A splendid debut about a pair of star-crossed lovers in ninth-century Baghdad.
There are certain stories that are shared by every culture in the world, and unhappy love is one of them. Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Pocohantas and Captain Smith, Madame Butterfly and Pinkerton—and now, thanks to Horch, Schemselnihar and Abulhassan Ali. Their names may not trip quite as gracefully from the tongue, but such are the difficulties of translation from the Arabic. Our narrator is one Ibn Thaher, a pharmacist and scholar in ancient Baghdad who became an intimate friend of the Sultan’s (having provided contraceptive potions that kept the royal harem from producing too many princes and thereby sparing the realm from civil war) and one of the most honored men of the city. Thaher’s shop is frequented by many of the Sultan’s wives, but one in particular, Schemselnihar, is a regular customer. Free-spirited and independent, Schemselnihar travels openly without escorts (scandalous behavior for a Muslim woman) and is even seen in the company of other men. One of these, the Persian Prince Abuhassan Ali, becomes her lover, and she and Ali try to find a way to run away together. Adultery with one of the Sultan’s wives brings certain death to all concerned, so the couple turns to Thaher for help in making their escape. Though fearful and naturally reluctant to betray his lord and risk his own head, Thaher relents and becomes an accomplice to the Prince’s scheme. New Yorker Horch, now based in Brazil, flavors his narration with a vivid portrait of ancient Baghdad and Islamic culture, a world of extraordinary grace and brutal cruelty in which the will of one man can run roughshod over an entire populace. Can the Sultan be defeated by one couple in love? It’s not very likely—but there are precedents.
Elegant, engrossing, ornately constructed: both an engaging love story and a portrait of an entire age.