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Love in Persian
Why does the language of passion and poetry and all other things starting with peh not have one of the world's most cherished phrases in unmistakably Persian terms?


August 11, 2005

Let me make a bold statement: there is no way to say "I love you" in Persian. Now let me toss in my disclaimer: at least, there's no unambiguous, Hollywood way to say it like they do in English, Spanish, and a bunch of other European languages. "Man aashegh-e toh hastam" is almost there, but it borrows Arabic for the word that counts. That disqualifies it for me. "Dooset daram" could mean anything from liking to loving in terms of emotion communicated.

Maybe it's because I have two strikes against me (I was raised in the U.S. and simultaneously despise most modern Iranian "music"), I just don't know the meatier parts of the Persian love vocabulary. Possible, but not likely... I've listened to plenty of Vigen, Aref, Sima Bina, and Pari Zangeneh in my day, and I really don't recall hearing a Farsi equivalent that emulates the nature of that phrase.

So, before Guive Mirfendereski finds out that we do in fact have such a powerful and succinct phrase in our language, let me go ahead and finish this piece. Why does the language of passion and poetry and all other things starting with peh not have one of the world's most cherished phrases in unmistakably Persian terms?

Incidentally, we don't really have sexy terms for "sexy" or "sex", unless you get horny when you hear "amizesh-e jensi" (gender mixing). What the hell? As if we don't spend enough time getting dressed, perfumed, and gelled up for the third date, it takes us six syllables to suggest planet Earth's favorite pastime in Farsi fashion.

Back to love. I would like to think that when I meet that certain female, I'll be able to tell her how I feel straight up, and I'd like it to be short and sweet, like how the Germans do it. Then again, nothing is ever straight, short or sweet with an Iranian woman, except maybe a marriage proposal with her 25th birthday on the horizon.

Generally, talk is cheap, especially when it comes out of a man's mouth. Talk is so cheap, in fact, that it seems to be the only thing besides rice that Iranians can afford to use in massive quantities. Look, for instance, at how far I am into this article without having made my point; hang on, by the way. Yet all these words and word combinations and there is no easy way to cobble together a short, American style declaration of love.

When I realized this a while ago, I was pretty discouraged. I thought it was yet another symptom of our painful preoccupation with formal, respectfully distant speech and phobia of vocabulary that suggests a sexually intimate relationship between two people. It probably is. However, I also have an alternative explanation.

"I love you" is a powerful statement to make, but it's easier to say than many think. Put aside the teenage angst and smothering fear of rejection you may feel when on the verge of saying it for the first time; if it makes it to the tip of your tongue, you're three syllables away from being home free. Once said (in the case of victory), it's totally addictive; your "aashegh" (lover) wants to hear you say it and you want to tell her.

Over a pretty short period of time, however, the nature of the phrase changes. It still means what it means, but people tend to sprinkle those words everywhere, it as if it were Adobo, to spice up their daily interactions. It gets whipped out for the end of every telephone conversation, every late-evening goodbye, after heated discussions, arguments, before sex, during sex, after sex. We use it to recharge ourselves when we're drained physically and/or emotionally, to remind ourselves contentedly of the status of a relationship, to remind ourselves bitterly of the status of a relationship. Man, does it get used.

People start getting the real mileage out of "I love you" when the excitement of the relationship wears off and the unresolved problems set in for the long term. In all my life, I have never known another one-size-fits-all phrase quite like this. Been cheated on? He loves you. Keeps defending himself with the same tired shit you hate hearing? He loves you. Got wasted at your cousin's wedding, made a huge scene, got your parents involved? She loves you. Forgot to pick up the kids from work? She loves you. Has neglected raising the children all their lives and now they are a bunch of annoying, spoiled bastards? He loves you. Eventually, inevitably, the phrase loses all meaning. The English love sentence gets used like a 1990 Honda Accord, ridden until it can't ride anymore, because its user relies more on the magic of the phrase than he does on the present state of affairs.

So is there a good reason why we don't have a short sentence to mop our relationships up with at the end of the day? I might be looking into it too much, but I think that this inconvenience serves as a reminder to us that love is not all that a real relationship is about, that it can't simply be employed to plough through unavoidable issues and problems forever because it gets tired and flaccid in the process; in other words, it's not meant to be worn out.

Maybe it's a good thing that it's not so convenient or fluidly said in Persian, that our existing love phrases get used less and wear down even faster than the Romance and Germanic phrases. Maybe, just maybe, it is the absence of this three word phrase that keeps vitality and passion in a millenniums-long poetic tradition, why so many of our words and phrases are scented with the distilled essence of emotions that can only be understood, well, in Farsi.

In Persian, one needs more than just courage to express love. One has to think about what he wants to say, grasp what he wants to say, let the right words come out how they are supposed to. There's a science to it, and an intense religiosity as well. Only someone really in love can pull it off. That's beautiful.

Of course, you could always just jack someone else's poetry and have that work out for you.

For letters section
Maziar Shirazi

Maziar Shirazi


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