Tag Archives: persian

Persian Proverb – “The king and his kingdom”


“The King and his kingdom”


MB is 19 years old from Southern California. She is currently studying at the University of California, Berkley. Both her parents were born in Iran and immigrated to the United States as children. This proverb was often used by her mother to describe her father, usually in a joking manner. She informed me that her mother used this proverb to poke fun at her father when he was being strict towards her and her brother. This is the English translation of a Persian proverb.


This proverb traditionally means that a king’s kingdom is where his power lays. It refers to the idea “a king is only as powerful as his kingdom.” It is interesting that my informant’s mother used this to joke about my informant’s father. It has a general implication of a male centric power structure. It uses the phrase king and relates his power to the control of his kingdom.  In reference to her family, it was used to poke fun at this male centric dynamic. The way this proverb was used in my informant’s family shows how specific communities within a culture can use or interpret common cultural, in this case proverbs, in their own way. Even within one culture, there will be a lot of variation in the use of specific proverbs, or even the meaning of those proverbs.

Persian Proverb “The neighbor’s chicken is a goose”


“The neighbor’s chicken is a goose.”


MB is a 19 year old currently studying at the University of California, Berkley. She grew up in Southern California, but both of her parents are from Iran.  Her grandmother, also from Iran, has taught her a lot of interesting Persian proverbs. She does not remember them in the native Farsi, but she knows the English translations. When I asked her if she knew any proverbs and she said, “I remember this one especially because it was so weird to me.”


This proverb speaks to a few interesting features of Iranian culture. My informant shared that she was told that this proverb means that people usually want what they do not have or, similarly, that things they do have, do not measure up to what others have. This proverb also speaks on what was traditionally seen as important in the culture and what values were held. The goose is the thing to be coveted rather than a chicken. This would imply that goose was more rare, worth more, or held a more significant meaning when this proverb came into existence. It also shows that coveting what others have is generally not seen as a good practice. This proverb speaks to deter people from this kind of behavior, which is still its function today. The neighbor’s “duck” is in fact a chicken, just like everybody else. This proverb is likely spoken to share wisdom to younger children or to remind someone if they are coveting something they do not have.



Informant: I am gonna be live remembering this… So what I know is it’s called “Nāranj o Toranj.” And nāranj… Means like… Orange, kind of? I think? I have no idea what toranj means. But maybe that’s a name. Um… But there’s something to do with it… So there’s this prince. And his family is pushing him to find a wife and marry and settle down. Um, of course you know, as with all fairy tales he refuses. And so this is what sets us off on our journey. And so, he keeps refusing these suitors that are being brought to him, or I guess, female suitors, whatever the equivalent of that is…  Potential brides that are brought to him… And, uh, one day he finds refuge in their, uh, family’s great orchard, in the backyard of the castle… And… In doing so he… Stumbles upon an orange tree and sees a beautiful woman, sitting in the tree. And it seems to be known that this woman seems to have been grown from this orange tree. She herself is an orange, um… But she is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, and she has this beautiful voice, and… Yada, yada… So they start this kind of cute little affair where um… He will come to the woods and listen to her play music and recite poetry, and he just, he falls so in love with this woman. Uh… And one day a troll… A one-eyed troll… Uh, invades… The castle… And steals the princess… And I’m trying to recall if this is the prince’s fault? ‘Cause he wasn’t doing his duty? Or if the troll was just sort of like an ex machina thing… But the troll comes, steals the princess, and the boy goes on this quest to find her… I believe the boy goes down a well into the troll’s dwelling, which is underground, uh… And he finds where the princess is… And he has to––oh and he takes with him––he makes a plan to get the troll. And he takes with him a little bag that has, uh… A thing of salt in it, and jacks. Like the pieces in the game Jacks… I want to say there was something else… But it’s not coming to me right now. Effectively, he gets close to the troll. He does kind of like a traditional folktale thing where he’ll trick the troll to get close to him. Um… I think there’s a meal and the troll falls asleep ‘cause  the troll is so full. Perhaps that other thing that he brought––oh, I think he brought a chicken. And he––and then the uh… The troll got so full off of the chicken. And so now the troll is knocked out, the princess is there, he grabs her and when he tries to escape, the troll of course wakes up, and starts chasing him. So then he gets the jacks and he throws the jacks on the ground, and the troll starts stepping on them and he’s in pain and he falls over. And once the one-eyed troll falls over, the boy throws salt into the troll’s eye. And the troll’s in so much pain and he’s blinded so he can’t chase them, and he and the orange princess escape out of the well and live happily ever after and then she becomes his, uh, his queen… Uh, that he decides to marry. 


Informant: This story is something that was orally told to me. Until we found like a picture book at like a Barnes and Noble. And this was in like elementary school… And um… OH! Oh no…  I think I actually… I think I kind of conflated––I actually just conflated those two. Two different stories! ‘Cause I think there’s like a “Jack and the Beanstalk”-esque… Persian story, where like a poor farm boy has to go and like…  Best the troll in order to survive, and he has to like… Trick the troll, and so he brings the chicken and the salt and the jacks. Um… And there’s the troll in his well… And then there’s a totally separate story about the orange princess. And I think the problem with the orange princess… Um…  There was something where… The… Prince disrespected a witch…  And…  She effectively cursed that they then couldn’t be together… Um, but eventually they were able to marry.


The conflation of two tales to create a new hybrid tale showcases the variable nature of folklore. When stories are passed on through oral tradition, it is likely that they will fluctuate and change, as there is no written guide ensuring the story remains the same each time. This variation may be caused from faulty memory, which is what the informant was experiencing. In misremembering “Nāranj o Toranj,” the informant created a new tale. If he had not caught his mistake, he could have continued to pass on this hybrid story, contributing a new version of “Nāranj o Toranj” to tradition. Alan Dundes says folklore must exhibit multiplicity and variation. Human error is one driving factor behind why folklore may change. 



Informant: So my grandma does this a lot and I actually just asked her for clarification about it, but… A lot of the time when I was younger, and especially now, I’ll like wake up and the house will smell like… Smoke… It smells like burnt popcorn, almost? And it’s not like a great smell. And I always thought, like, “Oh, like, my grandma put something in the toaster-oven for too long.” But it turns out it’s an intentional thing. So what she’s doing is… There’s this thing called Esphand… And it’s almost like… Black sand, it looks like? It almost looks like little seeds. I’m not sure what it actually is. It’s not edible. But… Something that Persians do––particularly Persian mothers or grandmothers––is they will put it, you know, in like a pan on the stove, and they’ll toast it and it burns and it smokes, and it smokes very quickly. And it fills the house with that like burnt popcorn aroma… And they’ll like get a towel or something and sort of wave it through the air so it like fills the house… Um… Yeah, and that smoke is supposed to cleanse the air. Um… And it alleviates any bad luck. It’s not that it gives you good luck, but it just prevents bad things from happening, sort of. And the Esphand is, it’s not like only confined to the home? Uh… It’s also… It can be incorporated into weddings? It’s not really done these days, but something they would do in the past is… They would kind of sprinkle the Esphand on the ground before the bride as she was walking. And as she was walking down the aisle, uh, they would kind of… Actually burn it in front of her as she was walking. So someone was leading, walking in front of her, and she would walk through the smoke… So it was kind of like… Like cleansing her on her way. So she’s entering into this marriage cleansed of bad luck.


Informant: My grandma, she would usually do it if my sister and I weren’t home, ‘cause she knew it––we’d always complain about it… And actually when I was at college, she’d do it, like, she would do it for me, right? Like to… Cleanse my spirit from afar. So that was an interesting kind of practice… And it’s not really about the Esphand… It’s what you do with the Esphand. It’s the ritual…  But it’s not like––it’s not an everyday type of thing. It’s only if she’s like––if she’s nervous, she’ll do it. It’s like to cleanse bad luck. So like, if the family is preparing for something and she, uh, doesn’t like want anything to go wrong… Like at the beginning of the pandemic it was a little bit more common… Like she was doing it more than she ever had before, I think. Or at least, I noticed it more. But like, when I was in high school, I hardly knew it was a thing. Like sometimes I’d just come home and like, “Ugh, someone burned something,” you know? 


In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: An Introduction, Elliott Oring claims there is “difficulty [in] interpreting the meaning of symbolic acts in human behavior” (55). In order to give meaning to the act of burning Esphand, one must first be familiar with its ties to the evil eye. The lighting of Esphand is thought to ward off the evil eye. The evil eye is a contagious form of magic; if someone who has the evil eye engages with you, they may bring on bad luck or “jinx” you (jinxing stems from the concept that if you have a jinn attached to you, you bring on bad luck). For example, if a houseguest who has the evil eye compliments a child on their beauty, a mother or grandmother might burn Esphand to clear the air, concerned that the child has been met with an evil eye (i.e. been jinxed) and is thus at risk of their beauty being ruined. While burning Esphand is unique to Persian culture, the act of trying to reverse bad luck is shared across cultures. Similar actions include throwing salt over a shoulder or knocking on wood. These behaviors (performing an action to remove bad luck) can be referred to as a conversion superstitions. The existence of conversion superstitions suggests that humans have an underlying, psychological preoccupation with controlling luck and fate; if we are apprehensive that something will go wrong, it makes us feel better to perform a ritual or action that is meant to steer things in a more desirable, less unlucky direction. And these rituals or actions only have meaning through their association with reversing bad luck.


Source cited above:

Oring, Elliott. Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: an Introduction. Utah State University Press, 1986. 

Further reading(s):

“Esfand & The Evil Eye.” My Persian Kitchen, 2016, www.mypersiankitchen.com/esfand-the-evil-eye/#:~:text=It%20is%20pretty%20safe%20to,curse%20on%20someone%20else’s%20behalf.

Saba Soomekh. “Iranian Jewish Women: Domesticating Religion and Appropriating Zoroastrian Religion in Ritual Life.” Nashim : a Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, vol. 18, no. 18, Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 13–38, doi:10.2979/NAS.2009.-.18.13.


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 Yaldā?

MK: So it’s the beginning of the winter. So in the winter, nights are going to be longer and days are going to be shorter. They say the night is longer by one minute, so in that one minute, Persians celebrate it like crazy. They get fruits, they get pomegranate, they gather together. Lots of craziness. But you basically stay up all night to enjoy the night getting one minute longer.

HS: So is it more of a family celebration or is it celebrated in a group setting with the surrounding community?

MK: You can celebrate with the surrounding community, but it’s more of a family-oriented tradition. If you look at the history of the tradition, it was often celebrated by families but times are changing so I’ve celebrated with friends, more distant relatives, anybody, really. Grand meals and amazing food are also a kind of foundation for the tradition.


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.


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. After discussing the Persian New Year, we discussed other important traditions that she celebrates, such as Yaldā.

Thoughts: Similar to the traditions involved in the Persian New Year, I found it interesting that a lot of Persian traditions are derived from a completely unique religion/tradition that I had never heard of before. Yaldā night is another tradition that has its roots in Zoroastrianism. According to the sources that I read, Yaldā night was actually considered to be an unlucky day, as it was believed that this was the night that the presence of evil spirits was at its peak, which would make sense from a historical lense because evil spirits were associated with darkness and Yaldā night was the longest night of the year. To avoid the inauspiciousness of this night, families were given the recommendation to stay up all night and keep each other company. What I find most interesting is how similar the origins of Yaldā are to the origins of the western tradition of Halloween. Despite strikingly similar origin stories, these two days evolved in completely separate ways.

For an exploration into the rich culinary traditions of Yaldā, see:

“Iranian American Chef Discusses Role Of Food In Yalda Day Celebrations.(Broadcast Transcript).” Weekend Edition Sunday, National Public Radio, Inc. (NPR), 2020.