Later today I will have my review up for Anita Amirrezvani's new book Equal of the Sun. In the mean time though, Anita tells us why she loves to write about eunuchs. Fascinating subject choice!
narrators. As the writing progressed, I faced reality and whittled down the narrators to the three who interested me the most. Eventually, to my surprise , a single character emerged as the most compelling of the bunch: a eunuch named Javaher.
Eunuchs are practically forgotten these days, but once they were administrators, scholars, pages, guards, even soldiers – the human capital of empires. Thousands upon thousands of them served the Byzantine, Iranian, Ottoman, Mughal, and Chinese courts. One estimate put the number of eunuchs in China in 1644 at 100,000.
In the Islamic world, eunuchs were often the only individuals who were freely able to move between the royal men’s and women’s spheres. At these highest levels of society, people of opposite genders were generally limited to social intercourse with their immediate family – mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles.
Outside of this circle, the genders did not mix freely. Royal women covered themselves in front of men to whom they were not related or avoided them altogether; and men were not permitted in the women’s sphere (“harem” comes from an Arabic word that means “forbidden.”). For this and other reasons, eunuchs were necessary servants of the realm. Sometimes they were considered to be a “third sex,” neither male nor female but something altogether different.
My narrator, Javaher, undergoes an unusual journey to becoming a eunuch. He starts his life as a privileged young nobleman, but due to a family catastrophe and a desire to improve his lot, he decides to undergo castration at the age of seventeen. Before that, he experiences life as an ordinary male, including as a sexual one, in sixteenth century Iran. Later, when he is hired to serve the powerful princess Pari, he becomes deeply involved in the politics of the harem and gets to know the royal women in an intimate fashion.
When Javaher discovers that Pari is a woman of fierce intelligence with a fighting spirit, he starts to ponder what exactly makes people male or female. Is it their equipment? Their state of mind? The way they are perceived? Or something else? The more he serves Pari, the more he begins to question his own preconceptions about the characteristics “inherent” in each sex.
certain gender fluidity, one that helps explain their deep bond. “I don’t have royal blood, but we two could have been twins. It was as if we swam in the same fluids in our mother’s womb, so that some of my maleness became hers and some of her femaleness mine. That made us strange in the eyes of the world, which does not care
for in-between things.”
In-between things have much to teach us about the world, but perhaps even more about ourselves. What if we didn’t know who was what? What if, as in Ursula K. Le Guin’s inventive novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, or Virginia Woolf’s playful Orlando, we could morph into either gender as needed? What if we could jettison our baggage about sexual roles and actually see people as people? After all, we are more than the sum of our “parts.”
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