Thursday, July 31, 2014

Anahita's Woven Riddle by Meghan Nuttall Sayres

Anahita lives with her family in the village of Hasanabad, Iran. The novel opens in the springtime as Anahita's tribe, the Afshar, are preparing to travel to their summer pastures. Anahita lives with her family in the village of Hasanabad. Anahita's father, Farhad, the Kadkhuda of the Afshar tribe, is insistent that she marry next spring when she comes of age. Farhad (Baba) tells her that the khan is very fond of her and has asked for her hand in marriage. But Anahita is repulsed by this as the khan is older than her own father and his three previous wives have all died.

Anahita does not want to be like her cousin, Shirin who was forced to marry last year at the age of fifteen and who betrayed their dream of marrying a man of their own choosing. Instead, Anahita hopes to apprentice herself to the dyemaster, her granduncle and to marry a man she loves.

Anahita and her Baba like to challenge each other with riddles and as she thinks about who she would like to marry, Anahita decides that she will "only marry a man who has wit and likes riddles." Her grandmother, Maman Borzog, asks how she will discern the wit of her suitors. Anahita tells her father that she will weave a riddle into her wedding qali- a wedding carpet for her dowry and the man who solves the riddle will be the one she marries.

Anahita's Baba is resistant to this idea because he feels they need to be in the khan's favour as he speaks for their tribe in the local government in Mashhad.  But undeterred and determined to not fall into a situation like that of Shirin, Anahita approaches their mullah and tells him what she intends to do. After pondering this, he eventually gives his permission, much to the surprise of Anahita's Baba and mother.

Gradually the narrative weaves in four potential suitors; Reza who is a school teacher in Mashhad, Arash who is a Qajar prince and the new governor of Marv, Dariyoush who works for Anahita's family and is a childhood friend of Anahita and finally, the elderly khan.

When Anahita's tribe begins their migration to the summer pastures, they stop in Mashhad. It is at a merchant's stall that Arash and Anahita have their first chance meeting. When Anahita is called away by her mother, Arash whose mother is from the Yomut tribe, wishes he had learned Anahita's tribe and her home. They have a second chance meeting when Anahita is returning to Hasanabad with her family in the autumn. Anahita and Arash have a chance to talk briefly. Arash gives Anahita a book of verse by the poet, Rumi. Anahita is attracted to this man's gentleness and kind ways and she discovers that he is both educated and a gentleman. When they are interrupted by Dariyoush, upon arriving back in Marv, Arash becomes determined to learn where Anahita lives. At a meeting of all the kadkhudas from northeastern Iran, Arash tasks them to help locate a weaver known as Anahita, who is part of the Ashfar tribe.They succeed and this leads to a third meeting, not by chance, in Hasanabad later in the year.

During the summer, the khan, who continues to fancy that Anahita will be his wife, arrives at the Afshar summer camp. He brings with him Reza, a teacher from Mashhad to tutor Anahita. Reza who has blue eyes and red highlights in his hair is to tutor Anahita in reading and writing. However, when Farhad turns down the khan's offer of marriage for his daughter, Reza's services as a tutor are no longer needed. But Reza, who is captivated by Anahita, volunteers for  the Rural Madrasa Servanthood and becomes the teacher at the new school in Hasanabad with the hope of meeting Anahita.

In the autumn, with everyone back from the summer pastures, Dariyoush decides to enlist for the northern brigade which is fighting the incursion by the Russians. Dariyoush has no intention of entering the riddle contest, although he is obviously in love with Anahita. He never quite manages to tell Anahita of his love for her before he enlists in the northern brigade to fight off the Russians.

Through the autumn, Anahita begins to dye the wool for her qali, working with the dyemaster to learn his trade.  In December, Anahita begins weaving her wedding carpet in an alcove just off the main room of their home. Finally, in the spring at the beginning of the Iranian New Year, Nooruz, all are brought together to solve the riddle Anahita has woven into her wedding carpet.

Sayres has crafted a truly exquisite historical fiction novel of Iran in the late 1800's. Anahita's Woven Riddle succeeds on two levels; first as a fascinating story and secondly as great piece of historical fiction.  Anahita's Woven Riddle has at its core, a timeless story, that of a strong, intelligent heroine, who pushes against the cultural restrictions of her tribe while struggling to respect the basic traditions of her people. Anahita knows she cannot refuse to marry but she insists that she be allowed to chose the man she will wed through the means of a riddle woven into her wedding carpet. There emerge four potential suitors, a khan, a prince, a boy from Anahita's village and a teacher from another town. In contrast to the repulsion Anahita feels towards the self-serving and much older khan, is the romantic Arash, a Qajar prince. From the beginning, he and Anahita appear to be yar, kindred spirits. But separated by distance and only brief meetings, how can Arash ever hope to win this contest?

This lovely storyline is set against the backdrop of tribal Iran in the 1880's, heralding a time of change. Nomadic tribes are being forced to settle and give up their seasonal migrations. Not only that but the tribes are facing the constant threat of attack by the Russians in the north. Most of the tribal people are illiterate, but that too is changing with the coming of schools to the winter villages. Even the tribal rug weavers are facing change with the introduction of chemical dyes rather than natural dyes from flowers and insects that have always been in use.

Sayres succeeds brilliantly in constructing authentic characters true to their era and culture. Anahita is imagined as a young girl, whose intelligent questioning of the world around her wonders why women can't use the deep part of the bath house and why women cannot choose their husbands. But despite going against her culture's tradition in marriage, Anahita nevertheless respects most other traditions. She wears the chador in public, weaves her wedding carpet using natural dyes, and relishes in the rich traditions of her culture, all of which, Sayres vividly portrays in this novel. Sayres manages to convey the warm, close-knit tribal life, with a cast of varied characters; Fatima and Ali, Dariyoush, Shirin and granduncle as well as Baba and Mojdeh.

Anahita grows up in the novel, gradually transitioning from a willful girl into a woman concerned about how her actions affect others. At first unwilling to marry, Anahita offers a compromise - that she will marry but to a man she chooses. She says she is prepared to live with whatever the consequences of her actions are, but she doesn't realize what they might be. When she begins to realize the impact her refusal of the khan has on her tribe, she is willing to sacrifice her choice for the sake of her father and her people. However, the khan, by his threats and bad behaviour has revealed to Farhad and Anahita's family, his true nature.

Layered underneath all of this is the lovely, innocent romance which simmers between Arash and Anahita and the unspoken but strong bond between Anahita and Dariyoush.

Sayres has taken great care to provide her readers with a list of all the chapters, a cast of characters in order of appearance and a list of place names at the front of the novel, while the back contains a Glossary and a detailed Author's Note on Iran, nomads, weaving and Sufi poems.

For fans of historical fiction, I cannot recommend Anahita's Woven Riddle enough. This is a beautiful novel, well written, filled with historical detail and realistic characters. The author who is a weaver and has travelled to Turkey and Iran knows her subject well and her love for weaving, the culture of Iran and Sufi poetry are infused through this entire novel. Sayres has written a sequel to this novel, Night Letter, which I hope to review in the future.

To give readers an idea of the beautiful craftmanship of the Afshar weavers, check out this example of an antique Afshar tribal bag from Quadrifoglio Gallery.

Book Details:
Anahita's Woven Riddle by Meghan Nuttall Sayres
New York: Amulet Books    2006
352 pp.

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