Author’s Note – Anahita’s Woven Riddle | Meghan Nuttall Sayres

Author’s Note – Anahita’s Woven Riddle


The tradition of weaving wedding carpets as part of a woman’s dowry continues today throughout traditional communities in the Middle East. Yet, since the end of the nineteenth century, tribal rugs such as those Anahita weaves have become scarce. In the marketplaces, commercial rugs made in factories with synthetic dyes and predesigned patterns have largely replaced folk art rugs made with natural dyes. Iran is one of the world’s largest exporters of carpets. Its factory, village, and nomadic weaving enterprises employ more people than the oil industry.

In my story, Anahita, her mother, and her grandmother are shown using an upright loom in their home such as those used in workshops or factories; however, when on migrations, most Iranian nomads weave on horizontal looms, which are better suited for low tent ceilings and maneuverability.

Anahita’s Woven Riddle arose from my daily musings regarding the Afshar tribal rug that is in my living room. I wondered about its many-colored tassels, its bird-and-leaf pattern, and its seven borders. I learned that many carpets woven in the tents and villages of Asia have meanings as well as artistic and practical uses. For thousands of years, and before most people learned to read and write, women wove stories, myths, and symbols into their textiles— some of which had the perceived power to bless or protect life. A visual motif such as the “cloud band” in my rug might have celebrated rain, much needed in a desert village like Anahita’s. Colors such as indigo (blues), cochineal (purples), and madder root (reds) represented happiness and eternal life. The direction in which a weaver spun her threads could invoke good luck. Thanks to the weaver who wove the rooster and tassel talismans on my carpet, my home is protected from the evil eye.

Perhaps the carpets you walk on tell a story.


At one time, the Persian Empire, today known as Iran, spread farther north and east than it does now to include the cities of Marv, Samarkand, and Herat. This story takes place near the end the Qajar Dynasty (1787–1925), during the reign of Nasir alDin Shah in about 1885. At this time, Iran was neighbored in the north by the Russians and in the south by the British, who were protecting their access to India. At the same time, Iranian and Afghan tribes fought for possession of the borderlands. A turbulent era, it made travel unsafe, even for caravans like Anahita’s.

The call for a constitutional parliament—the representative body of government mentioned in my novel—actually formed under a different shah between 1906 and 1911.

The Qajar Dynasty sanctioned European-style schools to educate men, and a missionary school in Tehran in 1890 to educate women. But in the 1880s, when this story takes place, a large sector of the population of Iran was illiterate (as were those in most of the rest of the world, including the United States). As early as 1900 there were schools for girls in the cities. A new Pahlavi Dynasty under Reza Shah brought about a national effort to educate women in Iran in the 1920s. Later, Mohammad Reza Shah provided for women’s suffrage, and a rural teaching corps around the 1940s. Before that time there were Quranic schools, many run by women teachers, in the villages.

Bathhouses in Iran, such as the one described in the novel, were generally not separated into two rooms, one for each gender, but rather segregated by different bathing hours for men and women. For purposes of my plot, I imagined a bathhouse much like one I visited in Turkey, which had different sides for men and women. Community bathhouses were used in Iran until recently. Today many of these beautifully tiled, subterranean spaces have been made into restaurants and teahouses.


Little is written about the culture or traditions of Anahita’s Afshar or Arash’s Yomut tribes, which still migrate today in the Middle East.

The political structure of nomadic life varies among tribes, but the similarities are strong. The smallest political division is a single family, or “tent.” Five or six tents form a “herding unit.”These units make the milking of animals and the setting up and breaking of camp more efficient.

Numerous herding units join during migrations to form a “camp.” Each camp is often led by a kadkhuda, or headman. Kadkhudas are appointed by the khan, the man who directs the whole tribe and represents his people with the government.

Because of its climate and good pastures, the northern Khurasan province of Iran has attracted many nomads and seminomads of neighboring areas for centuries. A small number of Afshars dwell near Mashhad—the market city that Anahita visits on migrations—but many live in southern Iran near the city of Kerman.


Many speakers of Farsi helped me with the language used in this story. Because the Farsi alphabet does not translate exactly into English, spellings of the Farsi words can vary. Any inaccuracies within the text are my own. The Farsi language, often referred to as Persian, is an ancient language. In Iran it predated the use of Arabic, which came with the introduction of Islam and the Muslim holy book, the Quran. Later, Iran was overcome by Ottoman Turks and others. While many tribal people today in Iran speak Turkish dialects, Iranians retain Farsi as their national language.

I would like to acknowledge Shahram Shiva for his explanation of four words that describe friendship in the Persian language: ashena, doost, rafigh, and yar, and how these terms also refer to degrees of closeness and intimacy. I have used these terms in the novel, along with his notion that Rumi “kisses you on the right cheek, then on the left, warms your soul and brings you closer to yourself,” in a conversation between Anahita and Arash.


The poems in this story are primarily the work of Jalaluddin Rumi, a poet of the thirteenth century who wrote volumes of poetry, discourses, and letters. I have taken—and in some cases modified—lines or place names in Rumi’s poems to fit my plot or to use in dialogue for Arash and Maman Bozorg. Please see my acknowledgments for the original translation sources. Rumi was born in Balkh, Afghanistan, then part of the Persian empire. His father was a professor of religion. Fleeing the Mongol armies, his family traveled through Nishapur near Mashhad—the setting of this novel—where they met the great poet Fariduddin Attar, who presented young Rumi with the Book of Mysteries. After traveling to Baghdad, Mecca, and Damascus, Rumi’s family settled in the land of Rum—Roman Anatolia—present-day Konya, Turkey. There, Rumi became the spiritual leader of what would later become the Mevlevi order of dervishes, who invented the ritual turning dance. The Mevlana Museum, a mosque in Konya that marks Rumi’s grave, has been made into a national heritage site. I have visited this sanctuary. Please visit my Web site for images of it:

Rabi’a al-Adawiyya, the woman poet beloved by Maman Borzorg and Anahita, was born in about 717 C.E. and lived in Basra, in what is now Iraq. In this novel I have used the second two stanzas of “O My Lord,” a poem attributed to Rabi’a and translated by Charles Upton. Rabi’a was a freed slave who later in life became widely recognized as a holy woman. She preferred to remain single and spent her time in prayer and receiving others. Her stories and poems were transmitted orally over the centuries before being written down by Sufi writers such as al-Ghazzal and Attar, who hailed from Nishapur, as mentioned in my story.


On December 26, 2003, while I was writing this novel, a devastating earthquake hit southern Iran and the ancient city of Bam, killing more than twenty thousand people and destroying an international heritage site. I decided then that I would donate proceeds from Anahita’s Woven Riddle to help the people of Iran in recovery from the quake. Royalties from the sale of this book will go to development enterprises in Bam that serve women and children. Thank you for your contribution.