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Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia:
With Notes on Russia, Koords, Toorkomans, Nestorians, Khiva, and Persia

by Lady Mary (Leonora Woulfe) Sheil

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Chapter 16

Mussulman nurses – Three various modes of counting time in Persia – Retribution for the Russian festivities on Easter Sunday at Ashoorada – Partial abolition of the importation of slaves – Negroes in Persia – Condition of slaves in Persia – Return to Tehran – Bastinado – Punishment of a general for being defeated.

Our residence at Ispahan afforded an instance of the general diminution of religious prejudice among the Mussulmans, even in places where, like that city, there were no Europeans resident from whose opinions they might take example. I had been recommended not to engage a nurse from among the Armenian women, who, owing to the food they are forced to have recourse to in consequence of their rigid fasts, or from some other cause, are considered unhealthy. I therefore sought one among the Mussulman women. No sooner were my wants known than a number of applicants appeared. Some years ago a sort of compulsion would have been necessary to induce a Mahommedan woman to undertake the office. They came to our door accompanied by their husbands, and then entered alone. They seemed perfectly indifferent at their faces being seen by Englishmen. Some among them were not poor, their object seeming to be to secure a protector or patron. The fact of quitting their family and home to accompany strangers like us to Tehran was no impediment, although they were to be perfectly alone; but the reputation of the English for probity and


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the faithful performance of engagements stands high in Persia. Even when the certificate of the term and nature of service was sent to a cazee for registry, not the least opposition was made. The young woman whom I hired was very poor, and full of anxiety to obtain the situation. Seeing another candidate make her appearance, she became very much excited, and protested, with the usual Persian oaths, that if she were deprived of her office of nurse to the little vezeer mookhtar, as she styled the child, she would instantly fall upon her rival and chastise her severely.

She accompanied us to Tehran. I have had a good deal of experience of Persian nurses and their children, for they always insist on having one of their elder children with them. "Khanum," they used to say, "I cannot live without Khatoon (or whatever the child's name was); she is the light of my eyes." Notwithstanding this apparent affection, if their children were troublesome they would rush at them and pinch them until they were black. One day I heard a great commotion in the anderoon, and on going in some alarm to see what the matter was, I found that these women were discontented with their pillao and were threatening to beat the ferash who brought it to them. When they are in a passion they tear their hair and scratch their bosom with their nails until the blood comes. It was curious that, young as my daughter Frances was, when she tried to signify her indignation at anything she wished for being withheld, she used to imitate exactly what she saw the nurses do, and put up her hands to tear her hair, and sometimes knock her head against the wall. These women were very exact in their devotions; at daybreak they would rise, perform the prescribed ablutions, and unwrapping a stone that had been brought from Kerbella, placing it carefully towards Mecca, they went through the usual form of prostration and prayer; this they repeated three times every day. To amuse themselves during the day, one would sometimes beat the tambourine and the other dance. They could hardly sew their own clothes; indeed, the greater part of their time was spent in sleeping, which is a mode many women adopt of arriving at the degree of embonpoint thought becoming. They used to go once a week to the bath, and come home painted, and their hands and feet as well as their hair dyed. I think they felt a secret contempt for me in consequence of my doing a good deal of needlework, which they thought an undignified proceeding on my part. One of them accompanied me as far as Constantinople on my way home, and would, I think, if I had wished, have come on to England.

The Shah did not arrive in Ispahan until two weeks after we reached it. He delayed here and there on the road to beguile some of that time which Persians find to hang so heavily on their hands. Time is of no value in Persia, from which reason it must be that so complicated a system has been maintained as that of counting by solar time, lunar time, and the Toork cycle. The first is observed by astronomers, and was in general use in Persia until it was superseded by Mahommed's lunar year. It consists of twelve months of thirty days each, with the required number of intercalary days. The second, which is now in general use, consisting of three hundred and fifty-four days, is therefore perpetually changing: an event commemorated in one year will come round ten days earlier the succeeding year. The third is a curious method of counting introduced by the Toorks into Persia, but which I am told has been forgotten in Turkey. They divide time into cycles of twelve years, each year having a separate name, but they have no designation for the cycles. Thus, if they wanted to describe an event which happened sixty-five years ago, they could only mention the name of the fifth year. These years are solar, and are thus designated: –

Sichkan eel Year of the Mouse.
Ood eel " Bull.
Bars eel " Leopard.
Tavishkān eel " Hare.
Looee eel " Crocodile.
Eelān eel " Snake.
Yoont eel " Horse.
Kooee eel " Ram.
Beechee eel " Monkey.
Tekhakoo eel " Cock.
Eet eel " Dog.
Tenkooz eel " Hog.

It seems strange their number should be twelve, as if there were a zodiac of years instead of months.

This method of marking time is preserved only in government documents, such as firmans, grants, &c. No one seems able to account for its origin, excepting that according to tradition, the Toorks of old brought it from Tartary.

To return, however, to the Shah, – he arrived full soon enough to swallow a very bitter pill. The day of retribution for the Toorkoman attack on Ashoorada had arrived.


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Some of the attachés of the English Mission, in riding through the streets, met the whole of the Russian Mission, excepting the Minister, proceeding to the Prime Minister's house, in the unusual display of full uniform. Their countenances betrayed the solemn importance of their intent. The Russians love effect and theatrical representation at least as much as the French. These gentlemen had gone in a body to claim satisfaction for the success of the Toorkomans, and for the imbecility of the Russian commander: that satisfaction was the dismissal of the Prince Governor of Mazenderan, as the instigator of the outrage. The Shah's brother was to be the scapegoat of the Russian commander; the penalty of refusal was the immediate departure of the Russian Mission from Persia.

All the court, all Ispahan, exclaimed against the iniquity of this demand. The prince, they said, was governor of Mazenderan, not of Asterabad, besides which, he had every motive to conciliate, not to irritate, the Russians; the harsh conduct of the Russians was in itself, it was added a sufficient provocation to the Toorkomans; at all events let there be an investigation, and let punishment follow proof, not assumption. All was useless. The man was very sick indeed, and must submit to the prescription of his physician. In fine, when a weak, remote, unfriended nation, like Persia, has the misfortune to be neighbour to a powerful one like Russia, where one man's will is supreme and irresponsible, it must often be content to bow down in humiliation before pride, policy, and caprice. It must bend to avoid being broken. The prince was recalled, and the universal conviction of the injustice of the blow made it more deeply felt.


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No evil is without alloy, and so it may be said of the recall of the Prince Governor of Mazenderan. For a long time various attempts had been made to induce the Shah's government to put a stop to the importation of negro slaves from Africa by the Persian Gulf. They are conveyed in Persian and Arab vessels to the Persian ports. The authority of the government over its subjects on the coast of that sea is very imperfect, and in fact merely nominal. Consequently the only efficacious mode of stopping the traffic, is by allowing the right of search, and the removal of the slaves to English ships of war. But this concession had been strenuously resisted. A week after the forced recall of the governor of Mazenderan, this boon was granted for a certain number of years. Thanks be to the Russian government, to whom the negroes of Zanjibar ought to be grateful.

There are three kinds of negro slaves in Persia, who are named Bambassees, Nubees, and Habeshees. The former come from Zanjibar, and the neighbouring country in the interior, but I do not know the derivation of the name. The others, as their names imply, are natives of Nubia and Abyssinia. The Bambassees, who are genuine negroes, are in great disrepute as being ferocious, treacherous, and lazy. The Nubees and Habeshees, excepting in being black, do not present the usual negro characteristics. They are highly esteemed as being mild, faithful, brave and intelligent, and are generally confidential servants in Persian households. Ill-treatment must of course sometimes take place when there is unlimited power on one hand, and entire submission on the other. The fact is proved by the occasional instances in which slaves have


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taken refuge in the Mission to escape from punishment by their masters. Still it is believed that in general, cruelty, or even harshness, is rarely practised towards slaves in Persia. Their customary treatment is similar to that of the other servants of a family, or even something better, particularly when they happen to be Nubees or Habeshees. They are never employed as field labourers, their occupations being confined to the duties of the household. It is probable that in the anderoons more suffering is inflicted on the women slaves than is endured by the men. Caprice and idleness are unsafe guardians for human beings of an inferior race, when there is no "Times" to denounce and correct the wantonness of power. On the whole, however, the lot of slaves in Persia is perhaps as favourable as that institution will admit of. They are not treated with contempt as in America; there are no special laws to hold them in a state of degradation; they are frequently restored to freedom, and when this happens, they take their station in society without any reference to their colour or descent. White slaves frequently rise to the highest employments, but these are commonly captives taken in war. It is said not to be easy to make an estimate of the number of slaves imported annually into Persia from the Red Sea and Zanjibar. They certainly are not numerous, judging by the few to be seen in the streets of the large towns in the north of Persia. In those of the south they are doubtless in greater numbers, and particularly in the low, level tract bordering the coast, of which Bushire and Benderabbas are near the extremities. The difficulty of forming a correct calculation on the subject, arises from the practice of each petty chief in the Persian Gulf being


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an importer in his own vessels, and from the slaves being landed at a variety of small harbours extending over a great length of coast. The number is supposed not to exceed two or three thousand annually, of whom a great many die after leaving the hot region of the Persian coast.

Another source for obtaining slaves for the Persian market, is by means of the pilgrims to Kerbella. These slaves are conveyed directly across the desert from Mecca or Medina to Bagdad, to which latter city the pilgrims always resort. The Persian Hajees also on their return from Mecca often make purchases of one or two negroes. A few also are brought by the route of Damascus, but taken collectively the importation of slaves to Persia by these routes is insignificant, and its cessation or continuance is entirely dependent on the will of the Turkish Government.

On the 1st of September we commenced our return to Tehran, whither the Shah had already been gone a week previously. The Russian Mission had anticipated the Shah's movement in apprehension of the difficulty of procuring food in the event of following the royal camp. From Ispahan the regular road is by Cashan and Koom, but we, from the same reasons as influenced the Russians, retraced our steps to Khonsar, and from thence we went to Mellayer and regained our former road to Sava.

Not a single incident occurred to vary the monotony of the road, excepting a trait of Persian manners. Our camp was joined by a Persian gentleman, who had formerly held a very high post in the Shah's service, but who was now in disgrace. Late one night we heard at a considerable distance a noise resembling deep moaning, accompanied


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by a heavy, sustained sound, at short intervals. These unpleasant symptoms of distress having continued some time, we found on inquiry that the Khan, our travelling companion, a stanch disciple of Bacchus, had quarrelled with his cook, whose feet he had put into the fellek, and was now giving him a sound bastinado. It is hard to say how long the punishment would have continued, whether one or two hours, had not we caused it immediately to cease. The fellek is a long, stout piece of wood, each end of which is held by a ferash; the culprit's ancles [sic] are attached to two loops in the middle, and he is thrown on his back, by which means the soles of his feet are turned towards the sky. Two ferashes then flog him on the feet with long thin wands, which are renewed from time to time. The punishment inflicted in this way is sometimes most dreadful, lasting for hours it is said, but no one dies in consequence, though the patient often faints under the infliction. Some years ago no rank was exempt from this chastisement. The Shah constantly caused it to be inflicted in his own presence on delinquent governors. In the last Russian war the Asof ood Dowleh, a nobleman of the highest rank and a cousin of the Shah, suffered this punishment in the public square of Tehran, for having sustained a defeat from the Muscovites. As a homage to his rank, a carpet was spread on which he was placed, and the first blow was struck by the Shah's son, Abbas Meerza, the heir to the throne.

When the Khan was called to account for the breach of etiquette he had been guilty of in inflicting punishment in the Vezeer Mookhtar's camp, he amusingly alleged that it was done solely out of respect to Colonel S—, his


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cook having had the effrontery to say that our cook had taken the whole of the fowls in the village. These Persians are very strange people; they are ever on the watch to discover each other's intrigues, falsehoods, and finesses. A movement of the finger, a turn of the eye, is not left unnoticed, and receives an interpretation. Yet each man invariably thinks that his own plots and intrigues are the acme of human ingenuity, wholly unfathomable by the rest of mankind. How often have I heard the Persian secretaries of the Mission preparing little paltry schemes, which the dullest understanding could unravel, for arranging insignificant matters, in which all that was necessary was to tell the truth, and all the time thinking they were performing the cleverest and most impenetrable feats of diplomacy. The credulity of Persians, on the other hand, is also sometimes unaccountable. Knowing the chicanery and falsehood of their countrymen, they again and again go on believing and trusting each other to an incredible extent. When an aggrieved person is asked what induced him to put faith in the offender, his general answer is, "he swore a vast number of oaths; I said to myself, perhaps he is telling the truth." They have odd names for describing the moral qualities. Sedākat means sincerity, honesty, candour; but when a man is said to be possessed of sedākat, the meaning is that he is a credulous, contemptible simpleton. Much in the same manner a man of dashing courage is called deewāneh, which means mad.


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