Q and A with Anita

What do we know about the lives of pre-modern Iranian court women?

Not a lot. We know that court women could be as well educated as men. They composed poetry and letters; went horseback riding; provided charitable donations to mosques and other institutions, employed viziers; served as advisors to shahs to whom they were related; fought for power “behind the curtain,” and worked to advance their sons. But little information survives to tell us what they did on a daily basis or what their thoughts and feelings were. Those who made an impact on Iranian politics, like Pari Khan Khanoom and Khayr al-Nisa Beygom, were chronicled by Iranian historians, but these men would not have had direct access to the women. Therefore, the histories offer only a filtered view.

In what ways has writing this novel advanced your understanding about Iran?

It may seem obvious that a woman with wealth and family connections might wish to participate in politics, but stereotypes about women in the harem have made it difficult to see through the veils of obfuscation on this topic. It appears that women who were related by blood to the shah were considered a separate breed because their family ties conferred upon them a special, almost magical status. New scholarship has revealed much about how influential women could be, but more remains to be done. I am hoping that a cache of documents will be discovered one day that will provide new insights.

What made you decide to tell your story through the eyes of a eunuch?

When I first started writing the novel, I tried using six alternating narrators, including the eunuch Javaher and the dead Tahmasb Shah. As the writing progressed, I faced reality and whittled down the narrators to the three who interested me the most. Eventually, to my surprise, Javaher’s voice emerged as the most compelling of the bunch. The first time I dreamed about him, I realized that he had become as real to me as a friend, albeit a complicated one.

As a sheltered upper-class young man, Javaher starts out with limited experiences of women outside his family. As a eunuch in the harem, he gets close to power players like Pari, an experience that ultimately challenges his assumptions about society’s rigid gender roles. Additionally, the fact that Javaher no longer possesses one of the essential tools of being male makes him rethink the meaning of masculinity. I settled on Javaher as my narrator when I realized that he could offer a fresh, insider perspective on both sexes.

What role did eunuchs play in the Middle East?

They were enormously important for centuries. In the ancient Iranian empire, they served the kings in a variety of capacities, as advisors, sexual consorts, or even as military leaders. A eunuch named Bagoas, for example, helped lead Iran’s charge into Egypt in the fourth century B.C.E. and arranged for the murder of his own king, Artaxerxes III, so that his son could take the throne. After Islam arrived in Iran in the seventh century and unrelated upper-class men and women were increasingly segregated from each other, eunuchs became vital as messengers, advisors, and go-betweens. For my novel, it was convenient that Javaher could travel easily between men’s and women’s spheres.

How did eunuchs become…eunuchs?

For many centuries, eunuchs were often brought to Middle Eastern courts as child slaves. In this terrible practice, children from other lands (such as India or East Africa) were captured by slavers, castrated, and sold to courts or to upper class families who could afford them. Boys and young men (as well as young women) were also sometimes captured during wars of conquest. Mary Renault’s 1988 novel The Persian Boy imagines the life of such a captured eunuch, who is given as a gift to Alexander the Great, serves as his sexual consort, and falls deeply in love with him.

At court, eunuchs were educated to perform specific important duties: Guarding the entrance to a harem, administering its operations, training palace pages, and even overseeing the palace treasury. Because they had no other family and no other ties, they were thought to be especially loyal to their patrons. On occasion, eunuchs were able to achieve high position, becoming wealthy and influential. For example, Beshir Agha, a eunuch from Abysinnia, was in charge of the Ottoman royal harem from 1717–46. According to scholar Jane Hathaway in Beshir Agha, he was “arguably the most powerful occupant of that office in Ottoman history.” Most eunuchs were not that fortunate, of course, but it’s interesting to note that enormous economic and social mobility were possible.

Did men ever become eunuchs voluntarily?

Sometimes. In The Imperial Harem, Leslie Peirce tells the story of two Hungarian brothers who served at the Ottoman court in the mid-16th century. After being informed by Sultan Selim that they could join his intimate household staff if they were willing to become eunuchs, they submitted to the operation. One brother died, but the other, Gazanfer, went on to have a distinguished career for more than thirty years.

In China, young men or boys also voluntarily undertook castration in order to make themselves attractive as employees. In The Last Eunuch of China: The Life of Sun Yaoting, author Jia Yinghua recounts that when a court eunuch came to Sun Yaoting’s village in 1908, Sun was so impressed by the man’s wealth and prestige that he begged his father to make him a eunuch. His mother objected, but one day when she was away, his father performed the operation using a razor and no anesthetic. Sun spent two months recovering, only to learn that the last emperor of China, Pu Yi, had abdicated. Still, he managed to serve the royal family and others for many years.

How many men became eunuchs?

Probably a lot more than most people realize. In his book The Eunuchs in the Ming Dynasty, Shih-shan Henry Tsai cites an estimate that by 1644, there were 100,000 eunuchs in China alone, out of a population of 130 million. The French traveler Jean Chardin reported that about 3,000 eunuchs served the Iranian court in the 1670s. Since the Chinese, Iranian, Ottoman, and Mughal courts employed eunuchs for hundreds of years, the total number must have been substantial.

What kind of sexual lives did eunuchs have?

It’s difficult to say for sure, but in The Last Eunuch of China, Jia Yinghua writes the following: “Castration did not always deprive the eunuchs completely of sexual desires. Quite a few eunuchs had an obsession with anything related to sex and would go to extreme lengths to find substitute outlets. They enjoyed looking at pornographic paintings, had endless gossip about sex, and sometimes engaged in homosexual relationship (sic). Sun Yaoting found himself attracted to pretty women. When first shown some pornographic paintings in Prince Zai Tao’s house, he remained sleepless all night with excitement.”

Some intriguing research on people with spinal cord injuries, as reported by Mary Roach in Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, influenced my thinking about the possibilities for a eunuch’s sexual life. “If a person’s spinal cord is broken at a point higher than the point at which nerves from the genitals feed into the spine, then there should be no way for the nerve impulses to make their way past the injury and up to the brain. And thus, it was…assumed, no way for the person to reach orgasm. Yet 40 to 50 percent of [paraplegics and quadriplegics], according to several large surveys, do,” she writes. Some of these people retain sexual feeling and have orgasms in non-genital areas; they “may develop a compensatory erogenous zone above the level of their injury.” This research suggested to me the idea that people with other (albeit unrelated) types of injuries, such as eunuchs, might develop alternative pleasure zones and unique ways of expressing their sexuality.”

What were some of the biggest challenges for you in writing this novel?

Since poetry was and is so greatly respected as an art form in Iran, I decided that it would add authenticity to my novel if the characters expressed themselves in verse at moments of great feeling or great urgency. I challenged myself to write such poems using a style that sounded courtly and that borrowed the rhyming scheme typical in Ferdowsi’s work: aabbcc. As a result of trying my hand at this difficult form, my respect for poets has become boundless.

Why do you write novels?

I’m interested in what-ifs; I love posing questions to myself and trying to answer them. I ask myself things like this: “If you were a woman in a harem who did not have access to public life, yet you longed to rule, how would you exert your power? If you were a eunuch deprived of the usual male parts, how might you express your sexuality?” Then I try to imagine the answers.

What is your position on “truth” in historical fiction?

I have tried to stay true to the key events reported by historians about the lives of the royals during this period. That said, I had to invent a lot of material because of the lack of information. Pari’s servants, her love affair, her animosities, her preferences, and much of her approach to political strategy, all had to be imagined in order to tell the story. It was fascinating to explore how a woman like Pari might have expressed her sexuality and her desire for power in a segregated society.

What do we know about lesbian and gay sex in Iran in the pre-modern period?

The favorite young male consorts of various shahs are sometimes mentioned by historians without any seeming embarrassment. Then again, they had to be careful when discussing the habits of their patrons. Some pre-modern poetry by men appears to be quite frank about the glories of young men (but because Farsi uses a single pronoun to mean both “he” and “she,” it is possible for the writers to be coy about this issue). However, the many poems that glorify the new down on a lover’s cheeks are presumably about young men. One of the most favored court poets during Pari’s life, Mohtasham Kashani, is mostly known today for composing a famous religious poem, but according an article in Iranian Studies by scholar Paul Losensky, his other work includes two long poems that “tell the story of the poet-narrator’s stormy affairs with, respectively, an upper-class courtesan and a footman attached to a nobleman’s house.”

As far as the historical characters in my book are concerned, I found little information about their sexual lives other than mention of their marriages or engagements. Pari was engaged to her cousin Badi al-Zaman, but the marriage never took place. Isma’il Shah married the daughters of Shamkhal Cherkes and Pir Mohammad Khan, as well as slept with an unnamed slave (I call her Mahasti) who bore his child Shoja al-din. But it is quite possible that he had other love interests as well. In his Life of Shah Abbas I, which was published about twenty years ago in Farsi, historian Nasr’ollah Falsafi described Hassan Beyg as “young and beautiful” and as the “lover and day-and-night companion” of Isma’il Shah.

Lesbianism does not seem to be mentioned much in the pre-modern period in Iran, possibly because writers tended to be men. According to scholar Minoo Southgate in an article in Iranian Studies, “while medieval Iranian texts attest to the prevalence of homosexuality they avoid lesbianism. This writer does not recall a single lesbian episode in medieval Iranian writings, literary or otherwise. The absence of lesbianism in literature, however, is not proof of its absence in life. Sexual segregation encourages lesbianism among girls and married women. Similarly, polygamy encourages lesbianism in the harem, where several wives are forced to share one husband.”

What about prostitutes in Iran? Did they really exist, and did they really pay taxes?

Yes on both counts. The great French traveler and writer Jean Chardin, who visited Iran in the 1670s and wrote ten volumes about his travels, estimated that there were 14,000 officially recognized prostitutes in Isfahan, who paid 13,000 tomans in taxes. Scholar Rudi Matthee examined his claims and found them believable. “Prostitution had been taxed from early Safavid times,” Mathee writes in an article in Iran and Beyond. “The Venetian merchant Francesco Romano, visiting Tabriz during the reign of Shah Esma’il [the first Safavi shah] noted that ‘[T]he harlots, who frequent the public places, are bound to pay according to their beauty, as the prettier they are, the more they have to pay’.”

Why do some of your Muslim characters drink alcohol?

Wine-making flourished in Iran long before the arrival of Islam. The custom of wine-drinking was so well-established that many people of means refused to give it up. In The Pursuit of Pleasure, Rudi Matthee cites an estimate by the French traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier in the 1660s that 580,000 liters of wine were typically produced in the province of Shiraz, an excellent grape-growing region even today (although alcohol is now forbidden to Muslims). Wine-making and drinking at court went through phases, Matthee says, depending on the piety of a given shah. Tahmasb Shah became pious and foreswore alcohol, but his son Isma’il Shah permitted it. Much later, when Shah Sultan Hossein took the throne in the 1690s, he banned alcohol and ordered that all bottles of wine, including the six thousand bottles in his father’s cellar, be smashed to bits. Foreign witnesses reported that the prohibition was rescinded after only a couple of months.”

Why do so many people assume Iranians are Arabs?

Good question! Iranians are often confused with Arabs because of geography and because of certain historical connections between the peoples. Until the seventh century C.E., the dominant religion in Iran was Zoroastrianism. Arabs conquered Iran in the mid-seventh century, and Iranians were ruled by the Arab caliphate for hundreds of years. Over time, most became Muslims. (That said, there are still minority populations in Iran even today of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Bahais). Starting in the 16th century, Iran became a Shi’a nation, which differentiates it from most Arab countries, which are Sunni-dominated. Also, Iranians speak Farsi, not Arabic. Farsi is an Indo-European language, whereas Arabic is a Semitic one.

What is the importance of the italicized tale that begins every chapter of your book?

For a long time, I’ve been deeply inspired by the poet Ferdowsi’s tale of Kaveh the blacksmith, who takes a stand against political despotism. Presumably, Ferdowsi had to be very careful not to offend the ruling shahs of his day; writing about a humble blacksmith challenging a shah was probably a radical act during such a hierarchical period. I thought that the story of Kaveh the blacksmith could be used to inspire the characters in my book to take action against the injustice around them, just as it has inspired Iranians for centuries. Pari’s father, Tahmasb Shah, commissioned a famous illustrated Shahnameh, and members of his court worked on it for years before she was born. I think it is likely that Pari would have grown up memorizing Ferdowsi’s poetry—and that every literate person at court would have done so. To this day, the Shahnameh is still considered Iran’s national epic.

Who was Ferdowsi?

Ferdowsi was one of the greatest Iranian poets; his Shahnameh is, for Iranians, like the Odyssey for the Greeks. The book consists of sixty thousand lines in rhyming couplets. Ferdowsi completed the poem in the year 1010 C.E. after working on it for about thirty years. Not much is known about his life, but the legend goes that when he asked the Ghaznavid shah, Mahmood, for patronage after he completed his great epic, the shah refused, and he died in poverty.

The Shahnameh recounts the stories of hundreds of legendary Iranian kings, as well as historical kings, all the way up to the arrival of Islam in the seventh century. That was when Arabs conquered Iran, and Islam gradually replaced Zoroastrianism. Although a Muslim himself, Ferdowsi’s lament over the conquest of Iran by the Arabs and the changes brought to the culture is one of the most powerful pieces of writing in the book.”

Once when I was visiting Iran, my dad and stepmom took me to a traditional Iranian restaurant, where we were entertained by a performer playing the tar and reciting poetry from the Shahnameh. It was good to see that Ferdowsi’s work still has an important role in everyday Iranian life. There is a beautiful monument to Ferdowsi in the city of Tus in eastern Iran, which is inscribed with verses from the Shahnameh, and it is visited with reverence by many Iranians.