Tag Archives: Farsi

Nowruz

Main Piece:

The following conversation is transcribed from a conversation between me (HS) and my co-worker/informant (MK).

HS: So can you tell me about the Persian New Year?

MK: Of course! So we celebrate the beginning our our spring as the beginning of our new year. We call it Persian New Year or “Nowruz,” which translates to “New day.” The celebrations usually happen between March 19th and March 23rd. There’s a specific day, time and second that we go into our new year, much like the American New Year. So this year, for us, it was March 20th at 7:40AM PST. It sounds like a weird time but it’s because we’re here in California. Iran is almost 12 hours ahead of us and so the that time makes a lot more sense there. So anyways, a week before the new year, we get new, fresh bills as gifts and we set a table with seven items that start with an “s.” The item spellings are from Farsi and not English so they’re not what you would expect, like apples and garlic, for example.

HS: Do these items have any sort of deeper meaning?

MK: Oh yes. So first of all, each item starts with the Persian letter, “seen,” which again, is like the English letter, “s.” Each item corresponds to the seven creations and the seven holy immortals protecting them. The Haft-Seen table and the items on it are kind of a representation of nature.

Background:

My informant is a coworker from my job. She has the same role as me and so we spend a lot of time talking in-between customers. She immigrated to the United States from Tehran, the capital of Iran, when she was 16 years old and has a lot of family here that she enjoys continuing her traditions with. She has enjoyed telling me a lot about her culture and traditions in our time working together.

Context:

So we were just talking in-between customers when I became a little curious. I work in an area that has a large Persian population, and according to my coworker, the concentration of Persians in this area is second only to Los Angeles. So back in March about a week before Persian New Year, I noticed that a lot of her Persian clientele were coming in to buy new one-dollar, five-dollar, and ten-dollar bills. I was curious about why this was happening, and so I asked my coworker about it.

Thoughts:

My first thought when I heard about this tradition, was what religion is this derived from? My immediate assumption was Islam, as that was the only religion that I was familiar with from the Middle East, besides Judaism and Christianity, of course. What I found was a lot more interesting. The tradition is derived from Zoroastrianism. I had never heard of this religion, and so I thought maybe it was some fringe religion that was particular to the region that my informant was from, but I could not have been further from wrong. Zoroastrianism predates both Christianity and Islam. Furthermore, the religion has a large following; 300 million people celebrate Nowruz every year. It is important to note though, that Zoroastrianism is considered to more of a cultural tradition in a lot of social circles, including that of my informant. The tradition of Nowruz, for example, while having its roots in its own ancient belief system, is widely celebrated by Muslims and Christians. The “book of wisdom” that is placed on the Haft-Seen table is even considered to be interchangeable. People place the Quran, Bible, and other books such as the Avesta on the table. This sparked a lot of curiosity and interest about this topic and left me with a lot of questions. Where do you draw the line between religion and cultural belief?

For an interesting article showing the popularity of Nowruz, even during the COVID pandemic, see:

Kaffashi A, Jahani F. Nowruz travelers and the COVID-19 pandemic in Iran. Infection control and hospital epidemiology. 2020;41(9):1121-1121. doi:10.1017/ice.2020.152

A Liar is Forgetful

Context:

This is a proverb that is commonly used among the family and friends of my informant. My informant is a coworker from my job. She immigrated to the United States from Tehran, the capital of Iran, when she was 16 years old and has a lot of family here that she enjoys continuing her traditions with.

  • “doruygu kam hafeze ast,” or “دروغگو کم حافظه است”
    • Transliterated Proverb
      • “A liar is forgetful”
    • Full translation: A liar tends comes up with a lot of fake stories, and so they need to have a good memory to keep up with all of them. So a translation of the true meaning of the phrase would be along the lines of, “a liar should have a good memory.”
    • Explanation by my coworker: “Let’s say you lie to someone about something and then you go and forget about it, and then at a later time you come back and accidentally tell them the actual truth, then that person figures out that these stories don’t match or don’t go together. So that’s why they say that if you lie to much, then you don’t have a good memory becuase you don’t remember what you lied about before.”

Thoughts: I found this proverb/maxim to be quite interesting and it kind of added a new perspective to how I think about someone who has told lies in the past and tries to cover them up. At first, I didn’t really understand the maxim, but with some thoughful explanation from my coworker, it started to make a lot more sense. I may be wrong in my interpretation of its use but it seems as though it is used by someone who has been lied to, which may open to door to the negative perspective that people of Perisan culture have towards lying.

“Two in the air, four on the ground…” – Farsi Riddle

Description of Informant

MV (79) is a retired engineer, chess master, and violinist from Tehran, Iran. At 19, he came to America to study at Ohio Northern and remained in the states for his adult life (Missouri and California). While in Iran, he lived a very traditional life under religious parents; this continues to influence his values and attitudes.

— 

Riddle

Original Text: ! دو در هوا، چهار در زمين، اِه خربزه

Phonetic: Dōh dar havah, chahar dar zameen, eh kharbōzeh!

Transliteration: Two in the air, four on the ground, hey melon!

Free Translation: [See Collector’s Reflection for Explanation]

Collector’s Reflection

At first, the riddle seems to make no sense, until you understand the pun hidden within. The Farsi word for melon (خربزه, kharbōzeh) also contains the words for donkey/ass (خر, khar-) and goat (بز, -bōz). Thus, the riddle really says: “Two in the air, four on the ground, hey ass/idiot— it’s a goat!” The “two in the air” refers to the goat’s horns and the “four on the ground” to its feet.

The phrase functions as an insult riddle, wherein the individual playing the joke intends to trick or demean the intelligence of their victim. The individual receiving the riddle is confused by melon at first. Then, the riddler will repeat the last line “eh kharbōzeh!”, but with added emphasis and spacing to make the double entendre clear (e.g. “eh khar! …bōzeh!”) The victim(s) quickly realize that they have been insulted. If you’re in good company, you’ll get a few laughs. But be wary— calling someone “khar” in Iran is a major insult.

Context of Use

The riddle is used among peers, often in a group setting, where one individual is unaware of the double entendre and made out as a fool; comedy at one’s expense. You would generally use the phrase among close friends with positive rapport, where no offense will be taken.

— 

Context of Interview

The informant, MV, sits on a love seat, feet planted on a brightly colored Persian rug. He is opposite the collector, BK, his grandson. Text spoken in Farsi is translated and italicized. Instances of the riddle have been replaced by [the riddle].

Interview

MV: For instance, wasn’t a joke, but for instance riddles, like [the riddle]. Something like this, for instance, they were goat, trying to identify the goat that had to horns. So they say “two up” and “four down.” And then, do you know what kharbōzeh is? Something melon. It’s some type of melon. And it also means “hey khar”— or donkey, it is a goat! *laughing* Something like this: [the riddle]. If someone hears you, they think you are just saying melon! Until you separate it.

BK: Can you describe a context where you would’ve told this joke?

MV: Children among [themselves]. One child, who wanted to mess with another child, would say [the riddle]. The guy would think you are just saying melon so they get confused, but say “eh khar— bōzeh! This is a goat that I’m talking about, with two horns.

“What should I say, if saying nothing would be better?” – Farsi Proverb

Description of Informant

MV (79) is a retired engineer, chess master, and violinist from Tehran, Iran. At 19, he came to America to study at Ohio Northern and remained in the states for his adult life (Missouri and California). While in Iran, he lived a very traditional life under religious parents. He has embedded many of the traditional views of his youth into his personal values

— 

Phrase

Original Text: چه گويم كه ناگفتنم بهتره؟

Phonetic: Cheh gooyam keh nah gōftanam behtareh?

Transliteration: What can I say that it is better not to say?
Free Translation: What should I say, if saying nothing would be better?

Context of Use

The phrase is a playfully solemn response to “How are you?” It works to inform the asker that the speaker is sad/down, but also that they aren’t interested in discussing their emotions with the present party. It is most often used between friends or peers. 

It is also a proverb, serving a similar function to the English “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Unlike the English phrase, it is not directed outward, and instead focuses on the speaker. I.E. If I don’t have anything positive to say, why should I speak?

— 

Context of Interview

The informant, MV, sits on a loveseat, feet planted on a brightly colored Persian rug. He is opposite the collector, BK, his grandson. Text spoken in Farsi is translated and italicized. Instances of the phrase have been replaced by [the phrase].

Interview

MV: *muttering* [the phrase]… One of the things, for instance, we used to say… somebody says “How are you, what are you doing?”, you say [the phrase]. Um… meaning that, for instance, you see a friend who asks “How are you doing?” and if you don’t feel like good you say [the phrase]. What should I say if—  if I keep quiet—  would be much better?

BK: Who would you say this to? If your boss asked “How are you?”— 

MV: No, it was when we were teenagers. Just among friends. Not with parents.

BK: Was this something funny or something serious?

MV: Nah we just— we’d just say he doesn’t feel good but he doesn’t wanna talk about it. Then they know not to pressure you.

Collector’s Reflection

In Iran during the 1940s and 1950s, when MV was a teenager, discussion of emotions between men, even peers, was extremely taboo. Men were not encouraged to express themselves, and were expected to remain stoic. The phrase was invented as a tool to allow young men to inform their peers of their emotional state, while remaining distant. 

MV is an interesting man. He embodied traditional Iranian masculinity well into his 60s: stoic, serious, commanding respect. All this despite living in America since his 20s. Admittedly, American masculinity standards don’t exactly scream “vulnerability” either. However, when MV retired at the beginning of his 70s, everything changed. He was able to loosen up, smile, joke, we even saw him cry. This once formal and scary man became a teddy bear. One couldn’t imagine him using the phrase now, as he would much rather discuss his emotions. One could read this as a sign of aging, but I consider it to be a sign of the times as well. MV noted that his Iranian friends have all become more comfortable with vulnerability in recent years as it has become more socially acceptable. As the definition of masculinity changes worldwide, perhaps this use of phrase will fade to memory; perhaps not, time will tell.

The phrase will continue to find relevance as a proverb, though it is less regularly used as such.

Persian Proverb

RN is the informant, PH is myself. Our conversation began as follows:

PH: Do you know any legends, jokes, proverbs that you especially like?

RN: Proverb?

PH: Yeah

RN: Can it be in another language?
PH: Yes

The informant then told me of a Vietnamese proverb which is documented in a different entry. Afterward, the conversation continued:

RN: A Persian one I really like is… My friend taught me how to say it…
[says in persian], [it means that] the walls have mice and the mice have ears.

The proverb in Farsi/Persian is:

دیوار موش داره٬ موش هم گوش داره

The phonetic spelling is:
divār muš dāre, muš ham guš dāre

The informant was taught this proverb, both its pronunciation and its translation, by a friend he went to high school with who immigrated to the U.S. (Irvine, CA) from Iran at age 6.