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!
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 ZoesWordGarden.com