by Anita Amirrezvani
First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was.
So begins Anita Amirrezvani’s debut novel, which, set in 17th century Persia, follows a few years in the life of an unnamed girl of newly marriageable age. The simple statement is invoked each time a story, usually a fable, is introduced. These fables are used as framing devices throughout the novel, as each chapter closes with a story about love, temptation, or unyielding kindness.
The story is told from the point of view of the young protagonist, a spirited teenage girl who is her parents’ only child. The first chapter centers on her happy relationship with her father and her unparalleled skills as a rug-maker. Everything goes awry, however, when a comet appears over the village and signals bad omens for the year. Though she is anxious to marry, she fears that a marriage forged in the year of the comet will be doomed. Before she has much time to get a modest dowry together, her father dies suddenly while working in the fields. She and her mother are almost immediately forced into poverty. The women are thereby forced to move to the capital, Isfahan, and live with their only blood relation, an uncle named Gostaham. Gostaham, a wealthy craftsman, and his wife Gordiyeh live in a mansion, with food and clothes to spare.
Despite the riches of the household, the two women are treated as servants rather than family, and are under constant fear of getting thrown out. After a few months of adjustment, however, the girl finds ways to be very happy with her life in Isfahan. She is inspired by the beauty of the city, and begins to cultivate her craft of rug making under the mentorship of her talented uncle. She makes friends with women in the city, both very rich and very poor, and dreams of one day running a rug-making workshop for women.
I mentioned that the girl is “spirited,” but perhaps a better word for it would be “rash,” because she constantly makes choices out of passion without thinking of the consequences. A few rash decisions put an end to her dreams, and she and her mother are kicked out of their home. The mother falls very ill, and the girl resorts to begging on the street. I’ll try not to include too many spoilers, but in the end, she uses her womanhood to her advantage and her luck turns around, but not in the way I expected.
Despite the high level of drama maintained throughout the novel, I very much enjoyed this book. The writing is captivating, the characters are dynamic, and the story has so much depth that it is easy to forget it is fiction. Through all her poor decisions, it is hard to fault the main character too much because she is so morally pure. She makes the best of the hard hand she is dealt, and she a strong, powerful female character. I do believe this is a feminist novel, the kind of feminism that I fully support. That is, not all of the female characters are strong or good, and not all of the male characters are evil. There are strong, amazing, resilient women and there are sensitive, charitable men. There are also selfish and vain women and chauvinistic, unintelligent men.
The life of a Persian woman in the 1620s was not easy. It was nearly impossible to be either financially independent or respected by society, but the girl in this novel accomplishes both. As she matures, she learns that beauty, riches and social status do not create happiness. Her community, her faith, and her art are the source of happiness for her, and, though it is not much, she considers herself lucky. She works tirelessly to bring her mother and friends out of poverty, but she never loses her moral center.
If you are at all like me, and are interested in Middle Eastern feminism and social class dynamics, I recommend this book. You’ll have to forgive some of the dramatics as well as a few gratuitous sex scenes, but it is a quick and entertaining read, so prepare to be engrossed in this book for a few days. At the very least, you will never look at Persian rugs the same way again.