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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 8

Dulness of the life in Tehran – Gardening – The Persian language – The Moharrem. – Dramatic representation – Fighting among the women – Extraordinary overflow of grief at the representation – Visit to the Shah's mother and wives – Interior of the Haram – Thin costume.

December 2nd, 1849. – Here, then we were fairly launched on the monotonous current of life in Persia. To a man the existence is tiresome enough, but to a woman it is still more dreary. The former has the resource of his occupation, – the sports of the field, the gossip and scandal of the town, in which he must join whether he likes it or not; and, finally, Persian visiting cannot be altogether neglected, and, if freely entered into, is alone a lavish consumer of time. With a woman it is otherwise. She cannot move abroad without being thickly veiled; she cannot amuse herself by shopping in the bazars, owing to the attention she would attract unless attired in Persian garments. This is precluded by the inconvenience of the little shoes hardly covering half the foot, with a small heel three inches high in the middle of the sole, to say nothing of the roobend or small white linen veil, fitting tightly round the head (over the large blue veil which envelopes the whole person), and hanging over the face, with an open worked aperture for the eyes and for breathing; then the chakh-choor, half-boot half-trousers, into which gown and petticoat are crammed.


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As to visiting, intimacy with Persian female society has seldom any attraction for a European, indeed I regret to say there were only a few of the Tehran ladies whose mere acquaintance was considered to be desirable; so that the fine garden of the Mission, which hitherto had been much neglected, was the only resource left to me. The Shah had then in his service a first-rate English gardener, Mr. Burton, and with his help I astonished every one with the fineness of my celery, cauliflowers, &c., for these useful edibles occupied my mind more than flowers. Gardening in Persia is not an easy matter to bring to perfection. First there is the difficulty of making the gardeners do as they are told, and then twice every week the garden is flooded and the beds drowned. When the spring comes on and the sun gets strong and fierce, the beds dry up soon, and look like baked earth, cracked and dry, until the next water day, when they are changed into mud. The ground is covered with snow during January and February, so that March and April in spring, and October, November, and December in the autumn and beginning of winter, are the only months fit for the cultivation of a garden. The power of the sun in summer is so intense, that flowers blow and wither in a day. Roses come in about the 24th of April, and are out of season in Tehran by the middle of May. During that time they are in wonderful profusion, and are cultivated in fields as an object of trade to make rosewater; they are an inferior kind of cabbage rose. Persians are also fond of cultivating tuberoses, narcissus, and tulips in water; still all their flowers are much inferior to ours; but while they last are superabundant. I got over some fine hyacinths one year, and


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they attracted great admiration. Nearly all our garden flowers grow wild in Persia, but are small, and always single.

The distance at which the Russian mission resided prevented me from cultivating as much as I wished, the acquaintance of Princess D— and her amiable daughter; and the remaining European female society of Tehran was limited to one or two ladies, the wives of foreign officers in the Shah's service. To my countrywomen, therefore, whose pleasures are derived from the excitements of a London or Paris season, I need not offer counsel to eschew a land where life for them much resembles that of a convent. Once a month the post from Europe arrived, and that was a bright, joyful day. The 10th of each month the mail was "due," and every one anxiously expecting it, but alas! we often experienced the truth of the saying, "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick," for we were often forgotten in Constantinople.

There was ample time consequently for the study of Persian, and I soon acquired sufficient to enable me to go through my part unaided in the society of the few Persian ladies with whom I was on visiting terms. Fortunately Persian, up to a certain extent, is an exceedingly easy language, more so even than Italian. In the pronunciation there is no difficulty, and for my limited topics of conversation the idiom was not so remote from that of the languages of Europe as to make its acquisition a painful study. But that there is no good unmixed with evil is true of Persian as of all other things. There is no such thing as "reading made easy." The character is abominable and almost invincible. Enough to say, that


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there are neither capitals nor pauses of any kind, nor divisions of sentences, paragraphs, chapters, books, or volumes. English itself would be an enigma under such perplexities. One of my modes of study was to listen to the Persian meerzas, or secretaries, reading letters, but I never saw an instance of their reading an epistle at once without hesitation, and still less of their understanding it at the first perusal.

The month of December chanced this year to be one of woe and wailing externally, but really of relaxation and amusement to all classes of Persians. It was the month of Moharrem, which among Sheahs is solemnized in commemoration of the slaughter of Imām Hoossein and his family in the desert of Kerbella. The story is affecting. The Persians have converted it into a theatrical representation, somewhat resembling the Mysteries produced on the stage in old times in England and elsewhere. Hoossein, the son of Fatma, daughter of Mahommed, is marching through the desert with his wives and family of young children and attendants, chiefly his near relations, numbering seventy persons. They are attacked by the troops of Yezeed, commanded by his general Obeid Oollah, the monarch of Damascus, and the second sovereign of the Benee Ommeya dynasty. Hoossein defends himself valiantly during several days; till at length he is cut off from the Euphrates, and his family perish, some from thirst, some fighting. Hoossein is finally killed and his head is cut off by Shimr. It requires to be seen to conceive the emotion of the Persians at this performance. On every side, and from all ranks, sighs, groans, and weeping, without restraint, are heard, mixed with imprecations


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against the perpetrators of the cruelties suffered by the prophet's grandson and his family. Excitement is occasionally carried to such a pitch that Shimr, the object of general execration, has difficulty in making his escape from the oriental Judge Lynch, and particularly from the indignation and buffets of the women. The representation lasts ten days, and several hours each day. I confess with some shame, that my patience and curiosity were insufficient to carry me through a complete performance of the entire drama; nevertheless I have been to several representations. One of the principal personages on one of the ten days is the Elchee Fering, some fictitious European ambassador, probably Greek, who is present when the head of Hoossein is exhibited to Yezeed, and who loudly protests against the massacre; for which indiscretion he is rewarded with the crown of martyrdom. There is always great anxiety that the costume of his Excellency should be European and military, and, above all, a cocked hat and feather are highly prized. At Serab, some years ago, a deputation once waited on my husband to borrow his coat and cap for the Elchee Fering, now generally called with immense contempt of chronology, Elchee Inglees. At Tehran our horses and chairs too, are in constant requisition during the month of Moharrem, at the private performances in the city – the former to appear in the pageant, the latter to accommodate the European visitors.

The Prime Minister had constructed an immense building, holding several thousand persons, for these representations. It fulfilled all the purposes of a theatre, though after a design somewhat novel. The stage, instead


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of being at the bottom of the building, was formed of a large elevated platform in the middle of the pit, if I may so call it, perfectly open on every side, and revealing, to the entire destruction of all exercise of the imagination, the mysteries which ought to pass behind the curtain. Two tiers of boxes surround the platform. The foreign ministers receive a formal invitation to attend the Tazeeya, as these performances are called, of the Prime Minister, to refuse which would be resented as highly discourteous. I too was included in the invitation. On reaching the building, I was conducted to a very comfortable loge, with an antechamber, or kefshken, "slipper-casting" room, where one leaves the outer shoes. The front of the box carefully covered over with a thick felt carpet, pierced with small holes, which, while they allowed us to see all that passed, completely excluded us from the view of the audience. The Shah's box was at the top, facing the performers; on his right were the boxes of his uncles, the prime minister, the English minister as senior, the Russian minister, &c. On his left were the boxes of his mother, who has no other title than that of Māder e Shah, the king's mother, and his wives; then that of the prime minister's wife, then mine, and next the Russian minister's wife. The fatigues of the day were relieved by constant supplies of tea and coffee, with pipes incessantly for those who liked them. The "house" was completely filled, and there must have been several thousand persons present. Part of the pit was appropriated to women of humble condition, who were in great numbers, all however carefully veiled, and all seated on the bare ground. Before the "curtain drew up," it was


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ludicrous to witness the contention among these dames for places, which was not always limited to cries and execrations. They often proceeded to blows, striking each other heartily on the head with the iron heel of their slippers, dexterously snatched off the foot for the purpose; and, worse still, tearing off each other's veils; several ferashes were present to keep the peace, armed with long sticks, with which they unmercifully belaboured these pugnacious devotees. It would be tedious to describe a drama of ten days' duration. Everything was done to make the scene as real as possible. Hoossein, his family, and attendants, were in the costume of the time. They make their appearance, travelling to Cufa, in the desert of Kerbella. Camels, led horses caparisoned, kejawās, are conducted round the platform; trumpets, kettledrums, resound far and near. Yezeed's army appears, his general makes a speech, Imām Hoossein laments his pathetic fate; he then goes out to fight, and returns, himself and his horse covered with arrows. The scene proceeds; they are cut off from the Euphrates; more lamentations over their impending fate, more fighting. The fierce Shimr and his cavaliers, all in mail, come forward, mounted on their war-horses; Shimr makes speeches in character; Imām Hoossein replies with dignity and with grief for the distress of his family. His young sons Ali Akbar and Ali Asghar go out to fight, and are brought back dead. Sekkeena and Rookheeya, his little daughters, are slain amid the weeping loud and unfeigned of the audience. The angel Gabriel descends from the skies, attended by his ministering angels, all radiant in spangled wings, and deprecates the hard lot of the


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prophet's offspring; the King of the Gins, or Genii, with his army, appears, and follows the angelic example. Moses, Jesus Christ, and Mahommed, revisit the earth, and are stricken with the general contagion of grief. At length Shimr does his work, amidst an universal outburst of sorrow and indignation; and the next day, the tenth, the interment of Imām Hoossein and his family takes places at Kerbella.

It is a sight in no small degree curious to witness an assemblage of several thousand persons plunged in deep sorrow, giving vent to their grief in the style of schoolboys and girls. The Persians have a peculiar manner of weeping. Various extraordinary and ludicrous noises accompany their demonstrations, which one is sometimes inclined to mistake for laughter. When one begins the contagion spreads to all. I too felt myself forced, would I or not, to join my tears to those of the Persian women round me, which appeared to give considerable satisfaction to them. The events are indeed affecting, and many of the parts are acted with great spirit and judgment. The delivery is a sort of recitative. Imām Hoossein was composed and dignified. The part of Sekkeena, a girl of twelve, was performed by a little boy with an approbation which he well deserved. Shimr was excellent, fierce and ferocious as a Meerghazab. Young lads represented the wives of Hoossein, in whose favour I can say nothing; their boisterous Arab grief failed to excite my sympathy.

It was strange to see Moses attired as an Arab sheikh, which probably enough was a correct representation of his real costume, though not bearing much likeness to Michael


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Angelo's conception of the great lawgiver. Our Saviour was made to appear in garments denoting poverty, though certainly not with any intention of indignity. Two women sat at his side, who, in answer to my inquiry, I was told were his wives. Mahommed made amends by his grandeur, in which silvered silk and Cashmeer shawls were prominent. The Elchee was accompanied by his wife, who had a European bonnet on, with the curtain hanging over the forehead and the front on her neck. During the entire month the women and many of the men dress in black.

January 12th. – The season of grief having passed, I now prepared to pay my respects to the Serkar e Mader e Shah, her highness the Shah's mother. Instead of his Majesty's principal wife, as one would anticipate, it is this lady who holds the chief place at court – among the womankind, be it well understood. The royal wives count as nothing, unless under very unusual circumstances, such as occurred in the instance of the Tājood Dowla, in Fetteh Ali Shah's reign, who, from a very humble origin, ascended to her elevated position by force of talent, and, what is more uncommon, of goodness. The Khanum, or Lady, that being the name the Shah applies to his mother, as Napoleon the Great did Madame to his, having fixed the day, a large retinue of servants with a gaudy takhterewān were sent by her to convey me to the palace, which, joined to my own servants, made an inconvenient procession through the narrow bazars. After much shouting and turning of people's faces to the wall, we arrived at a small door. Here our cavalcade stopped, and I alighted from the takhterewān. The men servants


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Persian Lady receiving a European Lady.      Page 131.



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were forbidden to advance, and, accompanied by my maid, I was conducted along a damp passage into a fine court with a large tank full of water in the centre; from various apartments round this court women hastened out, curious to see the Khanum e Inglees, the English lady. I passed on, ascended a flight of steps, and reached a nice room hung round with looking-glasses, where a chair had been placed for me. Here I was joined by a Frenchwoman, who, when very young, had married a Persian she met in Paris, and whose faith she has since adopted. She is interpreter to the Shah's mother, and is a very clever, agreeable person. In a few minutes a negress entered the room, and informed us that the Khanum waited, and that I was to "take my brightness into her presence." We were then ushered into the adjoining chamber, and found her seated on a chair at a table which was covered with coarse white unhemmed calico. On each side of her, on a chair likewise, sat a pretty young lady covered with jewels. The Khanum said a great many amiable things to me, and went through all the usual Persian compliments, hoping my heart had not grown narrow, that my nose was fat, &c. &c. She then introduced the two young ladies as the Shah's two principal wives and cousins. Neither of them uttered a word, but sat like statues during my interview, which lasted two hours. The Shah's mother is handsome, and does not look more than thirty, yet her real age must be at least forty. She is very clever, and is supposed to take a large share in the affairs of the government. She has also the whole management of the Shah's anderoon; so that I should think she must have a good deal to occupy her mind, as the Shah has three principal


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wives, and eight or nine inferior ones. These ladies have each a separate little establishment, and some a separate court from the rest, but all the courts have a communication with one another. I do not admire the costume of the Persian women. The Shah's mother was dressed with great magnificence. She wore a pair of trousers made of gold brocade. These Persian trousers are always, as I have before remarked, very wide, each leg being, when the means of the wearer allow it, wider than the skirt of a gown, so that they have the effect of an exceedingly ample petticoat; and as crinolines are unknown, the elegantes wear ten and eleven pairs of trousers, one over the other in order to make up for the want of the above important invention. But to return to the Shah's mother: her trousers were edged with a border of pearls embroidered on braid; she had a thin blue crepe chemisette, also trimmed with pearls; this chemisette hung down a little below the waist, nearly meeting the top of the trousers, which are fastened by a running string. As there was nothing under the thin gauze, the result of course was more display than is usual in Europe. A small jacket of velvet was over the chemisette, reaching to the waist, but not made to close in front, and on the head a small shawl, pinned under the chin. On the shawl were fastened strings of large pearls and diamond sprigs; her arms were covered with handsome bracelets, and her neck with a variety of costly necklaces. Her hair was in bands, and hung down under the shawl, in a multitude of small plaits. She wore no shoes, her feet being covered with fine Cashmere stockings. The palms of her hands and tips of her fingers were dyed red,


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with a herb called henna, and the edges of the inner part of the eyelids were coloured with antimony. All the Kajars have naturally large arched eyebrows, but, not satisfied with this, the women enlarge them by doubling their real size with great streaks of antimony: her cheeks were well rouged, as is the invariable custom among Persian women of all classes. She asked me many questions about the Queen; how she dressed, how many sons she had, and said she could not imagine a happier person than her Majesty, with her fine family, her devoted husband, and the power she possessed. She made me describe the ceremonial of a drawing-room. I much regretted I had no picture of the Queen to show her. She was also curious to have an account of a theatre. My maid had been taken to another room, where, surrounded by the servants and slaves of the anderoon, she was surfeited with sugarplums, and where her dress excited much curiosity. These attendants had the same costume as the Shah's mother, only English printed calico of bright flowered patterns took the place of brocade and velvet. Some of them had their hair cut short in front, and combed straight down to the eyebrows, with two stiff curls at each check, peeping out from under the shawl. Tea, coffee, and pipes were brought in repeatedly, and after some time a nice collation of fruit. Various kinds of sherbets, ices, and cakes were spread on the table, and on the ground. We were surrounded by ladies, who attended as if they had been servants. No one was seated, excepting the Shah's mother, his wives, and myself. Some of the former were wives of the late Shah and his predecessor, Fetteh Ali Shah. None of them were young,


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excepting one, who was very handsome as well as youthful. Her name was Miriam Khanum, wife of a brother of the Shah's mother. She was much flattered at my telling her she was like a European. The women in Persia have only one name, sometimes a fanciful one; such as Beebee Asr, "the Lady of the Era;" Mehrban Khānum, "the Lady of Courtesy;" Sheereen Khanum, "Lady of Sweetness," &c. &c. At length I departed, and regained my takhterewan, highly pleased with the novelty of the scene. When I had acquired a sufficient knowledge of their language to be able to form an opinion, I found the few Persian women I was acquainted with in general lively and clever; they are restless and intriguing, and may be said to manage their husband's and son's affairs. Persian men are made to yield to their wishes by force of incessant talking and teazing.



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