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
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
"You do that one more time and I'll kill you!"
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.
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",
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
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,
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
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
the death wish to our parents. "Marg-e-madaram," or,
"Areh, marg-e-babat!" and even go beyond and involve
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
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?"
between the grave of the living (?) and that of the dead we
say, "Goor-e-marget!"--- The grave
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 --
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.
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
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
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
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
considering the above mentioned options, this one
sounds rather polite, doesn't
In a day and age when our every move is observed
under a magnifying glass and our every word analyzed,
best to stick
to the "Jon" and "Joon". Otherwise, I'm afraid
I may be digging my own grave.