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Home » National Celebrations of Iran » New Year's Call and Gifts, Persia 1895
 
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NATIONAL CELEBRATIONS OF IRAN
New Year's Call and Gifts, Persia 1895
Islamic History Sourcebook: Samuel G. Wilson
Partition

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.

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