Grandmother was a privileged northern Tehrani and had always had servants. She would often boast that she'd never cooked a meal in her life. As a middle-class Canadian immigrant, I considered the fact that she had a eunuch exotic, an icky marker of her social background. Her father worked for the Qajar Shahs (kings) in turn of the 20th century Persia. Things were different then. I left it at that.
Last week I found an article about the Qajar period, and discovered Qajar eunuchs were black slaves. My jaw hit the ground.
Grandmother having had a eunuch was bad enough, but this information made it worse. It put things in a different light. The person she was referring to was forcibly taken from his home and people. Castrated. Made to babysit my grandmother and her siblings and ferry them to school. His whole life expended on some rich brats on the other side of the world.
I remember her telling me "Iranians aren't racist! We are very open towards black people." Well, yes. So long as they are free labour with no future.
I remember she was proud of having a eunuch. It came across in how she talked about him. But somehow his personhood didn't come across until I realized he was black. Vistas of his family's agony and my family's shameful conduct opened up. I have no idea what the man's name was. I think it was Iranian, which is why I didn't realize he was black. She primarily called him 'the eunuch', as owning him marked her aristocratic status. His cultural life and identity were erased in the meantime, even his name becoming Iranian.
I have a visceral reaction arising from histories of Muslim traders of black slaves, legacies of North Africans devastating tribes of the south, narratives of conflict in Sudan of brown-skinned oppressors of black skin. These are terrible histories that I would rather downplay.
But the past cannot be erased. I'm learning a lot as I delve into novel writing. I chose historical fiction to write my grandmother's story. My grandmother lived through two world wars, two invasions, a CIA backed coup, lavish oil years, the Iranian revolution and hostage crisis, and years of Iranian pariah status. Just thinking of the shift from mules to iPhones in her lifetime boggles my mind.
I thought she and the seismic changes she lived through would be my focus. Instead, I've found her life and my relationship to it changing. I am politically rebellious, sensitive to inequalities, and an ethnographer by instinct. Instead of my revealing her life to others, I find I am revealed by it.
I am smug in my belief system. But then it's easy because I don't have to relinquish anything for it. I can have my slave owning grandmother and eat moral righteousness too.
Yet I am hardly in a place to cast stones. Because of my wealthy family, I was able to immigrate and have a Canadian passport. I can now travel visa-free or get a visa on arrival in 171 countries and territories; Afghan passport holders do so in only 24. The world order is rigged for the rich to get richer, and I am now on the winning side, with all the wealth it has siphoned out of Dutch, Portuguese, British, French, and Spanish (and Muslim) trade in African slaves, European colonial subjugations of Asia and the Carribean, and Spain's looting and devastation of South America.
These histories exist, even if they make us want to turn away. Canada's wealth is predicated on the devastation of those who were here before (yay, 150th?). Even shopping is a zero-sum game: somebody, somewhere, has paid or will pay for the cheap goods I buy.
I am in no place to cast stones. I live blithely on the happy side of normalized inequalities, just as my Qajar aristocrat grandmother did. And I'm only here because she came from a class that could afford to send its descendants abroad.
So I'll temper my scathing morality lectures several notches, as it's clear, so to speak, that my own house is made of glass. And even though 'the eunuch' in my historical novel was supposed to be fair-skinned and pudgy, I am going to put him back as he was: dark-skinned, foreign, a person in his own right.
And quietly, in my heart, I offer thanks and an apology to this man whose own family history, to my deep regret, may well have ended through its intersection with mine.