Description of Informant
NV (75) is a retired school teacher born in Abadan, Iran. She went to boarding school in England from 1956-1963, moving to American for college afterward. She always remembers her arrival in the states, as it was the day before Kennedy was assassinated. Currently, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, California.
Context of Interview
The informant, NV, sits on a loveseat, feet planted on a brightly colored Persian rug. She is opposite the collector, BK, her grandson. Most text spoken in Farsi is rewritten phonetically using Roman characters and italicized. Some Farsi is translated and italicized for efficiency.
BK: Tell me about your superstitions.
NV: Oh! I have a lot of superstitions. You don’t want to hear about all that. Oh, I always say “pinch your butt!” That’s an Iranian one, “pinch your butt.” I say that all the time. For instance, if [my daughter] is saying something nice about [my granddaughter], I’ll tell her “pinch your butt! pinch your butt!” so straight away she pinches her butt. If you compliment someone, but you don’t want something bad to happen to them, you say “pinch your butt.” Or at least I do. And now [my daughter] does it, everybody does it, but it comes from Iran.
NV: It’s a Persian thing. Cheshm zadan. Do you know cheshm zadan? That’s a very superstitious thing in Iran. Like, they say some people have the “Evil Eye.” You know? Yeah, the evil eye. Like if somebody looks at you and— for instance, we had gone to [visit] my dad’s side of the family in Tehran. And that night, they had complimented [my daughter] a lot. “Oh what a cutie she is!” She was like 3 years old. “How cute!” That very night, she walked in the middle of the night to come from her bed to our bed, and she hit the corner of her forehead and split it open and we had to have three stitches. We had to take her to the emergency room for three stitches! From that day on, everybody said “cheshmesh zadan“. They kept saying that, in that house when they were saying she was so cute, cheshmesh zadan. So someone gave her the evil eye and that’s why that bad thing happened. That’s a very big superstition with Iranians.
BK: How does pinch my butt come into it?
NV: No idea! They just say “pinch your butt!” Like in English you’d say cross your fingers. Pinch your butt, or koonat rah veshnkoon begeer.
BK: And that’s how you “undo” the evil eye?
NV: Yeah. Now, some people, they believe that if you give a compliment you should follow it with mashallah. You know, like, if you say “this child is so beautiful, mashallah” then you’re taking away the evil eye. The thing that, like [my cousin] she really believes in the evil eye. You know the eye, like the blue stone, she’s got it all over her house. That’s a big superstition. They got it hanging over the doors, they got it all over. I don’t have any of those. But this cheshm zadan is really something.
NV: My cousin is known for giving the eye. My mom had bought these fancy stockings from England. I mean really nice, with decorative holes in them, top of the fashion, right? She’s sitting there at a party, and her legs are crossed and looking gorgeous. Nothing out of the ordinary. Then my cousin says “What beautiful socks you have!” And that very minute— everybody laughed their heads off— that very minute, it got a run in it. You know what a run is? It tore. You know the stockings that are nylon? If you cut a little bit it just *tearing noise* starts to run, it messes it up. She’s known for having the evil eye. “Cheshm mezanan!”
چشم زدن (phonetically cheshm zadan) is one of the greatest of Persian superstitions. The term literally means to glare, but free translates to jinx someone/something. If you compliment someone without protecting the compliment, you risk jinxing it, causing something bad to happen to the referenced trait (e.g. compliment the face = facial injury, compliment the socks = socks are ruined). The jinx concept is often referred to as the Evil Eye, and shares a space with similar Mediterranean traditions (many are familiar with the blue glass evil eyes that decorate many middle eastern and mediterranean homes). An individual known for jinxing or giving the evil eye (such as the informant’s cousin) would be said to have “salty eyes” (چشمش شور, cheshmesh shooreh).
There are many ways to dispel of the evil eye, such as the aforementioned religious (ماشالله) mashallah or the secular pinching of one’s butt (كونت را وشگون بگير, koonat rah veshnkoon begeer). The latter is the equivalent of the American crossing of one’s fingers to block a bad omen/jinx. One may also burn esphand (wild rue seeds), the smoke of which is said to cleanse the air and prevent bad omens, such as the eye.
Another evil eye story comes from my (the collector’s) other grandmother. When my father was born, she began producing an incredible amount of milk. She was the envy of the town for this display of fertility. One day, she was out with a friend when her breasts started to leak. Out of surprise, her friend exclaimed, “Wow! You have so much milk!” And that was the end of it. That evening, she didn’t have enough to feed her son, and they had to run to the market in the middle of the night for powdered milk. From then on, she barely produced a drop. They said her friend gave her the evil eye, and jinxed her.