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Which side are you on?
When it comes to relatives and members of the family, we are often judged based purely on which side we belong to


August 15, 2005

Have you ever thought about why different people treat you differently? Why we like some people and dislike others while some of the people we can’t stand may enjoy a whole circle of admirers? Makes you wonder how much of human relations is about “the eye of the beholder,” doesn’t it?

“Well, she may be nice to you, but you should have seen how nasty she was to me!”

It took me a lifetime to realize one can be two people without suffering from split personality disorder. Our judgment of others comes from interactions and how we perceive them, rather than their true personality. So much of our relationships depend on how others see us rather than how we see ourselves: we consider outgoing people friendly, bashfulness can be mistaken for arrogance, and one who is too quiet could mistakenly be considered tedious. Universally, people like anyone who smiles while keeping quiet, as if that silence is guaranteed credit for being agreeable and benign. When it comes to relatives and members of the family, we are often judged based purely on which side we belong to.

Us Persians happen to be a little more particular about such issues. We are so selective with relatives that we pick sides and make sure each person sticks to their own side. Not only do we have a particular name for each relative, when we mention them, the undertone in our voices carries enough weight to define a few priorities. While to the rest of the world, an aunt may be just an aunt -- be it the sister of one’s mother, a sister of father or the wife of an uncle -- to a true Persian there are distinctions that cannot and will not be overlooked. To an Iranian each aunt has a special place and while we respect them all, they have to stay where we place them and no trespassing is allowed. Of course, the same goes for uncles, and most certainly, applies to in-laws.

A sister is a sister, but a husband’s sister is just that, “Khohar shohar” and a brother’s wife is “Zan baradar,” and we go as far as defining one’s location in the family by saying, “She is the sister of the wife of my husband’s brother’s son!” As you can see, this is well worded and carefully planned, so those of you who criticize our language for being “incomplete” can stop it right now!

The word “cousin” doesn’t mean a thing to a Persian. We need to know how this character became a cousin. “Dokhtare-daii-e-madaram,” makes it clear that we are referring to the daughter of the brother of the maternal grandmother, while in English the word “second cousin” does nothing to define the relationship and it says even less about which “side” this character belongs to. We do make exceptions for the distant relatives whom we like, so if we like any of them, we call them a first cousin regardless of how many times “removed” they may be.

It took me most of my adult life to figure out why some relatives liked me more than others did, and I’m not even going to discuss the few who seemed to despise me. As far as I can tell, I’m one and the same, then what prompts different people to see me so differently? Thinking along this line, I began to notice the underlying connotation in the names given me by my nieces and nephews and succeeded to decode the secret.

To begin with, the term “Khaleh” -- mother’s sister or her best friends -- carries a heavy dose of affection. The only times we may use the name in a disrespectful manner is when we want to emphasize an unreasonable amount of comfort such as “khooneh-ye-khaleh”, or “Ashe-kashk-e-khaleh” -- which in fact is one of the best Persian foods and a must eat!

Whereas “Ammeh”, or the father’s sister is a bit more distant and the term may even be used to insult someone, “Arvah-e-del-e-ammat!” to mean not a chance, or “that’s only good for your ammeh,” which clarifies that something is not good at all, and “You think you got that from your ammeh’s house?” to close the argument when something doesn’t belong to someone. The discrimination begins in our early childhood when the little cute cricket in our fairytales is called “Khaleh sooskeh” while the big bad wolf is known as “Ammeh gorgeh!”

Having nieces and nephews on both sides, for years I could not figure out why the children of my sisters felt so much closer to me than those of my brothers. The solution presented itself only after I had children of my own. On more than one occasion, I caught myself talking about my sisters and brothers as if they were God’s gift to humanity while I referred to my in-laws as people who deserved courtesy. I talked about my family members with such enthusiasm, it made the poor kids drool. On the other hand, the occasional mention of my husband’s family carried caution, even apprehension.

Missing my family back home, I told my kids exaggerated stories about their wonderful “Khaleh” and “Daii” abroad. When any of them planned to visit, my little ones counted the hours and minutes with me until the moment of their arrival. I made sure they saw the beauty and the thoughtfulness in each gift they received. If they heard comments that in their culture sounded unkind, I took the time to explain.

“Honey, khaleh only asked why you don’t speak Persian because she wishes to communicate better with you!” But God forbid any of my in-laws criticized them. “Ammeh is mad because she’s not fluent in English! See what you’ve done to me? Ha! As if I needed more of their criticism!”

Each time my sisters came to visit, the kids cleaned their rooms so they could invite their aunt in. “If it’s nice and clean, khaleh-joon may come at night and tuck you in or tell you a nice story.” But when my husband’s family visited, I lectured the kids with my own concerns. “When your ammeh is here, keep your rooms clean. I don’t need to be blamed for your mess!”

I promised them “Khaleh’s” special delicacies, on the other hand, when it came to Ammeh, it was I who prepared and cooked for her and cautioned the kids not to make too much noise for fear it would disturb her sleep. This discriminatory behavior extended to the next generation as well. They soon learned to be respectful of cousins on their father’s side while treating my nieces and nephews as their siblings.

So when it comes to identity, perhaps it would be best to know who the judge is and, more importantly, to which side of this charade she belongs. The truth is, someone’s “Khaleh” is another person’s “Ammeh.” and your mother-in-law is a beloved mother and perhaps somebody’s favorite sister.
I couldn't help bragging to a friend about the rich variety of Persian words to address different family members. At first, my American friend seemed impressed, as if for the first time she could see this huge flaw in English. But when she considered some of the disadvantages associated with such titles, she jokingly hit me with an American expression. “Can’t we all be brothers?” To which I threw my head back and Laughed, “Ha!”

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a retired dentist and a freelance writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e Gham" (see excerpt). Visit her site

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