Merchant of Chaarmahal

A Bakhtiari folk tale


Merchant of Chaarmahal
by Ari Siletz

A Jew lends someone money, the borrower can’t pay it back so the Jew demands a chunk of flesh in payment. This isn’t Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; it is a story from Iran’s Chaahaarmahal and Bakhtiaari province. The subtleties of this anti-Semitic characterization are explored reasonably well in Shakespeare’s work, so we’ll move on to the legal adventures of the protagonist: the idiot who borrowed the money.

He was simple man who at an old age resolved to improve his lot in life. The Jew was a neighbor who according to the story had amassed his wealth in “many different ways.” At first he was reluctant to lend money to an old man with no collateral whatsoever. But the old man wouldn’t hear ‘no’ for an answer. Filling in for the bare bones story, the Jew must have been impressed by the old man’s perseverance. Surely if this borrower started a business with the money, his determination and insistence would help him succeed. So the Jew struck a deal with the old man. For every coin loaned the old man must put up a mesghaal (about 5 grams) of flesh for collateral. Never mind the motive for this macabre contract, for that I recommend renting Al Pacino’s The Merchant of Venice. Meanwhile let’s find out how the old man lost his shirt.

He bought merchandize from one place to sell somewhere else. On the road, highway robbers attacked him and stole his wares. Here’s where our Iranian Jew faced a different predicament than Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s play. The old man’s Venetian counterpart, Antonio, lost his fortune at sea, whereas the Iranian Antonio (we’ll call him Hassanio) could have taken precautions against highway robbers. Did Hassanio hire security guards, or did he risk his neighbor’s money by skimping on preparations? This detail is important in the court battle that is about to ensue.

Needless to say, Hassanio wouldn’t let Shylockpour cut him up, so they set off to see the judge. Part way to the city, they ran into a fellow whose donkey was stuck in the mud. Hassnio wanted to help, but Shylockpour said, “If you feel so sorry for him, you lend a hand. I’m staying out of this.” Was Shylockpour an unhelpful man? Don’t jump to conclusions until you see what happens.

Hassanio got into mud, grabbed the donkey’s tail and pulled as hard as he could. Now anyone who has ever pulled a donkey out of the mud knows you don’t pull the animal by the tail. It’s not a tow cable. The donkey’s tail broke off, and the very upset owner joined the march to the city to demand compensation from Hassanio. Did the donkey owner say, “Good Hassanio, this was but noble intent fouled by misfortune, so thou art off the hook?” Nothing of the sort, and this wariness of human ingratitude may have been why Shylockpour didn’t help. We’ll knock a few points off him because if he had helped, the donkey may still have had a tail. But Shylockpour gets fewer demerits now that we’re on to his Shakespearean complexity.

With two plaintiffs on his case, Hassanio was so distraught that at the next town he climbed to the top of a minaret and threw himself from it. He didn’t bother to look where he would fall, and he soft-landed on top of a beggar who was instantly killed. So the beggar’s son joined the procession of Hassanio’s accusers. Any judge has to consider that Hassanio’s negligence lost another person his gold, his stupidity seriously injured an animal, and his carelessness cost someone his life. By all accounts Hassanio was a menace to the kingdoms of man and beast. Yet somehow we feel sorry for him. Anyone this unlucky must have a powerful horde of demons conspiring against him. To have a happy ending, the story must give Hassanio a break. And so it does, in a way that reveals how the people of Chaahaarmahal and Bakhtiaar viewed their society.

When they arrived at the judge’s house, Hassanio noticed that His Honor was hobnobbing with the very highway robbers that had stolen his wares. Did the simple and honest Hassanio cry out to world that the judge’s friends are thieves? No, instead of helping his fellow citizens rid themselves of a corrupt official, he and the judge went into a whispering huddle and made a deal. And the judge ignored the case we have been meticulously building against Hassanio. The verdict handed down was that Shylockpour could cut off Hassanio’s flesh, but if he removed even a smidgeon over the amount, Hassanio would be allowed to carve him up in retaliation. Filling in again for Shylockpour’s thinking, he knew that scales in such a town are likely to measure a one mesghaal weight as two mesghaals. So he wisely withdrew his claim, perhaps happy to have fought and relieved to have lost.

The judge told the beggar’s son he is welcome to climb a minaret and throw himself at Hassanio’s head if he wished. That was the end of that claim. Finally it came to the guy holding the severed tail of a donkey. Seeing the state of affairs in this town, he too gave up on justice. But he withdrew his claim by delivering a line that has become as quotable as any line from Shakespeare: “Your Honor,” he said, “khareh maa az korregi dom nadaasht.” (Even as a foal, this donkey never had a tail).

Orignial folk tale from the collection Afsaanehaaye chaahaarmahal va Bakhtiaari, by Ali Asmand and Hossein Khosravi. 1998 Eel publication. Printed in Shar-e-Kord, Iran.


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Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Your alacrity regarding the homosexual undertones of Antonio and Bassanio's relationship suggests you have the literary wherewithal to see beyond the obvious blood libel interpretation of The Merchant of Venice. Though not philo-Semitic by any means, Shakespeare was far too sophisticated a social observer not to have seen the injustice of anti-Semitism. Like many successful writers he is of course a propagandist for the social order of his times. But unlike some of them he avoids being merely that because he finds creative ways to sympathize with his antagonists. This quality of Shakespeare has given modern directors the lattitude they need to de-emphasize religious rivalry in favor of secular meditations on the issue of anti-Semitism. I look forward to Iranian writers (and readers) transcending their strictly didactic approach to literature in the same way Shakespeare does.  

anonymous fish

dear islamicrepublican

by anonymous fish on

our dear deluded jaleho has decided to prove once again exactly how deluded she is!  she apparently thinks that YOU are me is disguise!!!   isn't she clever!!!  but alas, she is wrong again.  this person is seriously disturbed as you will see...:-)  her anti-semitism is truly astonishing, even for  lest you fall prey to her slander, let me assure you that i have nothing but the greatest respect for iranians as a people.  it IS absolutely true that i have zero respect for some iranians in particular.  those with blackhearted intentions and obvious anti-semitic opinions are not worthy of attention.  (ps... i personally think she's just obssessed.  she spends waaaaay too much time thinking about me!!!!  even to the point of imagining that i'm here when i'm not!!!)

peace out.


Dear Anonymous "Fish", the stench is heavy

by Jaleho on

believe me, it is not my peculiar brilliance, but the heavy stench of anti-Iranian Islamophobia racism that is too poignant to ignore on an Iranian site.

Repeated suggestion for you: enjoy a Zionist site together with Zion and Fred. You'll have more fun, and it would match your IQ better too. Of course I hope Zion continues posting on this site. She does have enough intelligence and knowledge that is a positive contribution to any site. Her opinion although completely different from many posters on this site, are genuine, learned in her own way, and thus valuable to hear as the "other side." In other words, she just doesn't throw worthless BS for the sake of having thrown some worthless BS.


Dear Jaleho, you smell me from a mile away.

by islamicRepublican (not verified) on

Are you referring to Holocaust when you talk about the Europeans burning Jews in 20th century? We Islamic Republicans including that greatest Islamic Republican of them all Mahmoud “we have no gays in Iran” Ahmadinejad insists that we do not deny Holocaust but merely encourage more scholarly research on the subject.

We feel the whole world has been standing still on this matter since the Second World War, and been waiting for the Islamic Republicans to lead this endeavor.


Dear Ari,

by Jaleho on

I think that the beautiful passage you are quoting is precisely the best proof of Shakepears's poignant anti-Semitism! Remember that one of the central stories at the heart of Christian anti-Semitism was Jesus being slapped by the Jew in his way to crucifixion, and the Jews being cursed collectively to eternity for that crime. That is,  jews being "responsible for Killing Jesus," and the famous "Let this blood be on us and our children."

Now, Antonio's flesh was supposed to be cut by the Jew, Shylock, who loved a revenge of Antonio for spitting on him more than the money itself! But, Antonio is saved by the judge's argument that Shylock is not entitled to Antonio's blood, only his flesh! The disguised woman in the form of the Judge reminds you of the fair holy Mary ( does this reminds you of Raskolnikov's Sofia?) whose judgment leads to the happy ending.

But, the happiest part of the ending to Skasepeare is the fact that Shylock, who in every aspect is like the Christian, a human like him, laughs and cries like him,  except for the immorality of being a Jew , is finally converted to Christianity. Same for Shylock's daughter who converted earlier by her own recognition of "the better faith" and was handsomely paid back for having become a Christian!

As to your 2 points. #1. The anti-Jewish forms are different in Muslim and Christian societis. The Christian vicious form of punishment for the "Jesus-killer" naturally does not exist in Islamic culture which respects Moses and Jesus, although it does blame the Jews in parts for not respecting Jesus. But, since they had nothing to do with Muhammad, that part of Judeophobia that exists in Christian societies is absent in the Islamic ones. But, the fact that usury has been one of the common trades of Jews through out history, and Islamic culture and Christian culture look at usurers with the same disgust, has the affect on the negative stories in both cultures. People do not argue that Jews have been kicked out of their land all over the Europe since early ages of Christianity, and thus were forced to go in businesses with more "liquid" financial assest. If they were to pack and go and leave their "land", they could at least pack their money. And, they were not given equal chance in power positions so they made that power from the gold. Thus, aside from the Judeophobia arising from Christianity, in every country's folklore you have the stories of the "dirty money lender." So, I am not sure if you reveresed the case in your point #1, you'd have gotten a fair reversal of the outcome!

Your second point :

"2)What modern connotations are there to the fact that the judge in The Merchant of Vencie was a woman in disguise?   "

Like I said, beside the holy Mary's case (an important one in this case, a connotation implied by the author), I think it has much reflection on other aspects of Shakespeare's genius play with sexuality. First, remember that he does this disguise game in other happy ending palys, like Twelfth Night for example. All the fun that comes out when the young guy is shown to be the girl! In this case, remember the homosexual tint of Antonio's love for the Judge's handsome young husband(sorry I forget all the name!)

Jeremy Irons played that complexity and intentionally vague implication so beautifully, I fell in love with him in that movie :-) Not only Antonio was willing to put his flesh as a bond for the sake of the young guy's happiness, but the guy was told to sacrifice all of his other love if he were to marry that girl. (In those chests that the girl's father had the suitors open) And, at the court hearing, the young husband is unwillingly giving away his marital ring (marital wows), whithout knowing that the judge is his wife in disguise! All of it beautifully played on the sexuality, love and loyalty to a love (either that of Antonio to another man--not made clear if it is a gay love, but implied to some vague degree), and the mutual love and loyalty of the young married couple.


Europeans burned Jews as late as 20th century!

by Jaleho on

I smell a whiff of ignorance in the "anonymous" IslamicRepublican's comments :-)

Given its first and second comments, you can safely assume that not only it doesn't have the literacy to read Shakespeare (probably its mother language), but is also completely ignorant of the European anti-Semitism from the start of "Jesus-killer,"  the "condemned Wandering Jew," and "the blood libel" charges. It also doesn't seem to be even religiouly literate enough to have read the Christian Bible. And, it has no understanding of either the plight of Jews escaping the European anti-Semitism to the Islamic countries, nor the European and American Judeophobia of the 20th century!

 This writer seems to me to be a brainwashed ignorant who just replaced its yesterday's Judeophobia to  today's Islamophobia!

whoopee, such a progress!!

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

You state, "I think the point that Shakespeare carries at the end is the fact that converting to Christianity is the slavation to human realm!" I will not dispute that this is one dimension in the complex universe of The Merchant of Venice. But if there were no other dimensions, how can we explain Shakespeare's elegant plea against anti-Semitism:

"He hath disgraced me...and laughed at my losses,
mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge."

Part of the reason Shakespeare is still alive with us is that he gives his characters enough complexity to be adaptable to any era. At this point in history the play works better for us if we interpret Shylock's threat as a bluff, a bargaining tactic. And it worked. If the judge hadn't outwitted him, Shylock would have walked away with at least his principle and possibly up to thrice his loan.  Couple of aside thoughts: 1) If the situation had been reversed between Hassanio and Shylockpour, would Shylockpour's people have bailed him out? 2)What modern connotations are there to the fact that the judge in The Merchant of Vencie was a woman in disguise?  


Sofia Semyonovna Marmeladova (I know, I had to look it up too.)

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

I quite agree that is good practice to cross check sources before reaching conclusions as to the authenticity of a story. Here is a paper in the Journal of Asian and African studies No 42, 1991. The title is "A Shylock in Sinai: A Middle Eastern contribution to Shakespeare folklore. On page 146 (about the middle) you will find a reference to Iran and the story  "My donkey has no tail by nature." Though this resource is not specific as to where in Iran this story originates, it is a stretch to believe that the IRI propaganda machine would have reason to deliberately single out the folks from Chaharmahaal o Bakhtiari region.  However, I am willing to yield that since the publishers are from the region, there is a chance they are simply taking "credit" for the story. I hope this concession settles any offense I may have commited against my Bakhtiari countrymen. Happy Norooz to you too.


Merchant Of Venice reflects the anti-Semitism of 16th Century

by islamicRepublican (not verified) on

notSoIslamicRepublican Jan,

The play Merchant Of Venice is set in 16th Century Venice, where Jews are forced to live in a ghetto and generally treated badly by the rest of the townsfolk – prayer books are burned, while Jews who leave the ghetto are made to wear a red hat and are frequently taunted and spat on by the locals. Jews in the 16th Century were barred from other professions. In this context the Merchant Of Venice reflects the anti-Semitism that existed at the time.

When one takes this story out of its context and maliciously attributing it to people who do not have any history of anti-Semitism; then the anti-Semitism of story can only reflect that of one’s own.


Dear Mr Silitz

by SamSamIIII on


I think you been taken for a ride by an Ommatie hezbollahi such as the person of Ali Aasmand aka part director of Basij student publication & Islamic jehadist publication agency (and no it,s the actual name for this agency & part of Ansar Islamic print shop)

هيعت مديره سازمان نشر رزمندگان اسلام
هيعت مديره سازمان نشر بسيج دانشجويی

I once read some ommatie total garbage puked out by him & his ommatie twin Ghasem pourmoghadam  about old Iran & the jewish kings(Curus etc), almost copy cat of that arabo ommatie loser naser pourpira...

I have a bakhtiari dad & never heard of such tale . It can only be attributed to the sick mind of an Arabo ommatie cultural propagandist/distortionist such as Ali & Ghassem to manufacture half truth  into some folk tale.

With all due respect , you been punked . & next time if I were u , I would not put my credibility & literary reputation on the line for the work of some ommatie ghassem kakamainy author without checking the background of the hezbo character .

cheers dude & happy Norooz






Dear Ari, you said

by Jaleho on

" Regarding both versions of Shylock, neither the folktale nor Shakespeare with all his skill have fashioned a plot to prove or disprove if the money lender would have followed through with the mutilation after hearing the first cry of anguish from the borrower. "

But, the moral degeneration in the form of not-so-human-greed, which is the main point, doesn't have to be proven with the actual cutting of the flesh. Although Marlowe's origianl Barabas goes far in all kinds of evil manners. I think the point that Shakespeare carries at the end is the fact that converting to Christianity is the slavation to human realm! In another form, think about Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoyovsky's Crime and Punishment, who killed the money lender. Although the money lender is again dirty and all of that, the main punishment of Raskolnikov is his own Christian sense of guilt for doing the wrong thing, and the salvation seems in the hand of the Christian girl that loves him (I forgot her name).


Zion, you can't force people to throw away Skasepeare

by Jaleho on

Marlowe, Dostoyovsky, and many other giants of the literature, or ancient folklores because you are sensitive to the idea of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism is something that has existed (you Zionists wouldn't even allow it to die , even if it were to!), it is a huge part of the European history, and the literature of those times reflects it.

There are some modern day distorters who try to find a way away from the anti-Semitism reflected in the characters like Shylock or Barabas. Because Shakespeare is too loved for the modern day pro-Zionist English speaker to admit that he has  created the most poignant characters well- matched with the anti-Semitic mood of the Braitain of his time.

With the same token, you can not throw away Moliere because whenever he wants to talk about a rude idiot he calls him a Turk!

But frankly, the American and European Jew is too much used to force others to review the history and literature and their beloved ancient culture... the way that it won't touch your sensitivities. It is a losing battle. Just get used to the fact that these are great authors, they are loved, but they lived in a historical space-time that ugly anti-Semitism was alive and well. It does not reduce an iota from their great literally value. In fact, a great literature is always a good mirror of its time.

Ali Lakani


by Ali Lakani on

Spoken like the true ignorant that you are.


Pro-Semitic Tatoo

by notsoislamicRepublic (not verified) on

islamicRepublican Jan,

If people who have read Merchant of Chaarmahal or Merchant of Venice, are unwilling to have PRO-SEMITIC tatooed backwards on their forehead, it doesn't actually mean that any of these folks are anti-semitic or "hate others more than they love themselves". Your intolerance of open discussion and freedom of expression comes from exactly the same bottomless pit that anti-semitism gets its strength; a narcissistic and seriously misguided urge to force others into compliance with your world view.


very fitting for this website

by tsion on

Matches well everything else going on in this website, both the story and the very "civilized" literary analysis from all sides in the comment section. . Next time I suggest you give us your Iranian version of the blood libel, the killing of "shia" boys for Passover and the desecration of [imam Husayin's] Hosts. There is just so much material for this kind of "literary" talent.


Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Interesting rebuttal on the message of this story. The reason the judge is characterized as corrupt is that his motives stemmed from fear of exposure, not justice. Hassanio killed a man with his negligence, yet he did not face consequences. Also, the story makes it clear that the judge was in league with the thieves, the ultimate source of all the mishaps. Regarding both versions of Shylock, neither the folktale nor Shakespeare with all his skill have fashioned a plot to prove or disprove if the money lender would have followed through with the mutilation after hearing the first cry of anguish from the borrower. Perhaps a more skilled modern writer could solve this plot problem, putting to rest all speculations about Shylock's true character. The possibility that Shylock was using the contract as a bargaing leverage can be strongly defended. In The Merchant of Venice, he is offered and accepts three times the sum. But as in the story the judge sees a way not to pay him at all.


The stupid read Shakespeare too; but they just don’t get it.

by islamicRepublican (not verified) on

With all your perceived wisdom none of you condemned the malice toward the Iranian Jews, in this story. You all have compromised your wisdom, integrity, fairness, humanity just for a chip shoot at the Iranian Jews. This is typical of people who hate others more than they love themselves.

I wish Happy Norooz to all Iranians who found this story offensive.


Dear Ari

by varjavand on

Dear Ari,


I enjoyed reading your story; it is as intriguing as the other pieces you post her. Your command of the English language is indeed commendable

Wishing you the best,





Khaleh Mosheh,

by Princess on

The moral of your bit of the story is "Dast balaye dast besyar ast", particularly in a society where the judges are as corrupt as street criminals. :)


Beautiful Soul of a Nation!

by Jaleho on

I loved the story, and Azadeh's title for it! Thanks.

I prefer to asign the qualifier "wisdom" instead of "corrupt" to the judge rather than the Jew. After all, he ruled against a "greed" so dirty that it has no consideration for human suffering.

He ruled for understaning of the abyss of "human misery" which takes you to the desperate measure of suicide. Teaches you the real meaning of "forgiveness."

It ruled against an "ungrateful" jackass who failed to "appreciate" the efforts of a man going towards his final sentence, yet he bothered to show "compassion" to another brother in pain.

And, it showed the unltimate in "wisdom by osmosis:"

You better "judge" what you might gain by a claim which is beyond reason and human limits. So, the saying "khar ma az korregi dom nadasht," encapsulates not only the "victimhood" of the person who lost a monetary value, but gained the "human judgment" that there are more important things in life than that "monetary loss," such as wisdom to know when to "compromise," the notion of  "self-sacrifice" arising from "empathy" towards another human. 

It IS a mantra that reflects the beautiful soul of a nation!


khaleh mosheh

And the story continues, Dear Friend

by khaleh mosheh on

My very reliable sources inform me that indeed this story has further continuation.

It transpires that Shylockpour indeed has many powerful friends in the court of the everso powerul Tzar of Russia, who have been afraid that his annual profits might have declined. They could not tolerate the corrupt system of this so call Bakhtiari justice and in any case did not wish to see a Khan of a backward province being able to interfere in their friend affairs. 

So the Tsar, having been pressured by a number of powerful courtiers having great many business ties with Shylockpour sends is several merciless Cossack regiments to teach the willy Bakhtiari's a lesson. These Cossak regimens had been previously dispatched  to teach the wily Quasqai's a few lesson a few seaosns previously and so were very experienced in the art.

To cut a long story short, the whole Bakhtiari and Charmahaal region is now a very large stable for horses with very little infra structure.

Lesson for the Wily Khan: Dont mess with people with powerful friends and let them have what they demand. 

khaleh mosheh

An original bakhtiari tale

by khaleh mosheh on

Thanks Dear Ari for this original interpretation- Could have come from the great Khan of the clan himself, divluging great pearls of wisdon to his offspring in preparation to becoming the next chieftain.



by Princess on

I didn't know the story nor the quote, and I loved how you intertwined the Merchant of Venice into this.

So the moral of the story is twofold:

a.  intentions don't count, what you do, does. 

b.  it's important to be on friendly terms with people in power, you know, Don Corleone style ;)

I enjoy your writings. Thanks Mr. Siletz for educating bee-savads like me in our folk tales. 



by IRANdokht on

now we know!  :o)

Ari jan

Thanks so much for another beautifully told story. So what would the moral of this story be? when you're in big doodoo, make a deal with the big guy?  ;-)

forever your fan


Azadeh Azad


by Azadeh Azad on

A very jocular retelling, Ari. Thanks. The title of this piece could be "The Shrewd and the Corrupt!" Or even better, "The Soul of A Nation!" :-)





so, that's where this came from!

by Jinny (not verified) on

A great read! How articulate and interesting you have made this story, Mr. Siletz. Loved every single word of it. Thank you. Thank you.