Bahiyyih Nakhjavani: The Woman Who Read Too Much

“The woman is you,” remarked those who saw me with this book.

I can only hope to be half as courageous.

But who is she? “To read is to pray,” she taught. “To write is to trust.” Her words had claws, they said, but at the same time they recognized that her silence were double the weight of her words.

She believed in these: That sometimes, illiteracy was fear; that truth conquered fear; that denial was difficult in the face of truth; that the best told lies can prove short-sighted before the long truths of eternity; and that there was no escape for those who took refuge in their ignorance. And of pride? “Love had nothing to do with it.”

Who was she again? Throughout the story we only know her as the woman who read too much. All the women in the book were not given names. Set during the Qajar Dynasty in the 1800s when literacy among women in Persia was not encouraged, and the details of their lives were largely invisible and unrecorded — as it had been for centuries, and as it had been for most parts of the world; this clever literary trick by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani is most likely a curtsy to Virginia Woolf who wrote, “For most of history, anonymous was a woman.”

“No marker on her grave then? None.” Her death is something readers will know right from the beginning. Her story is written in such a peculiar way that it moves forward while moving backwards simultaneously, proving that the best of these Iranian women writers are masters not only in subtlety but also in form, and one can only try not to blink and miss allusions or be helplessly lost.

“History is filled with screams that are ignored.” The reading woman is executed for what she stands, for opposing unreasonable orthodoxy, “for stating the obvious rather than for deviating from the truth,” condemned for showing other women “how to inscribe their lives on the pages of history… giving them the tools by which to be autonomous.” Her death only fanned the flames of the emancipation of women, especially the emancipation of the mind.

Nakhjavani surprises us in the afterword by revealing that the woman who read too much; who, after all, had a name, was a real woman. Tahirih Qurratu’l-Ayn, the symbolic mother of literacy in Iran.

I glance around my library as I write and wonder at the sudden awareness that, on my shelves organized by geography, the Iran section is the only one where women authors outnumber the men. What better way to honor her!

Here in the midst of “look how far we’ve come” and “miles to go before we sleep,” reading this makes me ponder on the women who came before us; back to Enheduanna (2286-2251 BCE), a woman, the first known author, and to the endless library of history we long to fill… and read.

We’ve always had the rights of the mind at our disposal. We need only take up courage to use them.

The world changed when definitions of womankind were altered.”

Vladimir Bartol: Alamut

August 25, 2021

From what I gather, Alamut is a literary anomaly.

It is also here that great writing intersects with my fascination for Iran.

But first, the trivia:
— This novel became an inspiration for Assassin’s Creed, although it was published long before the era of video games.
— It was written in 1938, after Slovenian Vladimir Bartol spent ten years of extensive research on the Assassins, as a response to the rise of totalitarianism in Europe.
— Bartol intended to dedicate the first edition to Benito Mussolini, but it goes without saying that no publisher would have allowed that.
— The nature of the book is frightening that it led a recent reviewer from L’Express in France to write, “If Osama bin Laden did not exist, Vladimir Bartol would have invented him.”

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While there are many myths surrounding the Order of the Assassins who inspired terror from 1090 to 1275, it is agreed among historians that no enemy of theirs ever managed to evade their daggers. The fanaticism of their followers readily willing to die for their cause became legendary. They felled viziers, emirs, and caliphs, shaped the entire political landscape in the region according to their conceits, and held the reins of power for almost two hundred years. Their most mighty fortress stood in Iran, the “Eagle’s Nest,” the impregnable Alamut. 

_ _ _

Engrossing, tragic, and rife with philosophy, Bartol also plays on the myths, but this novel is essentially a chilling warning against charismatic leaders who test the limits of human blindness, against ideologies that have the ability to manipulate minds and emotions and subsequently annihilate logical thought. 

“…𝘪𝘵 𝘴𝘦𝘦𝘮𝘦𝘥 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘱𝘳𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘮 𝘵𝘰 𝘩𝘰𝘭𝘥 𝘰𝘯𝘵𝘰 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘴𝘰𝘭𝘪𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘢𝘯 𝘵𝘰 𝘨𝘳𝘰𝘱𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘪𝘳 𝘸𝘢𝘺 𝘵𝘰 𝘦𝘵𝘦𝘳𝘯𝘢𝘭 𝘶𝘯𝘤𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘢𝘪𝘯𝘵𝘺 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘦𝘯𝘥𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘯𝘦𝘨𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯. 𝘕𝘰𝘵 𝘫𝘶𝘴𝘵 𝘴𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘦 𝘧𝘰𝘭𝘬 𝘧𝘳𝘰𝘮 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘢𝘴𝘴𝘦𝘴, 𝘦𝘷𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘦 𝘦𝘹𝘢𝘭𝘵𝘦𝘥 𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘱𝘳𝘦𝘧𝘦𝘳𝘳𝘦𝘥 𝘢 𝘵𝘢𝘯𝘨𝘪𝘣𝘭𝘦 𝘭𝘪𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘢𝘯 𝘶𝘯𝘨𝘳𝘢𝘴𝘱𝘢𝘣𝘭𝘦 𝘵𝘳𝘶𝘵𝘩.”

It is both unsettling and incredible how a novel set in the 11th century, written in 1938, reads like a warning written specifically for our generation.

Amin Maalouf: Samarkand

November 20, 2021

It is almost impossible to tell a story of Omar Khayyam without involving his contemporaries: Hassan-i Sabbah, founder of the Order of Assassins, and Nizam Al-Mulk, Persian history’s most famous vizier — the very first victim of the Assassins. Their destinies and of Persia’s are so entwined that it would also be impossible to discuss Persian history without touching on this legendary trio. Amin Maalouf takes these characters and animates history with his seamless blending of fact and imagination, making Samarkand an entertaining read for any Persophile.

Chapter one wrests the reader from the present to vibrant 11th century Samarkand where a qadi tells Omar Khayyam, after the latter is nabbed in the marketplace and recognized as a failasuf (a philosopher or a person associated with the sciences widely considered profane at such a time and place), “The Almighty has granted you the most valuable things that a son of Adam can have — intelligence, eloquence, health, beauty, the desire for knowledge and a lust for life… I hope that He has not deprived you of the wisdom of silence, without which all of the foregoing can neither be appreciated nor preserved.”

The wise judge proceeds to present the young Omar a blank book wherein he could write his thoughts instead of speaking them out loud to a populace unprepared for his unconventional views. The pages would then be filled and would persevere through time to become what we know as The Rubaiyat.

The Rubaiyat is a collection of ruba’i or quatrains that would establish Khayyam’s name as a poet centuries later in the West, but the work of poetry would ironically make readers oblivious to the complete man — a polymath: mathematician, astronomer, scientist, philosopher, among many other things. Born eleven years after the death of the great Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Khayyam is considered his intellectual successor.

Although Samarkand is mainly about the imagined fate of The Rubaiyat’s original manuscript, in my mind these all took a backseat to a man whose genius was irrespective of the mode of expression. It made me feel wistful when the novel’s timeline left Omar Khayyam and the 11th century. It feels as if something of myself, sitting in a Persian garden while listening to him speak, remained in Samarkand.

“I am old now and need to know that I have a trusty man at my side — because of the manuscript. That is the most precious thing I possess. In order to take on the world, Hassan-i Sabbah has built Alamut (the Assassins’ fortress), whereas I have only constructed this minuscule paper castle, but I choose to believe that it will outlive Alamut.”

It did. It continues to…