Crowning Anguish: Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity 1884-1914

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Crowning Anguish: Memoirs Of a Persian Princess From The Harem to Modernity 1884-1914

By Taj al-Saltana, edited with introduction and notes by Abbas Amanat. Mage Publishers, Washington, DC, 1993, 345 pp. List: $14.95; AET: $11.95.

Reviewed by Monica Ringer

The publication of Taj al-Saltana's memoirs in English finally provides the non-Persian reader with one of the more critical pieces of literature available on Iran's Qajar period (1722-1921), which directly preceded the rule of Reza Shah and Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Daughter of the famous Naser al-Din Shah Qajar who ruled from 1848 to 1896 and was the first Iranian shah to travel to Europe, Taj al-Saltana provides a unique perspective on court life as well as on international affairs of her time. While tales about harem life abound, hers is the only known account written by an insider. No-where else, for example, can a reader find such detailed descriptions of venomous harem intrigues, and the lonely and often cruel environment in which they unfolded.

Her colorful, candid and often amusing anecdotes provide real insight into her life as a woman, a member of the royal household, and a keen and intelligent observer of the emerging chasms in Iran's social, cultural, and political spheres.

Taj al-Saltana witnessed the crucial juncture in Iranian history when traditional norms and attitudes began to be questioned, when European culture and political ideas were taken up by reformers and writers, and when a new, politically engaged intelligentsia first emerged.

In 1905, political reformers and leading members of the religious establishment joined together to limit governmental arbitrariness, and forced the shah to accept a constitution. By 1911, however, the alliance between the reformers and the religious establishment disintegrated as it became clear that their goals were mutually incompatible. The dissolution of this alliance presaged the ideological and cultural split which has continued to divide Iranian society to this day.

Writing in 1914, Taj al-Saltana looks back on the ultimate failure of the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11 to establish anything more than a token parliament, and testifies to the frustration felt by many reformers and reform-minded observers over the continued arbitrary and inefficient nature of government. …