Anita Amirrezvani‘s The Blood of Flowers is a fascinating novel, packed with details about carpet weaving in 17th century Iran, but fear not! the story wears its research lightly. The novel’s protagonist is an unnamed fourteen year old village girl in 1620s Persia. She happens to have a good eye for color, and has already sold a carpet she designed and knotted–the proceeds will come in handy for her wedding later that year. But when her father dies suddenly, all plans are overturned–the girl and her mother must make their way to Isfahan, Persia’s capital city, and live on the largesse of a richer relative, a wealthy carpet designer Gostaham.
Isfahan under the rule of Shah Abbas was one of the grandest cities in the world, much bigger than London or Paris, and a key node of global trade. There’s much demand for beautiful carpets, and while women aren’t encouraged to pursue a trade, the girl’s uncle recognizes her talent, and secretly helps her to learn more about carpet making. Skill is but the least of her lessons. A beautiful carpet is much more than a pleasing combination of shapes and colors; it demands a unity and integrity in its design that hints at the greater purpose of art. “All rug makers know that beauty is a tonic like no other,” says Gostaham, citing a time when Tamerlane sacked the city of Isfahan, killing all but the rug makers, whose value was “too great for them to be destroyed.” The rug makers responded to the carnage by creating even more exquisite carpets, for they believed art’s duty in the midst of suffering and sorrow was to remind the world of the face of beauty.
But if beauty is redemptive, it also demands fearsome sacrifice–as always, from the weakest and most helpless. Women are sometimes deformed by long work hours spent hunched at the loom, so much so that during childbirth, “their bones form a prison locking the baby inside”, leading to their deaths. The youngest knotters suffered “aching backs, bent limbs, tired fingers, exhausted eyes…sometimes it seemed as if every thread in the carpet had been dipped in the blood of flowers.”
(And it’s not a problem confined to 17th century Iran–you probably know that child labor is endemic in the South Asian carpet industry, for children’s smaller hands are thought to be more adept at making smaller, finer knots. If you are buying a carpet from the region, look for the GoodWeave mark certifying that the rug wasn’t made with child labor.)
But let’s return to our heroine, whose life is just about to receive more than its fair share of misery, when, due to financial pressure, she enters into a temporary contract-based marriage known as a sigheh (permitted in Shia but not in Sunni Islam). The contract is renewed at the discretion of the man, depending on whether the wife has pleased him sufficiently. In a culture prizing female virginity, the sigheh is considered a shame for an unmarried girl, but the our protagonist has few options–she has no dowry, hence making her dream of a traditional marriage virtually impossible. While she does undergo a sexual awakening, the sigheh essentially reinforces her powerlessness as an economically dependent woman.
But our girl learns well from her hard lessons, and learns that her true value lies not in her marriageability but in an economic independence that’ll allow her to shape her life. The last part of the book is an enjoyable paean to female empowerment; hurrah! Read this one for the splendor that was Persia (oh, how I long to visit Isfahan), for the wondrous fables nested within the narrative, for an appealing protagonist who makes plenty of mistakes but never repeats them, for thoughtful explorations into the knotty relationship between desire and love, for the profound questions raised about the purpose and duty of art, and oh, for a vivid, juicy, richly-detailed read that reminds you just how enthralling a good story can be. Recommended.
I read this book for Marilyn’s Global Women of Color blog challenge.
Join the challenge here, you know you want to! Lots of suggestions for books by women of color from all corners of the world.