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Islamic History Sourcebook:
Samuel G. Wilson:
New Year's Calls and Gifts, Persia 1895


THE Persians are eminently a social people. They are vivacious and entertaining; fond of jokes and story-telling, and ready in repartee. They are much given to visiting and feasting. This is remarkable, since the great bond of society with us is entirely wanting: the social intercourse of men and women is not permitted, and the idea of it shocks their sense of propriety. Men visit with men, women with women. Dancing amazes them beyond measure, and seems an immodest license and a perversion of liberty.

The Persians are a polite people. They have elaborate rules of etiquette, and many set phrases and compliments suitable for every occasion. Visits are made at the festivals, both for congratulation and condolence, and often for the transaction of business. The physician is honored with an hour's social chat before the ailments of the caller-in are mentioned. He is expected in return to make himself comfortable in the parlor for a prolonged tea-drinking before being inducted into the sickroom. Time is of little value. Social calls are often of three or four hours' duration.

The greatest social event in Persia is the festival of the New Year or Noruz. It commemorates the entrance of the sun into the sign of Aries at the vernal equinox. It is the most fitting and beautiful time for the New Year. Then the sacred year of the Jews and of some European nations began. March 25th was the first day of the year in Scotland until 1600, and in England until 1752. At this season, Persia, throughout most of its borders, begins to put on its robe of verdure, flowers begin to bloom, and the farmer takes up his work in the fields.

Some Persians affirm that the world began to move in its orbit on that day. Others place the origin of the festival in the time of Jemshid, the founder of Persepolis. He introduced the solar year, and celebrated its first day as a splendid festival. The sculptured procession on the great staircase at Persepolis is supposed to represent the bringing of presents from the various provinces at Noruz. This is the only festival of ancient Persia that has not been displaced by the sacred seasons of Mohammedanism. The Persians never fail to enter into its enjoyment, except when the movable lunar calendar of Islam brings some religious ceremony at the same time. From 1893 to 1896 Noruz falls in the great fast of Ramadan. The festivities with which ancient kings celebrated it are curiously described in the "Arabian Nights," in "The Enchanted Horse." In the introduction to this story it is said: "Noruz, or the new day, is a festival so solemn and so ancient throughout the whole extent of Persia, taking its origin even from the earliest period of idolatry, that the holy religion of the Prophet, pure and unsullied as it is, has been hitherto unable to abolish it; although it must be confessed that it is a custom completely pagan, and that the ceremonies observed in its solemnization are of the most superstitious nature. Not to mention large cities, there is no town, borough, village, or hamlet, however small, where the festival is not celebrated with extraordinary rejoicings. Those that take place at court surpass all others by the variety of new and surprising spectacles, so that nothing that is attempted in other parts of the world can approach or be compared with this sumptuous magnificence." A thousand years after Haroun-al-Raschid the festival still holds its place. To an outside observer its ceremonies do not seem as "pagan" as some of those connected with Shiahism.

Prior to the festival of Noruz the dervish pitches his white tent before the door of some nobleman, and sits there and yells, "Ya hak!" ["O truth!"] until his claims to charity are satisfied. The letter-carrier presents himself to receive an anam; the cook expects a new coat; the mirza, and even the physician, are remembered by their patrons; and the alderman receives goodly donations from his constituents. During the last week of the old year the bazaars are profusely decorated. Gay cloths, carpets, and shawls are exhibited in the shops. Pictures, mirrors, mottoes, bunting, and embroideries are hung up. Arches are constructed, spanning the streets with pendent ornaments. Villagers crowd in front of the open shops, and groups of boys stroll about to see the sights. Every one buys a collection of nuts, raisins, figs, dates, dried apricots, grape-juice paste, etc. These fruits must be of seven kinds, the name of each beginning with the letter "S." The collection is called the yeddi luvn.

Many send to their friends a plateful, with the compliments of the season. The last Wednesday, called Akhir Chahar-Shenba, is a gala day. It is the children's festival, but the whole population is ready for a frolic. Clowns in fantastic costumes and ludicrous masks, and strolling minstrels with tambourines and cymbals and leading a monkey, perform and collect shahis. Boys crowd the streets, and women gather on the housetops, to see the shows. School-boys enter into the spirit of the day and make a mock visit to their principal. One of them, arrayed like a Kurdish sheik, in long flowing robes, great turban, and a cotton beard, and with attendants armed like Kurds, but with canes for swords, presents himself and declares that a fine has been levied upon the school. He receives a present, and they all go off to expend it on some of the good things in the bazaars.

As the great day approaches, every man says to himself, "Well, to-morrow is Noruz. I must get my head shaved, go to the bath, dye my hands, nails, and beard with henna, put on a clean skull-cap, and see if the tailor has my new coat ready. I must buy some sugar and tea, tobacco and candy, and then I shall be ready for all comers."

In the capital the festival is ushered in and celebrated with elaborate ceremonies by the shah and his court. The crown prince in Tabriz keeps the day with similar rejoicings. At the astronomical termination of the year a tray of the seven fruits is brought before the prince. Some of these are eaten. Incense is burned, according to a custom of the fire-worshipers. One hundred and ten guns are fired off, with reference to Ali, who is said to have been named successor to Mohammed on this day. Consuls, nobles, and high officials, clothed in their uniforms and decorations, pay their salaam to His Highness, and partake of a feast. Luck-money, coined with the name of the shah, is distributed to all. Some of these gold and silver tokens are sent to the mujtehid and other ecclesiastics. They presage a fortunate year for the recipient, because the king thus indicates his royal favor. After the salaam there is a military review in the medan or public square. The trumpet is sounded; the officers on their gayly caparisoned horses present themselves with their companies. Each soldier receives a token of fourteen shahis in value. After the review, wrestling-contests and ram-fights enliven the scene. In some villages buffalo-fights are a part of the programme. These powerful animals, sometimes made ferocious by partial intoxication, make a rough contest. In other places, such as Hamadan, the day is ushered in with a display of pyrotechnics. From the housetops thousands of rockets and "fusing-jugs" are set off.

The festivities extend over two or three weeks. The bazaars are generally closed and business suspended. All are bent on pleasure. Merry-making reigns supreme. Days are designated for visiting particular classes or wards of the city. On the first day the official class exchange visits, while the religiously inclined give the honor of precedence to the mujtehids. On succeeding days the crowd moves from ward to ward. Calls are often an hour long. About breakfast-time (noon) a group of friends may unexpectedly enter, and a new supply of pilaw must be served up quickly. Families that have suffered bereavement during the preceding year do not make visits, but receive them, serving to their guests bitter coffee and omitting all sweetmeats.

Noruz is a pleasant time to renew old acquaintances, make new ones, and to visit both rich and poor without interfering with their business engagements. I shall give an account of the visits made during one Noruz season, since they afford the best opportunity to become acquainted with the social customs of the people. According to a custom in visiting men of rank, we sent a request to the governor-general, the former Amir-i-Nizam, that His Excellency might appoint a convenient time to receive us. The governor's house, in a group of government buildings, was built in semi-European style, with windows on all sides and faced with red brick. He had two large reception-rooms, one furnished in Persian, the other in European style. The Persian room had portieres over the doors, and was carpeted in the usual manner, with a larger center-piece, two kenarehs or side-strips, and a gala or head-piece, the four rugs neatly covering the entire floor. The kenarehs and kala were of soft kecha or felt, half an inch thick, and the color of camel's hair, with a simple figured border. Over these was spread, for their protection, a breadth of cotton cloth, called ru-farsh. At the upper corners of the reception-room were divans, consisting of mattresses and pillows, and covered with the finest Senna rugs. On one of these divans the governor sat to receive Persian visitors; the other was reserved for men of high rank, while other guests sat on the carpets around the sides of the room.

We had removed our galoshes and hats on being ushered in. The governor, in stockinged feet and with hat on, received us cordially, rising and shaking our hands. To his "Salaam alakum!" [" Peace to you!"] we responded, "To you peace! May Your Excellency's feast be blessed!" He replied, "May your favor be increased!" After being seated on chairs we inquired concerning His Excellency's "noble condition." He replied in the customary phrase, "Al hamd ul Ullah!" [" Praise God, I am well!"]; but on second inquiry he declared that he was feeling ill, and most of his conversation in the midst of tea-drinking was about his ailments. He ended the interview by saying that he had a peeshkesh for the doctor, which proved to be ten imperials.

Afterward we called on the beglar-begi or mayor. He is of the Dumbli family, which have ruled in Azerbijan before the Kajar dynasty. He has great wealth, being lord of many villages. All the guests in the saloon rose and remained standing while he led us into a room furnished with tables and chairs. A special feature of the room was the great number of gilded and illuminated firmans and honorary degrees from the shah, framed and hung on the walls, or placed in the niches. According to custom, tea was brought in in tiny glasses having handles of silver, and placed on glass saucers. The cupbearer served each person on an individual waiter of silver, and in the order of the rank of each one, as judged from the position of their seats. He first offered tea to his master, but he, with a wave of the hand, declined to be served until after his guests. The tea was piping hot without cream, and as sweet as a syrup. On the waiters was a little bottle of Shiraz lemon-juice and sliced Farad (grape-fruit) for flavoring it. After a time the attendants reappeared. One bore a salver on which were tiny coffee-cups in holders. The latter resembled in shape an egg-cup. They are sometimes chinaware, and sometimes Zenjan-silver filigree, of exquisite workmanship. The other attendant bore a coffee-pot; he lifted one of the coffee-cups, placed it in the holder, and filled it about two-thirds full of very thick, black, sweet coffee.

The kalean or water-pipe was brought in and passed to us. We declined with the phrase, "It is not our custom." The host took a few whiffs and passed it to the guests in the saloon. Finally we said, in the customary form of adieu, "Will you command our dismissal? " He replied, " Do you withdraw your graciousness?" If the host wishes to shorten the visit he can hasten these courses.

A visit to the kalantar, the chief alderman, showed us some different phases of Persian life. An hour's ride on horseback brought us to his place in the suburbs. He had extensive grounds, beautifully laid out with fountains and flower-beds and shaded avenues. In his greenhouse were orange and lemon trees bearing fruit. One of his rooms was papered with chromos, another with cuts from the illustrated papers. He had a large household of retainers. The kalantar was fond of religious discussion and familiar with the Bible. He had written a book in defense of Islam against Christianity. His opinion was that Paul undermined and corrupted the religion of Jesus. He found in the prophecy of Habakkuk of the Holy One from Mount Paran, who drove asunder the nations, a prediction of Mohammed. Conversation on religion is habitual among the Persians.

Here there were set before us some choice sweetmeats. Among the favorite confections is gaz. It is made from the juice of the tamarisk tree and has a delicious flavor, which is increased by being mixed with pistachios. Another favorite is fig-paste, called "ease of the throat." This is variously flavored and colored. Among the candies popular in Persia are sugared burned almond, pomegranate jelly cut in little squares, kappa, a taffy of molasses and nuts, rock-candy, and peshmak, which is made of sugar and butter, crystallized like snowflakes or thistledown, and formed into pyramids, cones, and other shapes. A very rich pastry sprinkled with sugar, but without fruit, is much prized. Their cakes, made of rice-flour and nuts, with sheep-tail fat and saffron flavor, are rarely agreeable to foreign taste. Year by year confections are being improved by contact with Tiflis and Constantinople. The best sweetmeats are now made in the houses of the wealthy, and some of their ladies are expert in the art. At Noruz and other festivals great khonchas of candies are sent in by the clients of the great, and the center of the parlor is occupied by a large display of them. It has lately become the custom to rent a large amount of confections for an occasion, only those being paid for which are eaten, and the rest returned.

These visits, together with others to mollas, merchants, and physicians, gave us considerable knowledge of the life of well-to-do Persians. The impression was gained that their manner of living is very comfortable. Their wealth is not great, but they have the conveniences and luxuries which the country affords, or which they think it necessary to import. Their houses are neither of marble nor of cut stone, nor do they have many of the charms of beautiful architecture. But the wealthy class in the cities have pleasant rooms, excellent food, fruits and flowers in abundance, troops of servants waiting their every beck and call, stables full of valuable horses, incomes easily earned, plenty of leisure for an afternoon siesta and for social intercourse, many holidays and a disposition to enjoy them; and withal they have no reason to envy the far more opulent but possibly less contented plutocrats who under steam pressure and with lightning rapidity are "bulling and bearing" one another in the marts of civilization.

New-Year's calls on the poor of Persia revealed a striking contrast. We knocked at the outer door, that the women might have a chance to conceal themselves. Bending low, we stooped down and passed under a long arched way, and entered a little yard with mud-plastered walls. The cahvakhana or hall opened into a half-underground room, in one end of which was a poorly made window, covered with oiled paper, its cracks being similarly pasted over to keep out the wind. Its flopping, ill-fitting door was low, while the sill was very high, in order that the shoes may be taken off in the hall and not obstruct the opening and shutting of the door. The rafters overhead were unceiled. The furniture consisted of common carpets (ghelim), a mirror brought with the wedding-outfit, a copper basin and ewer, a small tea-urn and some glasses, and a kalean on the lower niches. On the upper niches were a few bottles, and on the once whitened walls had been pasted some cigarette-papers, caricature prints, and verses from the Koran. The host greeted us with a hearty "Welcome! You have done me a great favor." We replied, "May your festival be blessed, may your house be blessed!" He answered, "It is a present to you." The other guests rose, placed their right hands first on their hearts, then to their foreheads, and bowed low. We knelt on our knees on calico cushions, the weight of the body resting on the heels. The host, though his circumstances were straitened, was bright in conversation. A small boy dressed like a grown man entered, and we inquired, "Who is this?" "He is your slave," he replied; which meant, "He is my son." A dish of wheat was growing on the window-sill, a symbol of the renewal of the year. A fish was swimming in a pan, which called forth a remark from him that fish always look toward Mecca at Noruz. He placed before us a few candies, some boiled eggs, and pickled grapes. He had the samovar already boiling, and sat down beside it, washed the cups and saucers, and placed tea before us. We did not decline to drink, for the poor man would feel aggrieved. He honored us specially by almost filling our tea-glasses with sugar, though he himself sipped his tea through a small lump which he held between his teeth and retained to sweeten succeeding sups. What does a poor man have besides the things within sight? His goods consist of a few rude dishes of native pottery, a jar or two of pickled herbs and dried vegetables, a flour-bin, some copper pots, and a chest of clothing. With his wages of a dime a day as a laborer or servant he must provide for his Khadija and Ismiel, Husain and Fatima. He thanks God for the blessing of such a family; but how do they live on such a pittance? Most of it goes to buy bread, which, with some salty cheese to give it taste, or a glass of weak tea, constitutes his breakfast; his luncheon is bread and sour milk, garlic or onions or some cheap fruit; for dinner a stew of meat and vegetables, highly seasoned with red peppers and onions---a large quantity for a little meat---makes his bread palatable. Lack of employment or high prices reduce him to bread and water. In winter a few shahis' worth of charcoal lasts the family a long while under the kurisee.

In sleeping rich and poor alike lie on the floor. The bedding, which consists of a short mattress, a round pillow, and coverlets, is folded up and placed in a recess by day. In summer many of the people sleep on the roofs, rising when the sun disturbs them. The social habit, which is so universally exemplified at Noruz, is a striking trait of the Persian character. One of the social institutions of great attraction is the tea-house. The tea-houses are of various grades. Some are rudely furnished, with merely a raised platform which surrounds the sides of the room, and is covered with matting or carpet. Others have an air of comfort imparted to them by divans, mirrors, chandeliers, etc. With tea at half a cent a glass, and one pipeful of tobacco sufficing for a crowd, it is no wonder loafers seek them and business men make appointments in them. The common pipe, cigarettes, and the Bateau or water-pipe are much used. In the latter the smoke passes through the water and is drawn into the lungs. Lemon-juice and other flavors are sometimes mixed with the water.

The ordinary kalean is about two feet high. It consists of a vase capable of holding about a quart of water, a top about the size of a goblet, in which burning charcoal and dampened tobacco are placed, a wooden tube which supports the top on the vase, and a mouthpiece or stem about twenty inches long. The support and stem are turned on the lathe, in various ornamental designs. The vase and bowl are of glass, stone, china, brass, or silver, and are set with turquoises or other jewels, and carved, enameled, and decorated with pictures of the shah, flowers, and similar objects.

Another place of social resort and gossip is the bathhouse. Custom and religion require frequent ablutions. For the men, with their dyeing of the hair and nails with henna, scraping the flesh with tufa, etc., the bath is a frequent necessity, and no less so for the women, whose hair-dressing, dyeing of eyelashes, etc., require so much time and attention. The bath-houses are below the level of the street, so as to be supplied with water. The arched domes are lighted through slabs of alabaster. One may know when he is near the bath-house by the long rows of colored towels hung on the street walls. The fuel used is weeds, thorn-bushes, straw, dried manure, bones, carcasses, or any other rubbish, and the odor inside and out is sometimes very offensive. The atmosphere of the vaulted room is very hot, as in the case of the Turkish bath. The water in the plunge-tank is changed only once in two or three months, and is consequently a prolific breeder of disease.

The Persian has few kinds of amusement. His theater is the "Takia " or passion-play of Muharram; his lyceum lecturers are the dervishes on the street corner, and the poets and marseyakhan in the residences of the rich. Singers, musicians, and dancers are adjuncts of weddings and other feasts. The Persian gentleman does not dance. A prince, seeing some European noblemen dancing, expressed his surprise, saying, "Why do you exert yourselves so much? In Persia we hire people to dance for us." No violent games of ball and no severe gymnastics are in vogue, except for the pehlavans or wrestlers. Horse-racing and hunting are favorite amusements, chess, checkers, and backgammon are old and standard games. Cards are being introduced throughout the entire country, and gambling is unhappily prevalent.

The custom of giving presents is universal. A person returning home brings a sogat or present to each of his relatives and friends. The custom is so binding that some men unwillingly go in debt to avoid a breach of it, and others stay away from home from inability to do what is expected of them. Gifts of dainties from the table, of the first-fruits from the orchard, and of loaves of fresh bread are sent from friend to friend. Formal tokens of commendation from a superior are greatly prized. The shah yearly sends a khallat or robe of honor to each governor on the renewal of his appointment. Its bearer is an important official. He is met by the governor at a villa called khallat-pashan, where the latter puts on his robe. Its style and elegance indicate the degree of appreciation intended to be shown It is a high honor for a royal person to give another a robe which he himself has worn. When the crown prince wished to show his appreciation of Dr. Holmes by presenting him with a robe of honor, he first wore it himself a few days.

Certain other presents may be regarded as taxes. Such are the large amounts sent by the governors to the shah at Noruz. Of a similar nature are those sent to local officials by subjects and by foreign residents, as a recognition of obligation for civil protection. On the receipt of such a gift it is customary to give the bearer a sum of money, showing appreciation of the gift and its sender. Fees, tips, and anams are very common. Peeshkesh is a gift to a superior, and is generally made with the idea of procuring an equivalent in cash, favor, or influence. Baksheesh is a freewill offering to and inferior.


Source

From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. II: India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, pp. 430-444.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg

Note: Many Western sources about Islamic countries exhibit what has come to be known as orientalism. The terms used ("Mohammedan" for instance rather than "Muslim"), and the attitudes exhibited by the writers need to be questioned by modern readers.


This text is part of the Internet Islamic History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, November1998
halsall@fordham.edu