A mid-19th-century Persian poetess clashes against old-world gender expectations, religious orthodoxy, and politics in this exquisite tale, based on the actual life of poet and theologian Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn.
Four haunting, first-person narrators—the Mother of the Shah, the Wife of the Mayor, the sister of the Shah, and the daughter of the poetess of Qazvin—recall how the poetess emancipated Tehran’s citizens with literacy, predicted the fates of a Mullah and a high-ranking government official, and scandalously displayed her naked face to some four score of men. The poetess of Qazvin “knew too much, thought too much, read far too much, and finally said too much, too…she had always been a rebel....A heretic from the start.” Under orders of the Shah, the Mayor holds her captive for three years, and though the Shah promises her release, the poetess is put to death. Nakhjavani (Paper, 2005, etc.) leaps nimbly back and forth through time, connecting events from the first attempt on the Shah’s life to public executions, the city’s widespread famine and bread riots, betrayal, and exile. And when the Shah is assassinated, palace rumors trace his demise to the poetess’s influence on the kingdom. The author’s language mesmerizes. About the cunning Mayor’s wife, she writes: “Her words drifted over the walls and down the alleys, like the sizzling of kebabs and the smell of fried onion. Her opinions even penetrated through the palace gates at times, and lingered in the royal anderoun with the persistence of fenugreek.” Nakhjavani deftly transforms an incomplete history into legend.
An ambitious effort produces an expertly crafted epic.