Tuesday, December 9, 2014

'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.

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