BY ALI A. PARSA, Ph.D.
This could also be called a book review with the intention familiarizing the Iranians in the West with the humor industry in their ancestral land. Some of us may think that the late night comedians such as Jay Leno, David Letterman and the rest are the founders of joke industry, but they would be surprised to know that love of fun is as old as human history and ingrained in human and even animal nature.
During one of my last trip to Iran I I was pleasantly surprised to find the extent of the formal fun making industry in the Middle East, including Iran. Most of us who lived in Iran might only be familiar with fun makers such as Haj Firooz, RooHowzi shows, Maarekeh Girs and Dalghak bazi on the streets.
For me, one of the pluses of visiting Iran has been finding the latest translations of some of the latest books in the West at ridiculously low prices (in dollars) as compared with prices in the West. Thanks to many dedicated Iranians who spend a lot of time to translate these books from English to Farsi in order to bridge the cultural and scientific gaps while making a living. I picked up a number of books one of which I found particularly interesting in that it shed much light on the subject of humor industry. I decided to share some excerpts from the book with my fellow Iranian-Americans and others interested people.
The book is titled Dalghak haaye Mashhooreh Darbari which translates to “The famous Jesters of the Courts”by Hossein Noorbakhsh, Sanaai Publisher, 1992. I purchased it at one of my favorite bookstores-Hashemi at Vali Asr Square, Tehran. There are many bookstores in Tehran and the annual Tehran Book fair, a huge feat lasting several days, is worth visiting. It draws a huge crowd, mostly young who seem to come with the double purpose of watching each other and purchasing books.
Before further discussion of this book, my own observations indicate that Middle Eastern literature is full of tricks to make learning and exchange of information fun. Our poets, philosophers and writer’s use of metaphors, fictional short stories, animation and animal characters as teaching tool goes back to when writing was invented on clay tablets and animal skins in that Cradle of Civilization.
The reason is that humor makes the presentation of facts more palatable especially for those people who, by nature are less eager to endure the pain of dry learning. Dry or humorless lecture appeals only to a small portion of the population- the elite, who have the most thirst for learning no matter how the subject is presented. I find it appropriate to translate one of our Persian proverbs that emphasizes the importance of making everything fun. It goes as follows;
If you can’t get the attention of your pupils on weekdays,
Make your teaching fun and they come to school on Fridays!
Thus our writers and philosophers have almost always tried to entertain while they educate. And some have even tried to present all of their ideas in humorous ways. In the interest of time and shortening the length of this article I am not going to elaborate further.
The above mentioned book starts with a quatrain from our beloved Persian poet and philosopher, Rumi, who, by the way is a master of presenting his ideas in fascinating stories. I translate this particular quatrain or robaii as;
A joke is a joke only to a fool,
Each good joke to the wise is a teaching tool.
Anything you cannot teach by being serious,
You can teach it with a good joke as a rule!
As to the origin of education and entertainment industry, evidence indicate that small vendors, called Maarekeh girs entertained and educated the people on the streets either solely by themselves or by the use of monkeys, parrots, other animals or younger and intelligent apprentices that people were fascinated with. They interrupted their show occasionally to solicit money from the audience much like the commercial breaks on the television in our time. It is reported that some of these entertainers believed in voluntary contribution from the audience while a few greedy ones sprayed black ink on anyone who refused to contribute!
The report of such shows drew some royalties to the streets as audience, often in make-up and different clothing so that they would not be recognized. Eventually the royalty recruited the best and brightest entertainers to their courts and created a big leap in evolvement of the industry. This trend picked up so much that queens, princes, ministers and wealthy people had their own entertainers.
The word Dalghak or Talkhak was used for these entertainers. The Persian word Talkhak meaning a small bitter person is referred to a sweet person, much like calling a tall person “shortly.” The industry grew so much that Talkhak or Dalghaks became the fixtures of the court and its claim to fame, much like other luxuries and material possessions.
Ironically the use of fun makers started in the courts of Arab Khalifs in Baghdad and spread to other parts of the Middle East and Spain and later to the rest of Europe. It is reported that Arab rulers enjoyed entertainment so much that in addition to the use of Dalghaks they ordered the release of snakes and scorpions in their parties just to enjoy watching the frightened audience. In Iran, most of the rulers who utilized Dalghaks were of Turkish descent and enjoyed imitating the Arab rulers. Shah Abbas had his own Dalghaks in his war with Ottoman Turks in order to boost the morale of his troops. My other studies indicate that out of some four hundred rulers in Iran about three hundred were of Turkish descent! According to the book even before the Khalifs the Sassanid kings imported some clowns for entertainment in their courts from India between 400-438 A.D.
According to the book such custom did not exist in Greece and Rome. There is only a report of Alexander the Great utilizing story tellers late into the nights to keep him entertained and possibly safe from surprise enemy attacks. It is also reported that after the idea reached the Roman Empires, people were so fascinated that some Romans resorted to kidnaping some children and training them to be Dalghak and selling them at lucrative prices. British kings, also were so impressed with the idea that they handed one pound to anyone who told them a good joke and made them laugh.
What is most fascinating is the qualifications for the Dalghaks who were the center of attraction for the industry. These individuals were selected on the basis of their intelligence, dwarf size, with physical defects, tone of voice, color of skin, flexibility, quick wit and other characteristics that could mesmerize and keep the attention of the audience. The irony was that they were called the Court Idiots or the Crazy Wise!
Dalghaks were truly exceptional individuals that had attained their high status without the benefit of any formal education other than watching other performers, possibly their fathers. Compare that to Jay Leno with a support staff of 175! They were the most informed about the people, the rulers, country and the world of their day. They were in a way the most expert psychologists in understanding the human behavior and turning them around and expressing it in a way that not only didn’t offend their subjects but brought them joy to the point of tipping the fun makers. With the tyrant rulers, they walked a fine line when they poked fun at royalty as they could lose their head if they did otherwise. They not only managed to save their own lives, but they gained the trust of the royalty so that the rulers confided their secrets with them and enjoyed their intimacy and advice.
Some conscientious Dalghaks used their intimacy with the rulers to tell them about the state of their kingdom in a realistic way that their often yes-men would not. Much like the lobbyists in today’s world. There were of course rulers who only enjoyed the fun with little or no emphasis on the concerns of the people.
The book mentions of some French travelers who state their observations of seeing
fascinating events in Tabriz in a public square bigger than that in Isfahan. People poured out in mass and engaged in all kinds of fun events including bull, goat, rooster and other animal fights, wrestling matches, songs and dances.
The most recent mass entertainment, according to the book has been a huge annual celebration called Mireh Noroozi that was celebrated from the first until the 13th day of Norooz. I have some memory of such celebrations in Iranian villages. As we know Dalghak industry died after the Gajar rulers, and the present Nowrooz festivities are only a watered-down version of the former elaborate celebrations.
As for the Western world, mass media has made the task of sharing fun much easier and everyone has equal access to any sort of entertainment. There still remain some societies in which poking fun at the public figures is a taboo and punishable. One would hope that someday more people would be informed and educated enough to know their limits in using and abusing everything including poking fun at their public figures. That may sound like utopia, but the fact that some countries have managed to make advances in that direction may mean that others can follow.
The later sections of the book covers the development of fun making in European countries that, in the interest of the time I leave them to the readers to read.
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