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Saturday school
Lessons in Persian

July 21, 2004

soopoor (n.) Persian word for dustman. Not Turkic in origin as is commonly perceived, it came into existence as a result of British occupation in the first half of the 20th century. Astonished by the impoverished state of garbage collectors outside his colonial residence in Abadan, a General Bartholomew Toff-Knob exclaimed: “By Jove the natives look so poor.” Thus they became known as the “so-poors”, hence soopoor.

Most Iranians of course refer to them as ashghaleehah (trashies). As in: “Bodo ashghaleehah oomadan! (Hurry the ‘trashies’ are here)”. This is usually heard at 6.30am and succeeded by “Goftam deeshab bezar, ahmagh (I told you to put them out last night, imbecile)”.

Putting the rubbish out at the crack of dawn is a rite of passage for Iranian boys, just as good grades are for girls. Girls are never expected to chase the dustcart down the road with a bag in each hand. Boys, however, might run all the way to the depot.

Roftegar, one who sweeps -- sweeper -- is the proper word for what is the rather derogatory ashghalee. Debate rages among academics as to whether the word sweeper itself comes from soopoor or the other way around.

besharaf (adj.) used to describe General Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan -- once a staunch ally of the Taleban, he switched sides as soon as he realised the US Cavalry was coming to bomb his neighbours in 2001. It was like the man who buys drugs from the rockers next-door on the day they are busted saying: “And book’em for a noise offence, they play guitar too loud.”

At around the time of the war the Taleban’s envoy to Pakistan Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef was pictured in the International Herald Tribune at a press conference mid-chuckle. And what did he have to laugh about? Australia, he had just learned, was also to send troops to the region. “America”, he joked, “is enough for Afghanistan!”

Sharaf means honour. Besharaf means without-honour. It rhymes with Musharraf which rhymes with mozakhraf (crap).

mozakhraf (adj.) a term sometimes used to describe the “new” Iranian cinema. It is of course unfair to write off the diverse efforts of so many talents with a word as harsh as shit or bollocks, but the fact is that along with organic food, Iranian cinema was one of the last cons of the 20th century.

Where Hollywood fare was tainted by unnatural additives, Iranian films were pure and earthy, reminding urban elites in the West of how simple life can be. Majid Majidi’s Oscar-nominated Color of God was the high-point of this genre: a virtual self-parody with a blind child lead who keeps touching everything and its New Age redemption-through-faith message -- kaleh-pacheh* for the soul if you like. More next week...

(*Bacon and eggs.)

Have any words to dissect? Send them to our resident etymologist.

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By Peyvand Khorsandi



Book of the day

Closed Circuit History
A collection of drawings
by Ardeshir Mohassess

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