“First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was.” Mythical stories mingle within the larger plot of this first novel, and each tale embarks with the Persian version of ‘Once upon a time’. Amirrezvani sets her story in 17th century Isfahan, among venerated carpet makers in the glorious Persian tradition. Historically, the artisans of Iran remained anonymous, their work itself being adequate to serve as their legacy, and so the central character of the novel goes unnamed as well, in a conscious tribute.
Amirrezvani has crafted a lush and sensuous story, where betrayal is common, wealth is unequally distributed, and temporary marriages allow prosperous men to take advantage of impoverished virgins without the burden of a full-time wife.
It begins as a familiar, tragic tale: A humble peasant family (mother, father, daughter) live a simple but happy existence (filled with mutual love, in a society where marriages usually ignore the feelings of the couple, and daughters are less prized than sons) until one dark day the father is struck down by a mysterious illness. Superstitious by nature, the villagers blame a strange comet passing overhead for such bad luck. With no close relatives to offer assistance, and their few meager possessions soon sold, mother and daughter must fall on the mercy of distant relatives in a faraway city, in this case the father’s half-brother in Isfahan, a ten day journey by camel.
Although sorry to leave behind her village friends, our anonymous protagonist is quickly caught up in the overwhelming variety and diversity of life in sprawling Isfahan. Amirrezvani skillfully mixes into the action descriptions of architectural details, fabulous fabrics and jewelry, mouthwatering depictions of Iranian cuisine, and especially the minutiae of carpet making, the craft which obsesses the central character as well as her uncle Gostaham, a successful carpet designer for the Shah’s court. Gostaham recognizes in his niece the son he never had; if only she were a boy he could have apprenticed her, for she soon shows herself to be eager and hard-working, as well as skilled at designing rugs and executing complicated patterns. In rug making she finds a peacefulness nonexistent elsewhere in her turbulent young life.
The attention to detail in The Blood of Flowers brought to mind Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, set in 16th century Istanbul among miniaturist illustrators. From drawing designs on graph paper and precisely coloring the patterns, to counting the number of radj (knots) in a section of carpet (the more and finer, the better), and later shaving the carpet so each piece of wool will be the same silky-smooth length, Amirrezvani illuminates the art of carpet making. The title of the book refers both to the processing of plants to create coveted dyes used in the carpets, and to the importance of virginity and marriage in the society of the novel.
When she is not consumed by carpet making, the other central concern of the main character is indeed that of marriage. As a teenage girl in her small village with a comfortable though humble subsistence she looked forward to marrying and assumed she would be as happy as her parents. She had woven a specially dyed turquoise carpet to be sold for her dowry money, unusual in a village where the normal colors for dyed wool are earthy tones of red and brown. As a girl in the big city, however, reliant on the charity of her aunt and uncle, her prospects have narrowed even as the number of potential suitors has swollen.
Mates are often chosen at the hammam, or public bathhouse, by relatives of the man in question. The women working at the bathhouse naturally become familiar with their clients and notice when girls begin to mature physically, at which point they may assist their favorites in finding a suitor by singing their praises for all to hear. When a suitor does make an offer for the girl, however, it is one of a rather shocking nature to those outside traditional Iranian culture: a three month temporary marriage, called a sigheh. The short term temporary marriage is far less desirable than a permanent one, as a proper marriage will be almost impossible afterwards. As the last thing the mother and her daughter possess of any value is the daughter’s virginity, they must sell it to survive and hope desperately that the daughter will conceive, as then the husband will be duty-bound to support them, and will perhaps even properly marry the daughter.
Naturally complications ensue. At first the girl is loathe to take any risks when attempting to please Fereydoon, her temporary husband, for fear he will reject her and ruin her mother’s hopes for their future. When the three month period has nearly ended, however, she takes some desperate measures, including applying henna in some innovative locations, and discovers that in teasing Fereydoon and taking back some of the power he has over her, she intrigues him and even begins to enjoy their nights together herself. He renews the sigheh so as to discover what she has in store for him next, as she is always thinking of creative ways to enjoy their nighttime frolics together. So much fun is had that the girl almost starts to believe that Fereydoon will keep her around indefinitely. Naturally this is the point at which he gets engaged to a girl more suitable for his family background and wealth, a close friend to the short-term wife he has been spending his nights with: cue the betrayal music!
Throughout the novel the girl is envious of extended family and friends who live comfortably and without fear of poverty. She believe that all souls are equal to God, so why is there such injustice in her own life? They work hard and yet are taken advantage of by less scrupulous family, friends, and even strangers. The protagonist is a likeable character because she will take a chance to make her own luck, even though her rash actions and words (she is an inexperienced teen from the sticks, after all) are usually the cause of her problems. After several years spent in the city feeling jealous of women with lovers and husbands to take care of them materially she finally feels sorry for her friend who has married Fereydoon, stuck in a loveless and permanent marriage, as well as for the beautiful and exotic harem women of the Shah who must compete for his patronage and who can never leave their palace quarters.
At last the girl and her mother are thrown out by the uncle and aunt because of the girl’s refusal to renew her sigheh and she must redeem herself by providing for her mother and another poor family who take them in to live in the slums of Isfahan, a side of the city the girl never dreamed existed. Reduced to begging in the streets, she must return to the uncle’s home and beg for help—which he gives in the form of a commission for a special rug, knowing she is a skilled and dedicated worker. Though the trajectory of this novel seemed sure to lead toward a full marriage in a society where this is expected, Amirrezvani provides more than that: a wonderful man might exist in fairytales, but a woman can be self-sufficient and happy without him. Gathering the materials and employing needy women as her assistants, the girl finds a purpose and happiness in once again using her hands to create something elegant and desirable.