Written by Raffi in 1874
Translated and Annotated by
Beyon Miloyan and Kimberley McFarlane
The year was 18__ and the summer heat was sweltering in the city of Tehran. A palace belonging to a prince was among those fortunate dwellings that were protected from the flames of the sun. Through the prince’s veins ran the blood of the well-known Nader-Shah dynasty.
The palace was divided into two parts: an outer home and an inner home. The outer home contained the living quarters, guesthouse, and dwellings of the prince’s servants; beneath this, in the darkness of an underground dungeon, was a prison. The inner home contained a harem that was separated into various living quarters, each of which housed a separate lady with her own maid and young male servant. The courtyards adjoining the living quarters were heavenly. They were landscaped with evergreen trees, flowers, and beautiful rose gardens. There, with mild, virginal smiles, little pools glistened with silver water, which flowed through marble fountains that spouted pearly drops toward the sky. The women bathed joyfully in the pools, while the prince looked down upon the magical scene from the height of his glory, sitting alone in his room as he smoked a hookah in front of an open window.
No stranger was bold enough to enter this field of paradise; the prince guarded his palace doors with a fiery sword.
It was noon.
A deep, sacred silence overcame the harem. It was as if the whole of nature had become weak and drowsy in the midday heat, and had entered a great slumber. Only a single soul was awake. In a luxurious room lay a petite lady, known in the harem as Zeynep Khanum1. Half-covered with a shawl, she rested her beautiful head on a pillow that was ornamented with pearls. Her thick tresses, black as a swallow’s wings, were spread over her half-naked breasts. The golden necklace that adorned her beautiful neck radiated with colorful gems. In her state of spiritual unrest, her feminine hands held the hose of a hookah, and she occasionally touched her mouth to its silver tip, exhaling the fragrant smoke in tiny rings from her pink lips.
Her Ethiopian maid sat near her pillow, with a fan made of peacock’s feathers, cooling her face and telling her captivating fairytales. The maid continued telling stories for a long time, but her mistress could not fall asleep. Noticing this, she ended her tales.
“May the angels of Jannah2 sweeten your sleep and dreams, and scatter roses of rest upon your bed.”
“Oh, Marjan3!” Zeynep exclaimed in a sorrowful voice, “This bed is as uncomfortable as the thorns of an African desert. I can never get any rest…”
Marjan looked sympathetically at her lady and said, “Let Marjan be your oblation. Only madmen roam the desert.”
A mysterious smile played on Zeynep’s pale face, and she propped her head up from the pillow with her hand. “You are very clever, Marjan.”
“Let Marjan take your pain away,” the maid replied, as she continued fanning. “How long have I seen my lady suffering from discomfort? You do not get enough sleep.”
Zeynep turned her sad eyes toward the maid. “Oh, how sweet is the sleep of death, Marjan; in the depths of the cemetery rests all bitterness. But the graveyard, too, saves me one last solace.”
Something resembling a horrified look flashed in Marjan’s large eyes. She kissed her lady’s feet and said, “Let the master of the expatriates, Imam-Musa4, comfort your spirit. What cause does my lady have to wear her heart away with such pains? The Prince fancies you the most and bestows gold, silver, and precious stones upon you.”
“Ah! ‘What good is a golden basin, when I must spit blood into it?'” Zeynep replied, reciting a Persian proverb. “Tell me the truth, Marjan. Do you love your lady, and are you loyal to her?”
“What a question, my lady,” the maid responded. “Marjan is the dust beneath your feet, and your slave. How could she not love you or remain faithful to you? Let me be deprived of the light of Muhammad if I look upon you crookedly!”
“I believe you completely,” the lady said. “Marjan, be truthful now. Have you ever been in love?”
“How shall I bury my faults, Madam? Yes, I have been in love,” the maid answered innocently.
“Tell me, how did it happen?”
The maid began to explain.
“In our tribe there was a young man called Satta, who had a son named Bilal. His face was black and shiny, like ebony. His eyes were fiery. His teeth were white, like new pearls out of the Red Sea. His forehead was painted in various colors, like the back of a turtle. Bilal was one of the bravest men of our tribe. His heart was fiercer than a Saharan lion. He was swifter than an ostrich. The snake was neither as flexible nor as evasive as he. Bilal was a brave hunter. His arrows always hit their target. His spear was frightening.
“Many times, as I planted vegetables on the edge of the stream, Bilal would meet me. Once, he tied a necklace of marine shells and colorful stones around my neck, which he collected from the desert with his own hands. He anointed my body with oil, looked at me, kissed me, and said, ‘You are as beautiful as the horns of an Abyssinian Kudu5.’ But my happiness with the handsome Bilal did not last long.
“Deep in the African desert, a large group of wild savages attacked our tribe. They took our tribe’s little children and killed many people. Bilal ran in front of an enemy spear that was headed toward me and saved my life. As he closed his eyes, he spoke his final words: ‘I was unable to save you.’
“I was captured with other girls and boys from our tribe, and we were sold to Indian merchants who took us to Bombay. From there I was brought to Persia by a bandit. To this day, I see Bilal in my dreams. He strolls along the edges of the Abyssinian streams and collects conches with which to ornament my neck.”
The Ethiopian maid finished her story and a few large tears fell down her black cheeks from her lively eyes.
“Your sad story, Marjan,” Zeynep cut her off, “has brought to my mind another such tale that I once heard from my grandmother. It is very much like what you said. Listen, Marjan, and I will tell you about it.”
The maid’s full lips quivered with an innocent laugh, and she kissed her lady’s feet. “How good you are, my lady, that you would like to tell a tale to your slave.”
“Yes, I will tell you, because I am unable to sleep.”
- Zeynep is pronounced Zey-nep, where the zey is pronounced as in “hey.” This is a feminine Turkish given name. Khanum is a female title that corresponds to the male title Khan. Where Khan is an aristocratic title for sovereigns or military leaders, Khanum is the title reserved for wives of Khans.
- Jannah is the paradise of Islam.
- Marjan is pronounced Mar-jahn, where the second component is pronounced as in the German “autobahn.”
- Imam-Musa is most likely a reference to Musa al-Kadhim, the seventh Imam of Twelver Shia Islam who was renowned for his good nature and tolerance.
- Kudu refers to species of antelopes endemic to Africa.