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Madame Beetle searches for a husband

My informant was told this story as a child by his Iranian grandmother. He explained to me that she would often tell him stories when he was growing up, but he remembers this one the most vividly. He characterizes it:

  “So this is a story that my grandmother (my mom’s mom) used to tell me when I was younger, and it’s a story that’s pretty rooted in Iranian culture because other Persian friends I have also know it. So it kind of shows that a lot of families tell this story. It’s a story of… love I guess, but I guess I’ll just tell the story:”

  “So, as translated, Madame Beetle which is considered to have human-like qualities, goes out on a search for love, as demanded by her mother upon her mother’s death bed, and she goes… Madame Beetle goes out on a search for love and encounters many different animals that are personified um, so this, for example like a rabbit who’s a carpenter, uh she would encounter, and this question she asks every guy she meets is: how would you beat me if I was your husband?… If you were my husband. And she receives responses from these different personified animals. So the carpenter says for example “I would beat you with this two by four” and the butcher says “I would beat you with my cleaver” and so the search goes on and she eventually comes in contact with this mouse and she asks me how would you beat me if you were my husband and he says “I would pet you gently with my tail” and of course she chooses the mouse to be her husband, and, you know they’re happy together, they’re living together; one day the mouse gets sick and Madame Beetle cooks a bowl of soup for the mouse and while drinking the soup the mouse falls into the soup and drowns… and that’s the end of the story.”

I asked my informant why he thought he remembered this specific story, and if it had any other significance to him personally. He responded:

There are some interesting things about this story. One, you can tell that it has a sad ending which is very… it’s a kind of thematic thing in a lot of children’s stories in Persian partly because, uh, of the dominant religion in Iran is Muslim and Islam has a lot of appeals to sadness for some reason, and a lot of these stories end in sadness-a lot of children’s stories, not a lot of happy endings. Another element of the story which is kind of lost in translation is the element of rhyme. Every time Madame Beetle meets a prospective spouse there’s this interplay of rhyming and repetition which goes on back and forth and that’s what makes it a very goods children’s story: because every time it’s repeated the child can, you know- as I would –  say oit or jump ahead of my grandmother and say what is to come because it’s repetitive. Um, and, yep that’s the story of madame beetle.

The fact that this story is popular among many Persian families indicates that it represents broader themes in Persian culture. The treatment and subservience of women, preached by many Muslim texts, would seem to be supported by this story, which establishes the male as dominant even at a young age. However, the fact that this story was told my informant by his Grandmother, suggests its misogynistic values may have been acceptable within its cultural context. Insofar as it is a piece of children’s literature, it follows the general plot of many children s stories today: that of the seeker (who is often an animal.) However, its unhappy ending is unique among most similar children’s stories, and perhaps reflects a part of the cultural gap between the east and the west.

general

“A mother is only as happy as her least happy child.”

This saying described verbatim by informant:

“It’s just something you kind of come to realize if you’re a mother who, you know, most mothers do love their children um and you just realize, you know, your happiness once you have children. Before it it’s all about you it’s all about you and your special person or the life you’re living and the selfishness that is the beauty sometimes of just being youthful and you’re on your own path, and then you have a child and you realize that for a while at least the most important thing in your life is not you anymore but someone else. And I think once you’re down that road (pause) it’s hard to turn that around because your life is really, your heart is always with your children, and as much as they need to live their own lives and really be independent and free and feel like grown up and adult and self-sufficient and aspire and do their own thing you’re forever intricately bound to them, and in that way it’s almost impossible to be truly 100% happy if your children are not. There’s a little piece of your heart that hurts if they’re not well, if they’re not content, or or pursuing things that excite them, if there’s something missing and they they let you know, it it’s hard to be completely happy. And most of my friends agree with that. It’s just hard to be, because being whole now, being whole is being whole with your other pieces and those other pieces are your children.

I think it’s a common feeling. And I think for most of us mothers, I think, for better or for worse it’s truth. It’s just one of those truths that are spoken. I find myself saying it I guess sometimes when my children tell me something that probably disturbs me about their lives that I can’t fix, and you know most things in the life of your grown children you cannot. You can support it, if they want your advice you can give it, but they’re going to do what they’re going to do and it’s almost like part of realizing that they are independent and they are truly their own people, and as much as you may love them and they may love you we all have independent choices to make. And sometimes no matter what our intentions (pause) the individual is going to live their own life and when you see them going in a bad direction or you when hear they’re unhappy sometimes it just weighs on your heart. And so you just you know it weights on your mind and so you feel like, you know things are good for me but things aren’t great for one of my children and that just makes your heart a little bit heavy and so that’s only as happy as you can be, and you just have to be okay with that but its difficult. Sometimes its really difficult.”

My informant’s tone was sad and lamenting during this collection. She spoke slowly, tearing up at some points. Motherhood is obviously a role she takes seriously as part of not just her identity but her being. She told me she often finds herself saying this during hard times, and discusses the concept with her friends, who are also mothers. She has three children. The importance of family is deeply-seeded and she truly believes that her own happiness depends on the happiness of her children. In one way the concept seems traditional, because her children play such a large, influential role in her life, but in another sense, her worry and the “weight” she feels for them is an empathy that seems contemporary in character.

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