Have you ever wondered what makes you pick up one book and pass by another? Is it the cover of the book - or the title that catches your eye? Do you read what others are saying about the book on the back, or what the story is about on the the jacket; or do you just jump right in on the first page? Do you get the feeling that sometimes certain books are just meant for you to read?
I was in a bookstore the other day and The Blood of Flowers was on the table with a bunch of other books, but neither the title nor the cover piqued my interest, but for some reason I picked it up. I turned it over and started reading the back cover. This was Anita Amirrezvani’s first novel about a young girl in seventeenth-century Iran, and her desire to create carpets. Not exactly the light read I came in to look for as a change of pace from some heavy non-fiction books that I had been reading lately.
I put the book down, glanced at other books and for some reason picked it up again and turned to the first page.
First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was.
So begins a Persian tale much in the same way we begin a child’s fairy tale with Once Upon a Time. The tale is about a young girl from a small village in Iran that knows what her future has in store for her. As an only child, she has basked in the love of her parents who adore her. Now at 15 she anticipates getting married like her best friend, who is expecting her first child.
The life she knows, however, changes in a moment when her father passes away shortly after having a massive heart attack or stroke while working in the fields. The consequences are dire for the girl and her mother who no longer have a male to protect and to provide for them. After selling what little belongings they have, and nothing left to barter for food, they are forced to leave their home. The two women venture to the big city of Isfahan in search of their only relative who may be able to help them; her father’s half-brother.
Arriving in Isfahan for the first time, mother and daughter are in awe of all the sights and sounds of a bustling metropolis and by the grandeur and the beautiful architecture of the squares and the mosques. Isfahan, said to be half of the world, is a city with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, and for the two women from a tiny village it is also frightening by the perils of so many people.
The young girl and her mother are taken in by her uncle much to the chagrin of his wife. Gostaham is a kind man who has gained his wealth by designing carpets for the Shah in the royal rug workshop. Gordiyeh, his wife, spends much of her time spending his money and controlling the servants in her household with an iron fist. When the young girl and her mother arrive, Gordiyeh puts them to work with the rest of the servants, angry that she now has two more mouths to feed.
The young girl (the author never reveals her name in the book) wants to learn everything about making rugs. Slowly her uncle begins to teach her everything he knows and a bond is formed between them. The young girl prospers in her uncle’s home and befriends a wealthy young neighbor, Naheed. The two become fast friends.
One day Fereydoon, the son of a wealthy horse breeder, comes to her uncle’s home to commission a carpet. The young girl arrives home, not knowing that a visitor is in the room, takes off her chador and picheh and reveals her face to the stranger. It’s only a matter of time that Fereydoon contacts her uncle with a marriage proposal. The proposal, however, is not for a lifetime, but rather for three months.
Neither she nor her mother wants to sign the contract, a “sigheh”. The only thing of value that the girl has in hopes of a marriage one day is her virginity, but once that is gone, it’s gone! Gostaham, her uncle, is also against it, but doesn’t have the nerve to go against his wife’s wishes.
Gordiyeh, on the other hand, tries to convince everyone that it’s a great deal. Yes, a great deal for Gordiyeh and Gostaham who will profit from selling Fereydoon and his family carpets! A terrible deal, however, for the young girl who has no guarantee that after three months her “husband” will renew the contract for another term and if not, then what? What other man would offer her a lifetime marriage without her virginity or a dowry?
The others cave in to Gordiyeh’s insistance and the girl is forced into the sigheh. She quickly realizes that the only way to get Fereydoon to renew the contract, and for her and her mother to continue receiving money from him, is to please him in bed. She masters the art of lovemaking and in turn discovers the pleasures that are as much hers as they are his.
The sigheh must be hidden from her friend Naheed and her family for the obvious reason that no respectful family would allow their daughter to sign a contract that is nothing more than a legal way of hiring a girl for sexual gratification. (Sighehs are still a part of Iranian culture today and seems, in my opinion, nothing less than legalized prostitution.)
All goes according to plan until one day it’s announced that Fereydoon is to be married (a real marriage this time) with none other than Naheed. Jealousy sets in between the two friends and the girl finds a way to refuse a third sigheh with her “husband”.
The girl brings shame to her uncle and his family and before they know it, the girl and her mother are forced out onto the streets with nowhere to go. It’s winter and the mother becomes gravely ill and the girl is forced to beg on the streets. Men offer her food and money in exchange for sex, but she refuses. More frustrating for the girl is her talent to create and make beautiful Persian carpets which can give her financial independence, but how can she make them without money to buy the wool or silk?
The suffering of having barely nothing to eat and no way of getting the necessary medicine to save her mother is unbearable. When her mother is lying on her death bed, the girl in a last ditch effort to afford food and medicine for her mother makes a deal with a fat, ugly butcher, who lusts after her, in order to save her mother. She tells the butcher when her mother is better she’ll come back and pay her debt, but in such a large city as Isfahan, how can he possibly find her….or so she thinks!
The twists and turns this young girl has to make in order to survive in a male dominated society is at the heart of this beautifully written story.
Maya Muses: Anita Amirrezvani makes the street life and the people of Isfahan comes vividly alive with the sights, sounds, and smells of the great market place and the calls of the muezzin in the minaret for prayer. For anyone who has visited North Africa or the Middle East it takes you back to that moment when you realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore!
Interspersed in the novel are seven Persian tales that the young girl’s mother is so adept at telling. Five of the tales are centuries old, while the first and the last are by the author.
I truly could not put this book down and as I was winding down to the final pages, I regretted that there wasn’t another three or four hundred pages more to keep the story of the young girl’s tale on-going.
Photo Credits: Google Images