Eighty years ago, a Jewish businessman from Baghdad wooed and married a Persian lady of good family in Teheran, taking her to live in Kampala, Uganda in what would become the first in a series of globetrotting moves that eventually scattered their descendants as far as Canada, South Africa and the US, passing by Germany, England, France and New Zealand for good measure.
That Persian lady was my great-grandmother and her husband, the enterprising Baghdadi businessman, my great-grandfather. She went on to have six children, to live in Uganda, the Canary Islands and finally Canada, and to become the beloved matriarch of a family that still somehow manages to maintain contact over four continents. He is buried in Uganda and remembered to this day by the community he lived in for 30 years.
My great-grandmother’s name was Samiheh, an Iranian version of the Arabic, Samiha. She was proud of the name, and of the Siyyid ancestor somewhere in the family background – a pinch of unverifiable lore, to go with her magnificent cooking. We called her Mamajan, of course, meaning “dear mother”. She was a rock of faith, a pivot of news, views and salty truths, and a queen in every sense of the word for us. With such a matriarch in the family, then, it was little wonder that I grew up, a baby playing at her feet, with the firm conviction that there was no greater accomplishment on this earth than to be a mother. For a long time I pitied the poor, weak boy-creatures who could never aspire to such heights.
Later on, when I began developing the invented language spoken by some of the inhabitants of the World Tree, the Nurians, I chose Persian and Arabic words as templates. And although I did not base the character, Samiha, directly on my great-grandmother, I did borrow her name, her strength of mind and a certain aroma of spicy aristocracy, a pinch of queenliness. For true royalty is above all an outlook, the certainty that one is fulfilling the highest of destinies, even if that destiny involves apparent suffering or humiliation.
‘Samiha’s Song’ is in part about strong women and how they often pay dearly for their refusal to toe the line. And so I wanted to mark the occasion of its publication with this homage to strong women everywhere, whether in fact or fiction, history or present reality. Over the next few weeks I hope to share with you the thoughts of my wonderful guest posters on the subject. We will talk about the process of creating memorable female characters in fantasy fiction and the real-life people who inspire us, the actual Samihas of this world. I have chosen of course to ask male authors as well as female ones to give me their insights, as I am no longer quite as fierce an Amazon princess was I was at the age of two. I suspect we will have a great deal of fun exploring the subject together.
Were she here, I believe my great-grandmother would be amused to see the odd use I have made of her venerable family name…
I will be putting up a guest post here on the subject of ‘Writing Strong Women’ every two days from Tuesday, February 1st. The guest authors are: Nicole Murphy, Gillian Polack, Glenda Larke, Blake Charlton, Kaaron Warren, Tim Jones, Kim Falconer, Saladin Ahmed and Helen Lowe. Thank you to all the participants!