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Life and death in Persian

February 10, 2005

Peculiarities in a culture seem to go unnoticed by its people until they are pointed out by others. I remember twenty-some years ago, an American lady -- who took care of my children while I went to work -- brought such a fact to my attention. Her daughter had inquired about the family she worked for.

"I told her they are nice people," she said. "Except that they are constantly threatening to kill each other!"

I didn't know what she meant. At dinner that night, my toddler, safely locked in her highchair, kept throwing food overboard.

"You do that one more time and I'll kill you!"

The woman stared at me over silver-rimmed glasses without saying a word. Only then did I realize that every time I had told my husband, "I'll kill you," she took it to mean that I literary planned to murder the man!

A review of the more common Persian words by my fellow writers in the Iranian reminded me of this story which has led to a train of thoughts about the significance of life and death in our culture.

Here is a brief explanation of a few expressions for those who may otherwise seek their obscure meanings through the limited information provided in a dictionary. This is not meant to enlighten the U.S. State Department -- although no doubt, they too, could benefit from it. It is rather intended to extend the vocabulary of the next generation. Should their parents use such expressions, I'd hate for them to think harshly of us or to pass judgment the way my American baby-sitter did.

In Persian, we use life and death as the utmost terms of endearment. But over the years, some of the words have become so familiar, we don't even think about their meanings.

Take the word "Ghorban", for example. Although in its Arabic root it means "Sacrifice", in Persian it could be anything from respect, endearment, love and indeed sacrifice. Sometimes we even use this profound word as an insult. "Ghorboon-e-ammat boro" doesn't mean, "Go and sacrifice yourself for your aunt," -- as the wording would suggest -- but rather it is to say we have no time for someone's nonsense. I won't even get into "Ghorban-e-shoma" -- I sacrifice myself for you -- which, if carried out, would have left no Iranian alive.

The word "Jon"-- or "Joon" -- means life. (Why fessenjan was translated in a cook book as 'food of life' is beyond me because, as far as I know, the word "fess", does not mean food.) We use "life" instead of "dear" to address people. We also use it to say yes and the way we throw the word around leaves life absolutely no value.

I remember as a child, if I called the elders, instead of yes they shouted back, "Janam," --yes, dear. But if I was too slow in solving a math problem at the blackboard, my teacher would shout, "Deh, joon bekan!" to mean "hurry up and die."

"Marg-e-man" Simply translated means "my death". But in actuality it is to say, "If my life means anything to you!" or in other words, "If you love me enough." It can be used in as benign a situation as the offer of a food, an invitation, or asking for information. Example: "Marg-e-man, did you like that book?"

In a reverse situation, we use "Marg-e toe" or "Toe-bemeeri," which translates into "if you die" or "may you die." This means I value your life and swear--to it--that I speak the truth. Again this is often used in casual dialogue as an emphasis on its truthfulness. "To bemeeri it wasn't bad." But to make it more confusing, we say "Areh toe bemeeri," to mean "Not in your life."

As if it wasn't bad enough to risk one's own life, or the lives of those present, we affectionately extend the death wish to our parents. "Marg-e-madaram," or, "Areh, marg-e-babat!" and even go beyond and involve the graves of those who are long gone, "Goor-e-babat" or "Arvah-e-khak-e baba bozorgesh." I will not even discuss the kind of anger that can lead to despicable acts on top of the graves. "Ay beh ghabr-e babat..."

Persian is a rich language. Not only do we have a poetic vocabulary, but our creative minds extract the last drop of juice out of some words. Take 'grave' from the above example. If we want someone to "Get lost," we tell them to go and lose their grave. "Gooret-o-gom kon!" Or "Kodoom Goor boodi?" to mean "Where were you?"

To signify between the grave of the living (?) and that of the dead we say, "Goor-e-marget!"--- The grave of your death. This is much better than "Goor-be-goor-shodeh," -- transported from grave to grave -- which refers to a confused soul. "Goor-e-marget cheh-kar mikardee?" is simply "What the hell were you doing?"

"Khoda marget bedeh," -- May God give you death -- is a curse. So is "Khak-too-saret," --dirt on your head -- which refers to the dirt poured into the grave. "Areh marg-e-ammat," means "Not a chance" and I would like to clarify here that there's no malice intended toward the beloved aunt. (As a woman who is ammeh to my two brother's children, it never ceases to amaze me how these expressions are saved for 'Ammeh' and never used for the mother's sister or 'khaleh'. But that's another story.)

The list goes on and on. Our fascination with life and death -- especially death -- has already caused us enough problems. Little does the world know that when and if we mean to be wicked, we are too clever to come out and say it out loud. When serious, we use special insider codes.

For example, "Zahr-e-mar," isn't just snake poison, it is an abstract to mean "May a poisonous snake bite you and send you to your death!" and "Beh-darak" is the fastest expression to send someone directly to hell. The same goes for "Jahannam," which if used with good intentions can mean, "I don't care," but otherwise translates "You can go to hell."

How interesting that the same expressions can insult, tease but also soothe someone. When I tell a good anecdote, my sister laughs and says, "Khoda bekoshatet!" She doesn't mean "May God kill you." No, this is just her way to tell me I'm hilarious! If someone laughs and says "Zahr-e-mar," it simply means "silly you!"

When my children bother me, instead of saying "yes" I say "Zahr-e-mar." Even though they don't speak much Persian, they will leave me alone. At this point even the cat and the dog know this. I remember once my three year old said, "Mommy, I have something to ask, but please don't say Zarraymar!" The casual manner in which she used that word assured me that I had done a good job of passing on my heritage.

Of course, these expressions can also be used with malice. But sometimes the malice intended is less than what comes out in the translation. "Marg bar whatever,"--often misunderstood as a terrorist slogan--is an expression of discontent and an old sentiment among those angry enough to protest. In fact, considering the above mentioned options, this one sounds rather polite, doesn't it?

In a day and age when our every move is observed under a magnifying glass and our every word analyzed, I think it best to stick to the "Jon" and "Joon". Otherwise, I'm afraid I may be digging my own grave.

.................... Peef Paff spam!

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