currently an adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Equal of the Sun
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 the Shahnameh.”
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 the Shahnameh. 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 the Shahnameh? 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 his Four Discourses that 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...
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