A much more poetic opening than “Once upon a time…” don’t you think? This is Anita Amirrezvani's rough translation of an Iranian expression that begins each of the traditional Iranian or Islamic stories/folk tales she intersperses throughout her first novel The Blood of Flowers. This beautiful novel is set in seventeenth century Persia (although the narrator often refers to her country as Iran so i suppose it was known by that name even then~but what know i?) in the metropolis of Isfahan, then one of the largest cities in the world.
The novel opens with our young (fourteen-year-old) narrator happily living in her small village with her parents, contemplating a marriage match within the next year. However, misfortune is predicted in the form of a bright comet (its ill-fated portent compounded by the fact that Mars is also inflamed) that passes over the Persian skies, and soon enough her father dies and she and her mother are forced to seek refuge with an unknown paternal half-uncle, Gostaham, in the unknown big city (if her mother had told her, "we'd been sent off to the Christian lands, where barbarian women exposed their bosoms to all eyes, ate the singed flesh of pigs, and bathed only once a year, our destination could not have seemed more remote")
When the narrator and her mother reach Isfahan it is a brand new world, full of riches and wonders, unseen by them before. When they finally arrive at Gostaham's home they are greeted by he and his wife, Gordiyeh, where they are both lodged in a very small room of the grand house, and treated almost as servants. The girl's mother tells her, "we cannot have the same hope we once had," which sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Gostaham designs carpets for the royal court (as well as accepting private commissions and selling his beautiful rugs in the Image of the World bazaar, our narrator was known as one of the best rug knotters of her villiage and wishes to learn the craft from her uncle. Her learns to admire her dedication, and as he has no sons agrees to take her on as an apprentice, though she can never work as part of the Shah's workshop because she is not male. Her headstrong ways often bring tragedy down on her own head and that of her mother. When the offer of a sigheh, or temporary marriage contract, for three months, comes from a wealthy client of Gostaham's, Gordiyeh encourages her to take the offer to bring more prestige to both her own and Gostaham's family. Through this sigheh the girl learns the womanly art of both taking and giving sexual pleasure and grows in the process. At the end of the novel the girl has become a woman who has learned to make her own way in a man's world (though she may never be able to sign her own name to her works of art, thus the significance of never naming her in the novel).
This is a work of art that is an historical novel but also a timeless tale that offers a window into other worlds that could be our own.