Harem, Backstory

I am not certain how long it took Harem to gestate, simmer and bake, before I gathered my courage to take pen to paper.  Perhaps thirty years, perhaps more.  How does one add and subtract to calculate the many years of intense listening, interviewing, gathering information, and the actual years of writing that would result in Harem, a book I dreamed about from childhood?  As unbelievable as it sounds, the first seeds of an idea planted in my head, to holding a published book in my hand, must have taken me forty years.

When I moved to Iran, I only spoke Hebrew.  But when I discovered that I had an invaluable source of knowledge and history right next to me—my grandfather Doctor Habib Levy, a renowned historian and the author of The Comprehensive History of the Jews of Iran—eager to understand his stories, I learned to speak Farsi in less than a year.  Before long, my grandfather, who was a very serious man, and had no time for trivial matter, opened up to this little, curious girl.  He spoke of the Mahaleh, the Jewish Quarter, of being the shah’s dentist, of the shah’s harem and of the intricate politics of court.  Right then and there I decided to write about a harem one day — not a small harem, comprising of three wives, as Reza Shah had, but a harem on a grand scale that would house three-hundred-and-fifty wives, concubines, and guardian eunuchs, as was common in ancient times.

I interviewed my parents, aunts and uncles, who were raised in the Jewish Quarter and who had experienced all types of prejudices against them.  I listened, observed, treasured and horded every tale and every outlandish character, adding my own fantastical edge and colored it with my wild imagination.  I was unaware then that one day, many of these stories and their colorful cast of characters will find home in my novel.

Years later, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 overturned our lives.  To our disbelief, the Shah and his entourage left the country.  The elite, seemingly invincible, Imperial Guards disintegrated after two days of half-hearted fighting.  Iran was no longer safe, especially for Jews.  I packed and left the country with my daughters.  We moved to California.  A difficult year followed in which the prospect of an exciting world of possibilities opening up to me seemed improbable.  But it did happen.  I learned to adjust and settle in my new home.

I went back to school.  I got a bachelor’s degree in literature from UCLA, then a master degree in professional writing from USC, picked up a pen to write, and was told that no one has ever completed college without knowing how to type; so I learned to type.  Then I was told no one could become an author without becoming computer savvy, so I befriended this machine I am still scared of every time it acts strangely and maliciously.  It seems to have a sensor that orders it to behave badly when I am under a deadline.

Once that hurdle was overcome, I drowned myself in research and began to pour on paper the memories, stories, and images in my head.

I learned about eunuchs who are supposed to be the guardians of women in harems, yet end up becoming their lovers, different types of castrations and how it physically and mentally scarred these men.  I learned about the dangerous politics of harems that were rampant with poisons, magic, superstition, and murder,  jealousies and rivalries of 350 women who waited for the shah’s invitation that rarely came.  And the Shah’s harem is where my strong-willed, Jewish protagonist, Rebekah the Bundle Woman, hopes to find happiness for her daughter and free her of the debilitating poverty of the ghetto.

I learned about war strategies of the time, the strengths and weaknesses of renowned warriors such as Tamerlane or Teymour the Lame.  Since my sense of direction is practically nonexistent, I drew a huge plan of the mountains and valley, the position of the shah and the enemy and stuck it on a wall in front of my face, so that I had a constant reference point.

What fascinated me most was the tremendous power some of these women, especially the Bibi Sultan, the Shah’s mother, wielded from behind golden prisons called harems.  In fact, a surprising number of sultanas became so influential that they practically ruled their country, albeit through their sons or husbands.

It is fair to say that among the many lessons I learned in the process of completing my first novel, Harem, the most significant was the reality that the novel is an evolving entity with a will of its own that, despite authorial control, will find ways to break loose now and then and astonish even its creator.  And what a great pleasure this magical journey is!