The book that saw the great Armenian novelist Raffi exiled from Persia.
It was just before the turn of the 19th century in Persia, some years after Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar—the Shah of Iran and founder of the Qajar Dynasty—marched to Tiflis with some 30,000 troops and fought for 3 days against the Georgians at Krtsanisi. On the third day of battle, September 11, 1795, the Three Hundred Aragvians put up a heroic last stand against the Shah’s army, but fell short against a much larger foe. The Persians emerged victorious (for the time being), and the Shah’s army returned home with about 15,000 captives.
About a year and a half later—on Friday night, June 16, 1797—the Shah was sitting in his tent in Shushi, having just captured Karabakh, when two men got into a scuffle nearby. The Shah ordered their execution for disturbing the Peace, but observing Friday as a Holy Day, rescheduled the killing for the following morning. The two men escaped and, joined by a third accomplice, assassinated the Shah in the middle of the night.
Agha Mohammad Khan was succeeded by his 25-year old nephew, Fath-Ali Shah, who was distinguished for his long black beard and for having 165 wives in his royal harem. One of his consorts, referred to in the harem as Gul-Pirhan, was an Armenian from Tiflis1, who bore him four of his 260 children (of which, a minority of 103 survived him)2. It is probably on these two individuals—Fath-Ali Shah and Gul-Pirhan—that the characters of the Prince and Zeynep in Raffi’s 1874 novella, Harem, are based.
Years before writing Harem, Raffi had surreptitiously visited the harem of the mayor of Khoy in northeast Iran3. As the story goes, he was staying at a caravanserai in the area, where he had been mistaken for a doctor and was invited to the harem to treat one of the mayor’s wives who had fallen ill. Knowing nothing about medicine, Raffi accepted the invitation, and the seeds of Harem were planted.
Now, listen closely as we enter the royal harem of the Prince of Persia on a hot summer afternoon in the early 19th century…
The beautiful Zeynep is in her room, resting her head on a lavish pillow ornamented with pearls, her thick black tresses spread over her half-naked breasts, and one hand delicately holding the hose of a hookah, inhaling then exhaling tiny rings of fragrant smoke out of her pink lips. Seductive. Her Ethiopian servant, Marjan, is nearby, cooling her with a peacock-feathered fan, and amusing her with tales. But Zeynep is in too much of a state of disturbance to pay attention, much like her parrot, who sings from its ivory cage:
My lady feeds me almonds and sweets,
She decorates my cage with beautiful treats.
But all happiness I have lost for an age,
When I remember that I am held captive in this little locked cage.
Zeynep eventually confesses her sorrows, under the pretext of recounting an old tale about a young girl named Almast who was taken captive by a Prince, resulting in her separation from her childhood love. For years she knew nothing of the whereabouts of her lover, until one recent night when he found her at the Prince’s lakeside summer house. The lovebirds embraced; however, their reunion was interrupted by Almast’s servants and the young man disappeared. Marjan, immediately comprehending the significance of the story, promises to help her mistress escape and find her lover if Zeynep will give her freedom in exchange.
To our knowledge, this is the first English translation of Harem. As with Raffi’s other works, the novel has a cinematic feel—embedded in the plot are wizards and exorcisms, ghosts and genies, eunuchs and thugs, secret love affairs and sexual competition. Harem even features a character inspired by Hafez, one of the most renowned poets of Persian literature. It should also be noted that we decided to include part two of the book as the epilogue, which, although never completed by Raffi, was published posthumously by his wife, Anna. Twelve years after Harem’s original publication, in a survey of Raffi’s life and literary works,the Constantinople-based Armenian weekly Masis wrote that it is “a first-rate work of literature.”4
But what is perhaps most interesting about Harem are the risks Raffi took to write it. Beyond that covert trip to the harem years earlier, Raffi used Harem as an opportunity to mock contemporary Persian culture, which he, being Persian-born, disfavored to the glorious Persia of the ancient world. Two years after its publication, while Raffi was living in Tabriz, his enemies translated Harem to Persian and took it to the then-governor of the province—Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar, who was none other than the great, great grandson of Fath-Ali Shah, and soon-to-be fifth Shah of the Qajar dynasty of Iran. Raffi left the country in May 1877, as a result of repeated death threats and pressures from his adversaries.
It is nevertheless the trifecta of eros, agape, and philia that beats on through the book, though we are never quite sure whether love will carry the day, and are left, at last, with the feeling that this is a story as old as humanity, and a story that, as yet, has no end.