Skip to main content

'Harem': A magical tale of a hard-luck mother who wants her daughter to marry the king

Dora Levy Mossanen's sensuous novel Harem follows three generations of Jewish women in Persia. Rebekah, given to an abusive husband before she reaches puberty, finds a better life after his death as a textile merchant and a prostitute. A scar she retains from the torture has seemingly magical properties. Her daughter, Gold Dust, is said to contain a kind of music within her bones. She is given to the Shah's harem at a young age and becomes his favorite even before she sleeps with him. She bears a daughter, Raven, an albino who grows unusually rapidly and is destined to become a fearless queen.

A reference to the queen Nakshidil places the characters in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. The setting is richly described with the scents of fruit and spices and the fabrics and adornments of the period.

One of the main characters is the Shah's high-voiced, opium-addicted Chief Black Eunuch. Known as Narcissus, he is responsible for selecting girls for the harem and occasionally ventures into the Jewish quarter to buy alcohol, which is how he first meets Rebekah and her daughter, clad in satin paisley pants and a red turban ornamented with sapphires.

Narcissus keeps his pickled organ in a jar, believing he'll be denied eternal paradise if his body cannot be made whole after his death - an odd detail, as this was a famous custom of eunuchs in China, and this story is set in the Turkish harem. However, given the magical elements of the story, some creative license may be granted. The Shah's body exudes the odor of black roses; his daughter swims with sharks. So it is unsurprising that Narcissus is a master of the dark arts: he fasts, inhales fumes, and communes with spirits. When he wishes to curse Gold Dust with female offspring, he makes paste of snake brains, kills a rooster, and cuts a lock of her hair to burn.

The three women are locked in a tense relationship with Narcissus. Initially Rebekah must get his attention to gain access to the harem and she must continue to demonstrate her importance to him. But before long, Narcissus fears his status is in jeopardy because the Shah gives confidences and considerations to his young sultana that he does not give to his chief black eunuch. Rebekah and Narcissus therefore strive to undercut each other in secret.

The trio must also contend with Moon Face, a nasty harem lady, and her personal eunuch servant Gulf Lily, whose tongue was cut off, preventing him from speaking but not from scheming. There is also an individual called Hazel-Boy to whom the reader is previously introduced as a boy by another name before he reappears in the story as a palace eunuch. "He was man and woman in one," the author writes, "without each gender's complicated intricacies."

One of the more provocative comments in the book about race and gender is uttered toward the end. Gold Dust's physician, a Jew like her, complains to her mother Rebekah that he cannot examine the patient if he is not permitted to remove her clothing. "If a hakim [doctor] is not a mahram [sexually off-limits] and a confidant of the harem, who is? Do I have to cut off my member before I examine her?" he protests. "Go tell the Shah...that I'm a Jew, and like all other persecuted Jews, I've long lost my manhood!"

As even fictional human lives do not wrap up neatly, this sweeping three-generation saga cannot redeem the poverty and cruelty that characterized the times for so many, but the reader is rewarded by investing sympathy in Rebekah's clan. Although the occult elements are never explained and it is unclear whether supernatural occurrences "really exist" in this fictional world, the characters are nonetheless understandable and their lives carry weight and elegance.

Originally posted to Helium Network on June 24, 2012.


Popular posts from this blog

Castration at the Battle of Adwa (1896)

On March 1, 1896, the Battle of Adwa "cast doubt upon an unshakable certainty of the age – that sooner or later Africans would fall under the rule of Europeans." In this battle, Ethiopians beat back the invading Italians and forced them to retreat permanently. It was not until 1922 that Benito Mussolini would again initiate designs against Ethiopia; despite Ethiopia's defeat in 1936, the nation ultimately retained its independence. "Adwa opened a breach that would lead, in the aftermath of world war fifty years later, to the rollback of European rule in Africa. It was," Raymond Jonas wrote, "an event that determined the color of Africa." (p. 1) It was also significant because it upheld the power of Ethiopia's Christian monarchy that controlled an ethnically diverse nation (p. 333), a nation in which, in the late 19th century, the Christian Emperor Yohannes had tried to force Muslims to convert to Christianity. (p. 36) The Victorian English spelli

Review of Cliff Sims' 'Team of Vipers' (2019)

After he resigned his position, Cliff Sims spent two months in Fall 2018 writing Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House . Many stories are told, some already well known to the public, some not. One buys this book, most likely, to gape at the colossal flameout spectacle that is Donald Trump, as with most things with Trump's name. Sims exposes the thoughtlessness, the chaos, the lack of empathy among his fellow insiders in the campaign and later in the White House, but he does not at all acknowledge the real consequences for ordinary Americans — there might as well be no world outside the Trump insider bubble, for all this narrative concerns itself with — and therefore falls far short of fully grappling with the ethical implications of his complicity. Previously, Sims was a journalist. "I had written tough stories, including some that helped take down a once-popular Republican governor in my home state," he says. "I had done my best to be

The ‘prostitute with a gun’ was a middle-class high school girl

On May 19, 1992, Amy Fisher, a 17-year-old high school student in Long Island, N.Y., rang the bell at the home of 37-year-old Mary Jo Buttafuoco. Buttafuoco stepped onto her front porch and had a brief conversation with the girl, whom she had never met before. Fisher then shot her in the face and fled the scene. Neighbors heard the shot and rushed to Buttafuoco's aid. She regained consciousness the next day in a hospital and was able to recall the conversation with her attacker. This information helped police to promptly identify and arrest Fisher. Fisher's explanation of her action shocked the nation. She claimed that she had been lovers with her victim's husband, Joey Buttafuoco, 36, since the previous summer when she was still only 16. While those who knew Buttafuoco believed him to be a pillar of the community, Fisher said he perpetrated auto theft scams. She claimed he introduced her to a life of prostitution, such that she wore a beeper to her high school classes an