Desert Isle Keeper
The Angel with 100 Wings
The Angel With One Hundred Wings is set in Baghdad during the ninth century, during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid. On the cover, the publisher has added the subtitle “A Tale From The Arabian Nights.” Confession time: I have never read The Arabian Nights, and know next to nothing about the history of Iraq. My history classes focused almost entirely upon European cultures, and portrayed mighty Islamic empires as foreign threats. When I opened this book, I was a blank slate. The culture described in it is as foreign to me as though it were entirely an invention of the author’s.
My ignorance is regrettable, but I don’t think that it mitigated my enjoyment of The Angel With One Hundred Wings. It is a lovely book, and easily accessible to the uninitiated.
The story takes place in a wealthy new city called The City of Peace (Baghdad), ruled over by a generous but capricious absolute monarch, the Sultan Harun. Our first-person narrator is an old man named Abulhassan. He is a rich and highly-respected pharmacist and alchemist. He is also renowned for his wisdom and piety. The young men of the city all gather around Abulhassan to learn from him, and in this way he has gained the intimate friendship of a powerful young noble, the prince of conquered Persia. (The prince’s name is also Abulhassan, and so for clarity’s sake I will refer to him as “the prince.”) Not only that, but Abulhassan is the sultan’s truest friend; no one but Abulhassan has ever dared to beat Harun at chess.
Soon we realize that Abulhassan is more than a bit of a fraud. He dyes his beard white in order to capitalize on the respect due to the elderly. He may preach piety to the young men who gather around, but he has no faith in God or in the teachings of the Prophet. He counsels these boys that they should marry only once, according to their parents’ will; but he is bitterly and silently estranged from his own wife, Fatima, and he scarcely knows his own children. Albulhassan is proud, ambitious, and venal; in his heart, he knows that he is a coward.
It so happens that the sultan, Harun, is passionately in love with his concubine, Shemselnehar, who is only fifteen. The prince of Persia falls in love with the beautiful, vulnerable, and mysterious Shemselnehar, drawing Abulhassan into a tangle of intrigue and betrayal that scarcely suits him. As much as Abulhassan likes the prince and wishes for him and Shemselnehar to be happy, he loves and respects Harun as well. Will he help the prince and Shemselnehar, or will he betray them to the jealous and powerful sultan?
So there are several intertwined stories here. At the center is Shemselnehar’s illegal and frighteningly dangerous affair with the prince. There is also the story of how and why Abulhassan abets this romance, rather than divulging it to Harun. Then there is Harun’s love for Shemselnehar, which starts out as destructive and possessive, and which we gradually see becoming greater and more generous. Finally, there is Abulhassan’s love for his wife, Fatima, how he comes to realize that he is at fault for the long silence between them, and how he somehow manages to bridge it.
Two characters make all this come alive in an intimate and immediate fashion. The first is Shemselnehar. Initially, she is a stereotypical vision of the exotic East: veiled, perfumed, sensual, unknowable; her true personality hidden behind layers of courtesy and fabric. Over time we learn enough about her to realize that she is the true heroine of this novel. She is a very young girl in a painful position. The daughter of a simple grain merchant, she was snatched from her family and into the sultan’s harem; she was made his concubine before she had completed puberty. The fact that he truly loves her scarcely lessens the degradation of her life. Abulhassan thinks:
I have sometimes thought that the real reason why the sultan, wise as he is, does not permit his women to go about without eunuchs is not to protect them. Who would dare seduce the sultan’s mistress? With his eunuchs, the sultan is protecting his subjects from rumors that might oblige him, for the sake of imperial honor, to have them banished or killed. But Shemselnehar, his beloved, he shielded only with his subjects’ fear, and she walked through this world as if she had the plague: men and women alike kept their distance. Though she was not yet sixteen years old, even powerful lords approached only with the protection of exquisite formality.
Shemselnehar has suffered rape, isolation, and humiliation, all the while showered with wealth and luxury beyond her wildest dreams. She is an extremely intelligent young woman, but she is not above using her stature for petty games of domination and revenge. She has enormous power; but the one power she will never have is the right to refuse the sultan. It seemed to me that her affair with the prince was not so much about love as it was about her exerting her forbidden right to choose. I found her sympathetic and heroic. The second of the two characters this book really brings to life is Albulhassan himself. As he risks his life to help Shemselnehar and the prince find happiness, he realizes how far from personal happiness he is himself. As he puts his life into terrible danger again and again, he realizes how precious are the things he has lost – the love of his wife and family. He grows to understand that he did not lose these things by putting them in danger, but by letting them slip away through neglect and disrespect.
It’s unusual for the focus of a novel to be so squarely upon an old person. Usually the elderly character is a bit of comic relief, or a plot contrivance: a rather cute, crotchety individual who comments upon the actions of the young couple. In this book, Albulhassan takes center stage, and his limelight is never stolen by the more glamorous prince and Shemselnehar.
I won’t say anything more about this book and its characters, because those who love historical fiction will want to discover its treasures for themselves. The final pages, in which we discover why Albulhassan has written this narrative and for whom, are deeply touching. All in all, this is a satisfying and beautiful book. I give it my highest recommendation.