Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
The Blood of Flowers
by Anita Amirrezvani
Sydney, 2007, 377 pp, RRP $32.95, ISBN 97807553 34209
Anita Amirrezvani’s novel is a colorful and beautifully told story set in seventeenth century Isfahan (Iran). The author, of Iranian descent but raised in San Francisco, spent nine years researching and writing this novel, which was won by Headline in a ‘hotly contested auction’ and is released in Australia in May 2007.
The story is narrated by a young village girl who, on the approach of marriageable age, finds her destiny altered when, first, a comet (perceived as a bad omen) blazes across the sky, and, soon after, her beloved father dies. The narrator and her mother are forced to move to the city and beg support from the girls’ uncle, Gostaham, a famous carpet designer, and his rather cruel wife. The protagonist shows talent as a designer and weaver of carpets and convinces her uncle to instruct her, even though she is female and this is not the usual practice. However, an impetuous act (cutting an unfinished carpet off the loom, thus wasting expensive materials and angering her benefactors), sees her forced into a sigheh, or temporary marriage, with a rich man. Essentially, this means that, having no dowry, her virginity is traded and she is tied to a marriage contract that is remade at three month intervals. Should she fail to please this man, he can dissolve the contract at any time, and she would then be considered tainted and unmarriageable. (Apparently sigheh’s have been practised for centuries, and are still common in Iran today.)
But the protagonist is clever and seeks a better life than that she is offered. Although she manages to learn how to please her ‘husband’, the situation becomes intolerable when he takes her wealthy friend as a ‘proper’ wife and, rather than sacrifice a long-standing friendship, she decided to walk away from the relationship. Banished from the uncle’s home, she and her mother fall further and further into poverty, and eventually create a new ‘family’ with supportive friends in an impoverished part of the town. The narrator expends great effort to develop into the artisan she believes she can become, in the belief that she will then be able to assure a decent life for herself and her mother.
When her uncle Gostaham comes to visit and sees the conditions the young woman and her mother are forced to endure, he is ashamed and agrees to help with the purchase of materials to produce carpets for sale. He realises his niece has talent, and tells her that ‘neither earthquakes nor plagues or misery will ever stop you from making carpets that delight the eyes’ (p.346). Eventually the narrator manages to obtain commissions from members of the Shah’s harem, where her gender is an advantage as she is able to bargain directly with the buyers. But in the process of learning how to successfully trade in carpets she also learns how to be shrewd and businesslike. When one member of the harem, Maryam, admires the quality of one of her carpets, she tells the reader:
I did not reveal that I was the carpet’s designer and knotter. I thought if she saw my callused fingers or looked closely at my tired red eyes – if she understood the fearsome work that a carpet demanded – its beauties would be forever tarnished in her eyes. Better for her to imagine it being made by a carefree young girl, who skipped across hillsides plucking flowers for dyes before settling down to tie a few relaxing knots in between sips of pomegranate juice … I knew otherwise: my back ached, my limbs were stiff, and I had not slept enough for a month. I thought about all the labour and suffering that were hidden beneath a carpet, starting with the materials. Vast fields of flowers had to be murdered for their dye, innocent worms boiled alive for their silk – and what about knotters? Must we sacrifice ourselves for the sake of rugs? … I had heard stories about women who became deformed by long hours of sitting at the loom … (p.350-351).
Although this is a young woman’s story, it would be wrong to paint it as a ‘feminist narrative’. The strictures of life for women of strict Muslim cultures are well-known, but the author’s goal does not seem so much to point out the unfairness of the culture as to paint a portrait of a memorable and believable individual who learns how to prosper within these strictures – in other words this is an example of, in Joseph Campbell’s words, ‘a hero’s journey’. Along the way, we are treated to the sights, sounds, smells and experiences of life of the period, and exposed to the cultural mores that create and define the society. Instructive stories, some traditional, some invented by the author, occur throughout the text, always preceded by the opening line, ‘First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was’, an equivalent to the Western ‘Once upon a time’, and these stories contain wise teaching as well as entertainment. We never learn the narrator’s name, something the author writes was a conscious act of homage to the many unknown artisans of old Iran, but we come to know her intimately and share in her getting of wisdom and growing facility to forgive those who have treated her unfairly. By the novel’s conclusion, she has become independent but, more importantly, has learned that: ‘Even her suffering had not been in vain, for her heart had grown large enough to forgive those who had wronged her’ (p.344). It is this spiritual journey that lies at the heart of this fascinating and beautifully modulated narrative.
About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, on TV and radio in Australia and the USA, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She holds a BA from Deakin University (Victoria) with major studies in Professional Writing & Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Some of Liz Hall Down’s publications include: Fit of Passion, (with Kim Downs), (Fit of Passion Collective, 1997), Girl With Green Hair, (Papyrus Publishing, 2000), People of the Wetlands, (Brisbane City Council, 1996), Mountains to Mangroves, and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle, (Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999), Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, (with B.R. Dionysius and Samuel Wagan Watson), (Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, 2000).