Thursday, March 26, 2009

Shah 'Abbas: The remaking of Iran

I approached the British Museum on a day off with the intention of seeing the Babylon exhibition, which had only a few days left to run. But the main entrance hall was decorated with new flags, depicting an Iranian ruler in a golden outfit, crosslegged and, to me, seemingly outside time: I had not previously heard of Mr Abbas, and I had no idea when in the last 3,000 years he reigned. More fool me.

Tickets to Babylon were unavailable at that time so, flashing my press pass and switch card before the weary ticket seller, and pleasingly only being required to use the former, I entered the world of Shah 'Abbas.

The opening display quickly located him historically: ashamed, I realised he ruled at the same time as Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England, two monarchs whom I have perhaps studied more extensively than any others, yet I had not even heard of Shah Abbas (who, scholars believe, appears in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night as Sophy. Knowledgeable man, that William). Also with bottoms firmly plonked on the world's thrones at that time were Emperor Akbar of India and Wanli, emperor of China.

The exhibition is one of oxymorons, at least to the modern eye: of Iranian dandies and Christian slaves forcibly converted to Islam, known as ghulams - we are more accustomed to hearing of Christians as the enslavers and Amnesty campaigns against intolerance of homosexuality in the Muslim world (although these dandies were not necessarily gay in a sexual sense, just in the sense of oversized ugly hats).

In Shah Abbas's time, Isfahan was the Iranian capital. The leader, of the Safavid dynasty, was ruling at a time when many of the roads between east and west began to cross - in warfare, with Shah Abbas embracing the European development of firearms, in diplomacy, with a letter in Na sat 'liq, or hanging, script, from the Shah to Charles I on display. There's no mention of a reply - perhaps the king had other things on his mind; in trade - one section of the exhibition reveals a variety of porcelain objects received by Shah Abbas from his predecessors and from visiting ambassadors, and bequeathed to a shrine - a 14th century porcelain serving dish with a phoenix decoration being one particularly striking example. The dish symbolised the economic relationship between Iran and China - Iran sold cobalt to China but lacked the clay to make the
dishes themselves, so cobalt became prized in Chin and the finished article became an object of desire in Iran.

A portrait of Teresa Shirley, dated 1628 and by an unknown artist, dominates one display. She stands alongside her partner and fellow traveller to the lands of Shah Abbas. At first glance, it is reminiscent of so many stately Elizabethan pictures of noble ladies, the bejewelled outfit, the serene white skin, but in her hand she clasps a gun - this is no ordinary Elizabethan lady, and her image contains a portent of how we engage with Iran in the modern era.

There are many glimpses of into the life of rich Iranians in the late 16th century - luxurious carpets, a lamp stand - likely a wedding present, as the inscription reads: 'The instant when you throw the veil from your moon-like face will be the sunrise of our happiness'. Religion was, of course, paramount. Shah 'Abbas's devotion is apparent from the 965km pilgrimage he made on foot to the shrine of Imam Riza, where he performed menial tasks - I can't recall a European monarch, despite many examples of piety, making such a humble gesture. The exhibition ends with a video display of the architectural legacy of Shah Abbas, the mindboggling circles of geometric shapes, interspersed with the occasional bird, in the ceilings of mosques, the Romanesque exactitude of shrines, perfectly ordered in both design and decoration, utterly cool
repelling the heat of a Persian sun.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Literary landmarks

I wrote this as a submission to Mslexia magazine three or four years ago. They rejected it (and the older and wiser me can see why!!) but what are blogs for if not posting crap that people won't pay to read. Ahem.

The Tragedy of Mariam, Faire Queen of Jewry by Lady Elizabeth Cary

SALOME: Why should such privilege to man be given?

Or given to them, why barred from women then?

Are men than we in greater grace with Heaven?

Or cannot women hate as well as men?

I’ll be the custom-breaker: and begin

To show my sex the way to freedom’s door (Act 1.4)

SALOME: Though I be first that to this course do bend,

I shall not be the last, full well I know…

I mean not to be led by precedent,

My will shall be to me instead of Law. (Act 1.6)

A Jacobean closet drama set in 35 BC might not be your usual choice of bedtime reading but The Tragedy of Mariam, Faire Queen of Jewry is not just any old tragedy: it was the first play written by an English woman ever to be published. Unlike the male heavy weights of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama – Shakespeare, Marlowe, Webster, Middleton - Lady Elizabeth Cary’s play, which was published in 1613, about a decade after she wrote it, rarely makes it on to degree courses, let alone A-level or GCSE syllabuses. Mariam has mainly appealed, unsurprisingly, to feminist critics but this seldom-performed play deserves a much wider audience.

Cary had a fascinating life, so fascinating, in fact, that one of her daughters wrote a posthumous biography of her entitled The Lady Falkland: Her Life. She was born into a noble family and by the age of 19 she was married to one of King James I’s wealthy courtiers, Sir Henry Cary, Viscount Falkland. Elizabeth was precocious, even as a child, and learnt to read Latin, Spanish, French and Hebrew. Although she was renowned among her contemporaries for her impressive capabilities as a translator, it is her dramatic account of the life of Mariam, wife of Herod the Great, upon which her reputation rests.

Mariam tells the story of the eponymous heroine’s relationship with her tyrannical husband who murdered Mariam’s grandfather and brother before marrying her to secure his right to the throne. In the first act Herod is missing, presumed dead, and we see Mariam torn between the grief that is required of her as a bereaved wife and the hatred she feels for Herod, who has decreed that in the event of his death, she should also be killed.

When Herod returns in the fourth act, Mariam ‘with solemn vows forswears his bed’, because of his cruelty towards her. Herod’s sister, Salome, starts rumours that Mariam has been unfaithful and Herod finds it easy to believe in Mariam’s infidelity, as by withdrawing sexual favours, she has already asserted the independence of her mind and body from him. Mariam is then condemned to death as an adulterer but, ironically, it is Salome who has been having an affair, and who has vowed to divorce her husband, Constabarus, in order to be with her lover Silleus (see excerpts).

In many ways Salome is the true heroine of this play. When described by Mariam in Act One as a ‘mongrel: issu’d from rejected race’, Salome retorts that both women were ‘born of Adam, both were made of earth’. And Salome remains the more engaging character; Mariam accepts her duty as Herod’s wife: it is only because of his cruelty towards her other male relations, who also commanded her loyalty, that she is torn between love and hatred for him. But Salome, shockingly for the age, questions her duty to any man.

Cary’s play has often been seen as a discourse on marriage in the early modern period, by critics who have taken Cary’s own troubled marriage as their starting point. She had 11 children by Sir Henry but when a rumour circulated at court that Lady Elizabeth was planning to convert to Catholicism (a forbidden religion in paranoid post-Guy Fawkes England) Sir Henry seized their children and cut her off from all financial support. It took the intervention of Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I, to enact a reconciliation between the two. Relations between Cary and her husband remained strained until 1633, when Henry lay on his deathbed and Elizabeth rushed to his side.

Part of what makes Mariam so interesting is that it gives us a female perspective on a wife’s obligation to be silent, obedient and chaste, to contrast with contemporary works by male playwrights, such as The Duchess of Malfi and The Taming of the Shrew. Through Mariam and Salome’s soliloquies, Cary vocalises views on marriage that were radical at the time, and remained so for over 200 years.

The fight for equal marriage rights was largely won in the 1880s when two parliamentary acts gave married women rights to their property and their children. The subject matter of Cary’s play has therefore been addressed, but sadly the phenomenon of published women being lonely figures within a male dominated literary landscape has not.

Lost Voices from the same era

Aphra Behn (1640-89) is probably the most famous near-contemporary writer to Elizabeth Cary, and her Oroonoko, about an enslaved prince, is definitely worth reading. However, another female dramatist, Margaret Cavendish, was writing at the same time. Although she is probably best known for her plays, The Unnatural Tragedy and Youth’s Glory and Death’s Banquet, her importance as a political writer is increasingly being recognised. In Philosophical and Physical Opinions (1655) Cavendish wrote on the plight of women: “We are kept like birds in cages to hop up and down in our houses, not suffered to fly abroad … we are shut out of all power and authority.”