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The uses of zereshk

July 1, 2004

A friend of mine who lives in Iran - let's call her Sarah - brought me a packet of zereshk as a gift the other week. It had a little worm in it. I was touched and slapped my chest in pride: "A worm from the soil of my motherland! Worm from the land of my forefathers!" Kylie, an Australian friend, was not impressed: "Ughh, is that a worm?" Hey, I went to explain, this humble worm is far healthier than all the sprays and detergents supermarkets use to keep their salad packs "fresh". It's no artificial additive. It is organic and from the same earth that inspired Khayyam's immortal: "See that earthen pot? / that's you, that is"; "See that clay jug? / that's your grandpa"; "See that dusty track? / you will be the dust." (Most household goods, however, owe more now to oil than soil). And of course forests - "This wooden desk on which sits your PC / not long ago was an oak tree." Khayyam, were he around today, would surely be a green poet: "This pine you batter with Black & Decker / once heard the patter of a woodpecker.")

I sent Sarah an e-mail to thank her for her present:

Subject: The uses of zereshk
In Persian it means barberry. It is the language's equivalent to 'peanuts':

"How much do they pay you?"
"What did your ex bring you from Iran?"

It is also used to denote the ridiculousness of an offer or favour:

"You live in --- "
" Hammersmith."
" Hmm. I can give you a ride to Ealing Common you can catch the Tube."
"Zereshk! Go to the station yourself and send my regards."

As a general exclamation it is a substitute for the European "Hmphf!" We don't say "Hmphf!" but we say "zereshk". "Kerm daashtan" (to have worms), on the other hand means to have mischievous intent: "You fed my cat chilli sauce! Magar kerm daaree? (You got worms?)"

Sarah wrote back to say she was having trouble "burning" a DVD of recently banned film The Lizard she had brought back with her. "It's such poor quality," she said. Many films are, I assured her, but that's no reason to burn them. "Not burn as in burn", she said, "burn as in burn." The word of course has come to mean copy. Imagine if the opposite were true:

"Mum! I copied my fingers?"`
"In craft?
"No, the toaster."

Meanings I had registered for burn until this point were:

i) n. effect of contact with hot object or fire.
ii) vb. setting fire to someone's property.
iii) vb. setting fire to someone.
iv) vb. selling parsley to someone who thinks they are buying marijuana.
v) (cf. adj. burnt: one who has been sold parsley instead of pot.)

This happened to me once when I was a student. If only the street vendor had been more honest and instead of "skunk-weed, skunk-weed" had whispered "basil, coriander." This might have lost him custom and no little street cred, but at least he would be left with integrity. It's the same with Iraq - a bit of transparency would leave the warmongers a little credibility. Instead of all this talk about freedom and getting rid of Saddam for the people they should come clean: "There were no weapons of mass destruction, we lied and bombed this country for its oil and now we are going to screw it into the ground. As for democracy: zereshk".

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By Peyvand Khorsandi



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