A bit about the life of Shirin bint Asad

If I kept my eyes closed, blocked out the fetid smells, and let my mind wonder I could hear the early morning melodies of Bamshad.  They drifted out from the palace terrace and I could just hear them as I was starting my day. It is one of my earliest memories from child hood. I had not thought of him or music for a long time. Life takes over and you have no time for memories, all your energy is focused on survival, on being better than the enemy.

Maybe it was the pain. Maybe it was the medicines given to me, but now it seemed that music was all I could find to focus my mind on. Bamshad’s early morning songs, and Nakisa’s harp singing in the afternoon heat.   That was where my mind drifted to whenever the pain let up, whenever they gave me the sticky white drink that smelled of green and alcohol.   Even though I was never accomplished as a musician, I could decipher Barbad’s somewhat complex system of musical notation.  I knew the seven “Royal Modes (xosrovani), the 30 derivative modes (Kahn), and I even knew all 360 dastan, his lovely melodies.

My education had been better than most girls.  I attended school far longer than most, and I the advantage of my family’s private instructors throughout my childhood.  Despite this I was not a very good musician and eventually gave up my musical studies altogether.  It did, however, leave me with a strong appreciation of those who were accomplished, and now through my pain these childhood memories seemed to be all that could soothe me.  Here I was, in the city of Gondi-Shapur at the bimarestan. I was in pain and hardly able to move any part of my body.  It seemed my mind was all I had left.  How did I end up back here?  Whenever my mind traveled back to the horses and lances and swords, it soon went blank, and then a restless sleep took over.  But not now, now the pain had subsided.  My closest sister, eight years older than I, was with me.  She fed me some broth, a smelly concoction that had some of the pain relieving medicine in it, but also the herbs and vegetables that my mother would always give us children when we were ill.  As she replaced the cool cloth on my head, and slowly drew another over my arms, I was able to slide into the music again.  To slid into a peaceful oblivion of sleep.  I remember thinking “is this what dying is like?”  It’s not so bad.

Although I was a good student, especially in the areas that centered around numbers, I had no desire to join my mother and sisters and brother in the import/export business that my mother and older siblings worked so hard to manage after the death of my father.  My oldest sister, Saba, would tease me, she reminded me of the love I had for the benefits of the business.  As the youngest, by 8 years, I was vain and a bit spoiled (maybe more than a bit) and I had my pick of the beautiful silk and brocades we acquired from Samarkand and further east.  I particularly loved blue and gold fabrics.  My love of finery was freely indulged by my mother and sisters.  Only my brother would grumble – and I think that was all for show.

Now things were not so easy. It was not that my family had fallen on hard times, but my own decision to break away from the family business.  I loved my family, I loved living in Isfahan, but I felt lost.   I was expected to slip into the role of youngest daughter and work in the warehouses with inventory and record keeping.  That is why I was given such a good education, for a girl.   There were only a handful of girls going to Academy of Gondishapur; mostly they were studying the writings of Zoraster, and basic business classes, to run a household.   I was privileged to take more “academic” classes.  I learned astronomy and physics and mathematics.  I especially loved geometry.  Only one other girl, Yupik, was taking academic classes. She was finishing soon with an education that made her an expert in the laws of our region.

Much as I loved school, being stuck in the back shadows of the business was not appealing.  My older sisters met with the customers, serving them tea in the fine front sales rooms of the house.   Bargaining over prices and selecting merchandise, determinations travel routs (to avoid highwaymen, wearing parties and bad weather).  They even accompanied many of the shipments themselves.  Not so me.  I lived in the background – in the warehouses.   Probably it was because I was too plain to meet customers.  I was too slow to do the bargaining.  Deep down I knew it was not these reasons, for I was neither plain nor slow, but a little girl’s mind will think these things anyway, when they have too much time on their hands, as I sometimes did.  I resented the loneliness of the warehouse, and I listened raptly at meal times as my sisters would tell of their day in the store front, or what had occurred on the latest caravan.  I did not understand that it was because I was such a young girl compared to them.  The oldest of us all, my brother, was more like a father to me.  He was married and had two children of his own already.  He and Mother ran the business; they made all the real decisions, deciding from whom to purchase the goods we needed, and to whom we needed to sell the bulk of our merchandise.  They hired the caravan drivers and the guards to keep them safe (or from stealing).  It was this part of the business that made the real money for our family.  The store front in Isfahan was where we showed the merchandise to the public, made local sales (at least my sisters did!) and where my mother met over tea to work with her magic on the Mongolians and even Europeans at times.

There is much to be thankful for when you have a large prosperous, close family, and much to dislike.  With 7 older sisters I would be destine to stay the shadows for a very long time.

Stay tuned……..  more to come

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