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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 9

Gebr fire-worshippers – Curious mode of interment – Mission garden taken possession of by the Persian ladies – Persian music – Musical masons – The anniversary of Omar's assassination – How celebrated – Difference between Turks and Persians – Persian tolerance – Debts – Marriage – Condition of Persian women.

February 1st. – The large garden attached to the mission, in which we perform our daily perambulations, was on the opposite side of the road or street; yet even for this short distance we were forced to submit to the tiresome etiquette of being attended by numerous servants. I never went out to drive with less than fifteen or twenty horsemen armed to the teeth; not that there was the remotest shadow of danger, for no country is safer than Persia, but that dignity so required. Yet this troublesome grandeur was trifling to the cavalcade of a Persian lady or gentleman of rank. Our garden was but a melancholy place of recreation: lugubrious rows of cypress, the emblem of the graveyard in the East, crossed each other at right angles; and, to complete the picture, the deserted, neglected, little tombs of some of the children of former Ministers occupied a prominent space, and filled one sometimes with gloomy forebodings. The gardeners of this spot, which, in spite of the above disadvantages, was invaluable to me; by an old custom of the Mission, were always Gebrs of the ancient fire-worshipping native race. These people are most industrious, and


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struggle hard under oppression and bigotry, to gain a subsistence. They dwell chiefly in the eastern province of Yezd, from whence they migrate annually in great numbers during spring, something like the Irish reapers and mowers of old; and before winter they assemble in the Mission garden, and with their humble gains return in a body to their own province. In Tehran their abode is the Mission garden, where I have sometimes seen two hundred of this primitive people collected under the trees, where they live. The garden is recognised as their sanctuary and place of refuge, where no hand of violence molests them. They preserve a connexion with their brethren the Parsees of Bombay, and it is on this account, in all likelihood, that their intercourse with us is so intimate. In these improving days of Persia this protection is less necessary than formerly; particularly as the present Prime Minister is a man of much humanity, and willing to befriend this hapless community, who, in their own province, suffer great hardships from the rapacity of governors, and the bigotry of moollas. They are a simple, uneducated class, more rustic and uncouth in their appearance and manners than Mahommedan Persians of the same condition. Little or no information could be gained from them regarding their religion and customs. They said there was one great God that ruled everything, and that he had created numerous other gods or angels, who superintend the affairs of the world; there was a futurity of rewards and punishments; and besides the God of Goodness there is another spirit who is the cause of sin. This of course was Ahriman. They denied emphatically that fire or light was regarded as God; but they affirmed


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that they considered it as a most sacred and holy representative of the Divinity and of his power. Compared with other Persians, the Gebrs are described to be a highly virtuous people, though oppression has made them crafty; and my experience of the manner in which my fattest turkeys and best vegetables disappeared, makes me certain that they are not much more honest than the rest of the nation. They marry but one wife, with the natural result of a greater amount of conjugal felicity than prevails among Mahommedan Persians. Within a few miles of Tehran there is a place of interment of the Gebrs. The body is placed at the summit of a hill, exposed to the air and to the birds of prey; when the flesh is thoroughly consumed the bones are thrown into a common pit. Few of their women venture so far as Tehran: those who have appeared were plain in feature and coarse in expression; so, too, were the men, wholly unlike the men of the true Persian tribes, although, I suppose, both the Gebrs and these tribes are of the same race.

This garden was appropriated to other purposes. The 13th of the month Seffer is, from some reason which I have omitted to record, very ominous, particularly to any one who ventures to pass the day in a house. The whole town is consequently on foot, either in excursions or in sauntering about the few gardens in the dreary neighbourhood of Tehran. By ancient prescription our garden was devoted to the women of every rank who chose to make use of it, all males being carefully excluded, the Gebr gardeners excepted, who among Persian women are counted as nothing. The garden is occupied during the entire day by three or four hundred females – princesses, ladies, and


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others of inferior degree – who devote themselves to smoking, and eating lettuces, radishes, if they happen to be in season, or sweetmeats. The day never concludes without a battle royal, hand and tongue, between them and the Gebrs, who, strong in their dignity of gardeners to the Vezeer Mookhtar, as the foreign Ministers are absurdly called,6 are unable to tolerate the unblushing pilfering of plants, flowers, and fruit of these dames, headed by the princesses, who never fail to put to flight the "fire-worshipping infidels." That powerful ruler in the East Aadet – custom – has given the ladies of Tehran vested rights over her Majesty's garden one day in the year, which they stoutly maintain.

February 10th. – In passing through the streets of Tehran, one would be disposed to consider the Persians a very musical race. From all sides melodious sounds, somewhat monotonous, it is true, constantly strike the ear. And yet they cannot be called a musical people; far from it. The combination of second tenor and bass is unknown to them, and unison is all they aim at, no matter what number of voices, or of fiddles, guitars, harps, and dulcimers, form the concert. A lad warbling in his throat, at his highest and loudest scream, in imitation of a nightingale, is the perfection of vocal music, which they will listen to with pleasure for hours, and beguile the longest


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day's journey with the same dulcet strains. But the street music I allude to is a different thing: it proceeds from the bricklayers. In bricklaying in Persia the brick is thrown from hand to hand until at length it is pitched to the oostād, the master mason. To relieve his monotonous labour the oostād has recourse to a chant, fully as monotonous as his work, but sweet in tone. In general he combines a little polemical casuistry and devotion with his psalmody, by directing a vast quantity of abuse against Omar, the second Caliph after Mahommed, whom the Persians regard with bitter enmity, as being the leader in the exclusion of Ali from the Caliphate. He sings to words in this style: –

Khishtee bideh māra jānum
Lâanet illāhee ber Oma-a-ar.

Give me a brick then, my life,
And the curse of God light on Omar.

Yekee deeger bideh bimun azeezum
Inshallah kheir neh beened Oma-a-r.

Give me another, now, my darling,
Please God, Omar will not have any luck.

On the day on which Omar was assassinated, the powers of the bricklayers in poetical and melodious imprecation wax stronger. It is a strange circumstance that a man should daily suffer malediction twelve hundred years after his death. Judas Iscariot is better off. The women distinguish themselves by their devotion on this anniversary, though their mode of evincing their piety is both inconvenient, and whimsical. Perched on the flat roof of their houses overlooking the street, and armed with a large pot of water, they lie in wait for the passers by, and the heedless passenger is soused with the water, while a triumphant


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scream proclaims "Omar, laanehoo Allāh" (Omar, God curse him!). Beyond that general solver of all difficulties and mysteries in Persia, Kaëdeh – custom, I never could obtain any explanation of this practice, unless perhaps the nearly equally general and less complimentary one of "Zun est! Deeger" (they are women! what can you expect?). The Government never countenanced these ebullitions of zeal, still it was not easy to punish the women. When the Turkish ambassador came to Tehran, it was feared he might be insulted by expressions like these. Nothing, however, occurred to disturb harmony, perhaps from his Excellency taking the precaution of remaining at home on the day of Omar Kooshan (slaying Omar).

The Persians are a curious combination of bigotry and tolerance, or perhaps indifferentism; but in the towns where Europeans reside, fanaticism is obviously fast decaying. It is believed that had Constantinople been their capital, the Persians would long ere this have far surpassed the Turks in religious toleration. A Turk has an Armenian for his cook, and his bath is freely open to a Christian. A Persian would on no account submit to have his own kitchen presided over by an Armenian, who kills fowls unlawfully by wringing their necks instead of cutting their throats; and when a European enters a public bath, it must be by night, stealthily and at some expense. On the other hand, a Persian never hesitates to rise on receiving a Christian visitor; which is such gall and wormwood to any Ottoman whose official position compels him to show this mark of deference to a European, that he generally contrives on such occasions to be standing deeply engaged in the perusal of a letter. A Persian has likewise no hesitation


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in uttering the salutation of Salāmun Aleikoom, to a Christian, which a Turk would rather suffer martyrdom than do. No contempt is felt by the natives of Persia towards Europeans, though occasionally a moolla or a devout merchant may destroy the teacup his European guest has used; on the contrary, they venerate them as their superiors in almost every quality. A Turk, unless he be educated in Europe, and therefore denationalized, has seldom any feelings towards a Feringhee but those of dislike and contempt. As a proof of the correctness of the above opinion, I may mention that several years ago a private soldier deserted from the Russian army and entered the service of the Shah. He rose to the rank of brigadier and khan, and notwithstanding that he continued to be a Christian, he was made military governor of the holy and bigoted city of Meshed. He governed the intolerant population with such success, that his departure was the cause of general regret.

February 15th. – This is decidedly an odd people. The entire nation seems to be in debt, commencing with the Shah, who is in debt to the Emperor of Russia, and ending with the humblest muleteer. The marvel is who are those that lend the money; they, it may be conjectured, being out of debt. Every man of rank one hears of seems to be in the same predicament, though it is to be suspected this poverty is often feigned to escape from the weighty hand of exaction. To-day Malik Meerza Beg, our naïb ferash bashee, or deputy-groom of the chambers, as he has dubbed himself, presented himself after breakfast, with suppliant and dolorous looks; and, coming to the point, declared his debts pressed on him heavily, and that


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we were bound to help him by a loan of 12l. The pretexts of the borrower are usually either he had lately taken a fresh wife, or his family was large, his father had died, the wall of his house had fallen, the roof leaked, &c. But a new wife is the prevailing cause of debt. Our butler Mahommed Agha, not long after entering our service, took a second helpmate; after due time his household was increased by a third; and at length, not having neglected the opportunities that occurred for improving his finances, a rumour reached us that a fourth espousal was in progress. This was alarming, as all these ladies were necessarily to live at our cost; so Mahommed Agha was warned that if he remained with us, he must not anticipate the promised number of houris in Paradise. Another person, as heavily oppressed by his debts and creditors as an ancient Roman nobleman, was Suleiman Agha, a ferash e khelwet (valet de chambre). The cause was the same as in the previous instance. At the Aras he had neglected to join us, being more agreeably employed in taking a wife at Tabreez. On arriving at Tehran, we found he had not previously been a bachelor; but he hastened to make himself a widower by divorcing his wife because she had become blind, and then speedily took another. He seemed to adopt the precaution of having a wife in each large town; for afterwards, when he accompanied us to Ispahan, we found that there also a wife was ready to relieve his loneliness. The whole nation, I am told – the town part of it, at least – is more or less in the same condition.

The customs of the country are highly encouraging to lenders of money, and to extended views of matrimony.


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Interest of any kind is repudiated by the precepts of Mahommed; still it is admitted in the "common law." Legal interest is limited to 12 per cent.; but it seldom amounts to less than 25, and often reaches 50, 60, or 100 per cent. A clever mode has been adopted of cheating the law, which would not recognize the validity of the interest. A person borrowing a thousand tomans, at 25 per cent. interest, gives a promissory note for 1250 tomans, as if that were the real amount lent. I am informed that in England devices of a similar nature are not unknown.

Matrimonial engagements are of two kinds, The real marriage – the one looked upon as respectable – is confined to four wives, and is called akd. This is permanent, unless divorce takes place. In the other there is no limit to the number of wives; but then the period of the engagement is restricted, and never exceeds ninety years. This is the most honourable term of contract in the secondary, or seegha, marriage; but even this unreachable period does not place the seegha e neved saleh (ninety years) on a level with the akdee wife. Their sons, however, are on an equality as regards station and everything else, unless one of the wives happens to be of the reigning race of Kajjar, or of a rank much above that of the husband. A man of station chooses the akdee wife from his own class in life, while the seeghas are from an inferior rank, and perform menial offices for the former. The marriage ceremony is very simple: the family of the bridegroom, with a moolla, assemble at the bride's house; behind a curtain are the female relations, with the bride. The moolla asks her if she is willing to marry the bridegroom elect; and after a long delay (which is a point of


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honour) she whispers, Yes. The contract is then signed and registered, and sweetmeats are sent to the bride. In the evening she is conducted in procession, with pipes and drums and all her worldly goods, to her husband's house.

The lot of women among the tribes, and among the peasantry, is not, from all I hear, an unhappy one. Their interests are identified with their husbands: divorce is rare; and the number of wives does not often exceed one. In the towns it seems to be otherwise. If they are young, handsome, or powerfully connected, matters are tolerably smooth. But when the wife loses her personal attraction she often sinks down to a household drudge; and at the best is seldom free from contention with her rivals in the haram. I do not think a Persian woman ever feels the same affection for her husband as some Europeans do. But when a rival wife is introduced into an establishment her pin-money is decreased at Nowrooz (New Year's Day); her allowance for new clothes for herself and establishment is lessened; her children's interests suffer, if she has any; and if not, perhaps her more fortunate rival may have a son; besides a variety of other annoyances. Persian women seem to me to have no idea of a calm, tranquil life. Novelty, or whatever causes excitement, is what they seek, and, I dare say, they would be miserable without that stimulus. They have not strong religious or moral principle; and the example of their husband is said to be no encouragement to domestic happiness.

When a woman happens to possess unusual talent, or has a stronger understanding than her husband, she maintains her supremacy to the last, not only over her associate


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wives, but over her husband, his purse, and property. I have heard of several gentlemen about the court whose wives would not suffer either the introduction of other inmates to the haram, or drinking-parties, or any expenditure excepting on the most narrow scale. One of our neighbours was a merchant who possessed a temper that led him into frequent and noisy quarrels with his wives. The ladies seemed perfectly able to maintain their ground, as far as words went, and generally so overwhelmed him with abuse, that flight or a beating used to be his common resource. I remember on one occasion a member of the mission was calling on a former Minister for Foreign Affairs on some business in which certain official documents required to be sealed. When the time for sealing arrived, the seals were missing, and after a long search it was discovered, to his Excellency's intense confusion, that they had been carried off by his wife, who had gone on a pilgrimage to Shah Abdul Azeem, a place of great holiness and resort for the ladies of Tehran, five miles from town.



Facing Page 145


Persian Lady in Walking Costume.      Page 145.

A Persian woman of the upper class leads a life of idleness and luxury, though rather monotonous according to our ideas of existence. No balls, plays, or operas, no dinners, no new books, no watering-places, no Paris or Rome, diversify the ordinary routine. Like the men, talking, gossip and scandal are the occupation of their lives. All classes enjoy abundance of liberty, more so, I think, than among us. The complete envelopment of the face and person disguises them effectually from the nearest relatives, and destroying, when convenient, all distinction of rank, gives unrestrained freedom. The bazars are crowded


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with women in this most ungraceful disguise. The weekly bath and constant visits consume a large share of their time; and Thursday afternoon is devoted to a mock pilgrimage to some shrine outside the town, or else to the grave of some relation. It was curious to meet a lady of rank on an occasion of this kind, mounted en cavalier on a tall Toorkoman horse, which she managed with skill. Her female attendants surrounded her, riding in the same style; and her other servants remained at a short distance, some in front, and some behind. If no Persians were too near, they made little scruple of raising their veils, for the indulgence of our and their own curiosity. Women of the higher classes frequently acquire a knowledge of reading and writing, and of the choice poetical works in their native language; as well as of the art of reading, though, perhaps, not of understanding, the Koran. In the royal family, in particular, and among the ladies of the tribe of Kajjar, these accomplishments are so common that they themselves conduct their correspondence without the customary aid of a meerza, or secretary. Cooking, or at least its superintendence, is another of their pastimes, especially among the Kajjar ladies. One of the princesses, whose husband was of similar rank, and was on intimate terms of acquaintance with my husband, used frequently to send me savoury dishes at our dinner-hour. An intimation always accompanied the viands, of their being the preparation of the "Shazadeh Khanum," the lady princess, herself. Sometimes a very young lamb, roasted whole, decked with flowers, with a rich stuffing of chesnuts or pistachios, would appear as our pièce de résistance; or else dolma, which consists of cabbages or oranges stuffed with forced-meat.


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The latter is an achievement in the culinary art. The confectionary, which is the test of a lady's proficiency in gastronomic science, was of great variety, and exceedingly good. Persian confectionary, in general, is seldom entitled to any praise; for, though endless in exterior variety, it has only one flavour, that of sugar. Persian ladies are accused of indulging to excess in exciting beverages, by which I mean those contrary to the religious law. I myself never saw the slightest approach to anything of the kind; and I am disposed to believe there is no foundation for the accusation. Of all places in the world Tehran is the most addicted to scandal and detraction: they are its pastime and its business. I must confess, however, that I once saw a princess, during a visit, with a special teapot by her side, out of the spout of which she drank from time to time. No one could tell what it contained. She herself declared it was physic.

The above is Persian female life in its best aspect. If looked at in its worst, I am sure fearful tragedies and scenes of horror would be revealed. Power in the anderoon is nearly despotic. An immense deal of cruelty, even murder itself, can be committed in the haram, without any atonement. A needy, harsh, disappointed, profligate man, responsible to no one, often wreaks his temper on the persons least capable of resistance. But he, too, is often the sufferer by his severities. An ill-treated slave, male or female, sometimes one of his wives, will administer a potion, and terminate his career – perhaps without designing so tragical a result. Detection is not easy, and many deaths are attributed to the practices of the anderoon. When a woman finds herself neglected and cast aside, and that she


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has ceased to please, she sometimes has recourse to incantations and endeavours to bewitch her husband. She decks herself, and, if possible, him, with charms and talismans; she presents nazr – as an offering to God or to any of the prophets or saints is called – of a sheep, or anything else (like the Jews of old), which is afterwards distributed among the poor. I may mention that Imām Hoossein is the special favourite of the women in Persia. An old woman in my service once told me she cared very little for Mahommed, as she irreverently called him, but that she had a deep affection for Imām Hoossein. No doubt her attachment was founded on the scenic representation of his sufferings she had annually seen at the Tazeea. If Imām Hoossein, or whatever patron the forlorn dame may have adopted, should not yield to her supplications, she then has recourse to a love-potion. I do not know all the ingredients of which this compound is formed; but incantation enters in a large degree into its preparation. One of the Persian secretaries of the mission told me it was made of all sorts of horrible things, one of which, I remember, was a frog. Not seldom, however, the dose is too powerful, and puts an end to the patient's worldly cares for ever. I mentioned before that Suleiman Agha, one of our servants, urged as a plea for one of his unceasing divorces that his "burnt father" of a wife (meaning that his wife's father was burning) had on a certain occasion nearly killed him, by administering a love-draught. The very memory of it seemed to renew all his horror, quite forgetting the ill-treatment which had provoked her to seek help in this dangerous remedy. The grand ambition of every married woman is to have several sons, as


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through them she is secured consideration and a provision in advanced years. Daughters, as usual, count as nothing.

The mortality among children is immense, owing to neglect, ignorance, and laziness. I remember a little prince, of eight years of age, who came to see my children. His stockings dropped into a pool of water, and his nurse made him wear them when quite wet. He is since dead, and this is the fate of all weak and delicate children. None but the strong children survive; and the result is that the Persians, though few in number, are strong, stout, and hardy. The population of Persia is supposed not to increase; nor with causes like these in operation could it well do so. Dr. Cloquet, the Shah's French physician, son and nephew of the two famous surgeons of the same name, expressed to me his conviction that not above three children in ten outlived their third year. Ladies, of even moderate wealth and station, never nurse their children, and do not seem to care for them when they are very young. Afterwards they are affectionate mothers. These nurses have a habit of quieting their charge, and their own children too, with bits of opium, of a size which our own doctor assured me was quite astounding.

Among the Persians an odd system of nomenclature for their wives is commonly adopted. Instead of using their names, they avoid doing so; and when addressing or speaking of their wives, they designate them by the name of the wife's eldest son. Thus, instead of saying Zooleikha, for instance, he will call her Mader e Ali, mother of Ali. Khanum (lady) is, however, the term preferred. The Sadr Azim, or Prime Minister, I am told, always


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talks of his wife, who is his cousin, under the designation of Dookhter e Amooüm (my uncle's daughter). But his Excellency is somewhat peculiar in his phraseology. Whenever he ascends to the regions of high diplomacy (wherever they may be), his favourite and incessant asseveration is, Beh marg e Kassim (By the death of Kassim!). Kassim is his eldest son.


Notes

6 This name, so full of false pretension, was introduced by the Russians, and for no good motive. The word "vezeer," they said, implied "minister," consequently they were vezeers. It certainly does mean minister, but only a Minister of State, which a minister plenipotentiary is not. Thus a spurious consequence is acquired, which the English have been forced to partake in self-defence.



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