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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 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.
Copyright © 2012 by Anita Amirrezvani
Excerpts on pp. 315 and 343 from “The Reign of Yazdegerd,” “The Reign of Hormozd,” from Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, foreword by Azar Nafisi, translated by Dick Davis, copyright © 1997, 2000, 2004 by Mage Publishers, Inc. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Rumi, excerpt on pp. 372–3 from “Weave Not, Like Spiders, Nets from Grief’s Saliva” from Look! This Is Love: Poems of Rumi, translated by Annemarie Schimmel, © 1991 by Annemarie Schimmel. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.