Morteza Baharloo

"The Quince Seed Potion"

(Reviewed by Jana L. Perskie NOV 7, 2004)

The Bibi had chosen to ignore her husband's multiple adulteries. She sublimated her passion by indulging her obsession with medicinal remedies. Sarveali first heard of the Bibi's new love from Yazgulu. "The Bibi told me today that she loves to treat the sick. The girl who came here last week had something called anthrax. The Bibi put this medicine on her made of yellow thorn and goat yogurt." The following night, Yazgulu asked Sarveali, "Did you see the rug weaver's daughter wheezing all the time? The Bibi told me she had asthma and gave her some medicine made from quince seeds. I helped her mix it together. The Bibi told me that quince seed medicine will cure everything."

The Quince Seed Potion

There's no doubt about it,  Sarveali Jokar was born at the very bottom of the human food chain and did not progress much further up the ladder during his lifetime. The Quince Seed Potion, and Sarveali's life, are set against the turbulent years of 20th century Iran, from 1928 to 1981. Our protagonist's life mirrors his country's changes and upheavals, from a feudal society to a monarchy and modernization with Reza Shah, and his son Mohammed Reza Shah, who founded the Pahlavi dynasty. The Pahlavis, autocratic nationalists, were determined to weaken the tribal khans while bringing their country into the 20th century, attempting to model Iran along Western lines. Increasing civil unrest led to the 1979 revolution, which brought about the downfall of the Shah, "King of Kings, Light of the World,' and birthed an Islamic theocracy.

In the village of Madavan, "outside the township of Kamab, Iran, three hundred kilometers from the Fars provincial capital of Shiraz, on the tenth day of Teer, July 2, 1928," Sarveali's mother died giving her only child life. The bizarre manner of his birth was inauspicious. He was left alone to be brought up by his father, Zofali, the Blind Licker. Zolfali was called so because, although unsighted, he possessed the unusual talent of ejecting his tongue and reaching it up to lick his own forehead. Zofali died when Sarveali was two-years-old, leaving him with his maternal aunt and uncle where he was trained as a shepherd. Barat-Ali, Zolfali's brother and Sarveali's self-appointed guardian, took possession of the boy when he turned six, and also took the goats and sheep the child inherited. Grasping, greedy Barat-Ali mistreated his charge, sodomized him and delivered him into indentured servitude in less than a year's time. From this moment, Sarveali dedicates his life to serving the Shirlu khans, an extremely wealthy family of landowners and farmers. He is appointed the servant of Teimor Khan, a beautiful, spoiled boy his own age, who he immediately adores. Although treated like the lowliest of slaves, Sarveali experiences a better life than he has ever known. He has enough food to fill his stomach, a warm bed and a change of clothes, an occasional friend and a young master to adore. 

The reader is told the history of modern Iran through episodes in Serveali's life. With the Shah's reforms and land distribution, the khans are eventually transformed from rich, powerful rulers to poor exiles. Members of the Shirlu family are assassinated. During these crucial events in the family's and the nation's history, Sarveali experiences his own major adventures and changes. Through Barat-Ali's machinations, he is forced into marriage with disastrous results. He discovers the delights and downside of opium addiction and spends some time in jail. He also experiences what he believes to be a lifelong physical malady. He thinks he can be cured by a traditional quince seed potion passed on to him by the beloved Bibi Golnar Khanom, the Great Khan's wife. Through everything he remains subservient, servile and extremely loyal to the Shirlus, who are the only family he has every known. 

I was extremely eager to read The Quince Seed Potion having lived in Iran for a few years a long time ago and maintained my interest in the country, the Iranian people and their wonderful culture. There is much that I like about the novel, its characters, episodic adventures and the incorporation of the historical into the storyline. On the other hand the prose is uneven; it doesn't flow. There is a raunchy quality, a bawdiness, to the narrative which I would have enjoyed more, but the language in these spicier sections seems to be translated literally from the Farsi into English, and is more awkward than effective. Ultimately, I don't believe that Sarveali's life of poverty and servitude is meaningless or tragic. There are certainly many worthwhile moments  that he experiences. A far greater tragedy would be not to have lived at all. A philosophical question the reader can mull over after completing this interesting and very different novel of modern Persia.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews


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About the Author:

Morteza BaharlooMorteza Baharloo was born in the Fars province in Darab, in southern Iran in 1961. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1978, and now lives in Houston. He is chairman and co-founder of Healix, Ltd., a Texas-based international provider of pharmaceutical and health-care services. He returns periodically to Iran, where he is restoring rural estates built by his grandfather and great uncles in the 1920s.

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