Project Canterbury

Mary Bird in Persia

By Clara C. Rice

London: Church Missionary Society, 1916.

Chapter IV. Persian Conditions and Customs

TO breathe the atmosphere in which Mary Bird wrote her letters and lived her life it is further necessary to look at some of the everyday conditions and customs in the land of the Lion and the Sun.

The presence of the sun in the Persian symbol is a relic of the past, when it was the emblem of the fire-worshippers. Later on, when Mohammedanism held sway, the lion was added, because Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet, was called "the lion of God." A woman's face was introduced still later by a Shah who wished to honour his favourite wife.

Persia is gradually exchanging the slow, monotonous beat of the Oriental pendulum for the whir and whirl of Western wheels. The process is a slow one; but the great point to notice is that the change has begun. And if this forward movement be for the good of the country, may Persia have the grace of continuance. She will need a great deal of backing, and it is the help of England which she has, up to the present, most looked for and appreciated. Figures (which are in their very essence an insult to the Oriental imagination) are difficult to get, and are only arrived at after long and patient inquiry, but the broad facts of life and faith are visible on every hand.

Rasm va Kismet, custom and destiny, habit and fate play a very large part in the life of every subject of the Shah. Custom is connected with everything from birth to death, and fate is perhaps the largest element in the life of a Persian. Etiquette, too, is always in evidence and counts for much. Some titles are hereditary, but very many are bought from the Shah by both men and women, and give dignity and importance to their owners.

In large cities such as Isfahan and Yezd the bazars are very extensive, each trade having its own part. They are covered-in lanes, with high vaulted roofs, and are delightfully cool and dark in the summer after the scorching dusty glare outside, and warm and dry in winter.

To a Persian the bazar is the hub of the universe. Here men and boys of all ages make and buy and sell with as much noise and discussion and gesticulation as possible, counting time as of no value. Heavily laden beasts, from the supercilious camel to the tiny brown donkey, constantly block the thoroughfare.

News of all kinds is given and received. The women, who are few, and generally go about in parties, are all closely veiled and draped in black. Colour to the Persian is symbolic, and this is specially seen in the dress of the people. Men wear bright colours, but usually have an outer coat of dark cloth or a cashmere shawl, and tall, black lambskin hats, or round, close-fitting felt ones--white turbans are worn by mullas, and dark blue ones by sayyids, who also affect green clothing. Generally speaking, white represents purity and is worn by teachers and students, red implies divine wisdom, green initiation into the secrets of the Most High, and yellow is the prerogative of royalty.

Carpets have been made in Persia for more than four thousand years. It is difficult to over-estimate their beauty and durability. They excel all others, and find their way to every part of the world, commanding increasingly high prices. The makers have intuitively grasped from nature herself what is correct in colours, and so produce work of high artistic merit. All rugs and carpets are made on hand looms, many by the tribespeople, others in the villages. A whole family often work at one carpet, and this to some extent accounts for the irregularities of pattern and weaving, spontaneity and individuality being striking qualities of Persian art, but the irregularities are also introduced to avert the "evil eye." A good carpet has ten thousand stitches to the square foot, the best ones forty thousand. Some of the finest and best, particularly silk rugs, are made in factories in Kerman. Child labour is very largely employed, as the tiny fingers can do the finest work and for the lowest wage. The working hours are from sunrise to sunset, an average of twelve hours a day. Persians pride themselves on colour being their "secret and glory," and wondrous are the ways in which they get and combine their colours--madder roots, grape juice, shell fish, indigo, buckthorn, cochineal, onion skins, husks of green walnuts, milk, turmeric, henna, larkspur, and mulberry are all used singly or in combination to produce the lasting and beautiful shades. The punishment for using aniline dyes is said to be amputation of the right hand. Animal forms are allowed in Persian designs, and the tree of life is often represented. These are in accord with the light-heartedness of the Shiahs compared with the Turks, whose designs are mostly geometrical and reflect Sunni austerity. About thirty different kinds of carpets are woven in the country.

Dreams have been through the ages a way of teaching the people of the East, and the Persians in this century still believe in what they see in their sleep. A few out of many dreams have been thus narrated by missionaries to whom they were told:--

"A man who seemed very much in earnest says he had a dream which was the cause of his first coming to see me. In his dream he thought he saw a white, shining figure, standing with a veil over its face, and under a strong compulsion he fell down and adored it. The figure held in its hand a very fragrant bunch of flowers, to which Yahya took a great fancy. The figure said, 'You are not worthy of them.' He then went nearer and kissed his feet twice, when the flowers were given to him. On asking who the figure was, the reply was given, 'The Christ of God.' Alluding to this dream Yahya said on another occasion, 'If this age is the age of some other prophet or religious guide,' mentioning them, 'why did not one of them appear to me instead of Christ?'"

"In November, 1913, two brothers and a friend had an almost identical dream, to the effect that a great multitude of people were gathered together in the desert--which was bright with celestial light, when a voice between heaven and earth was heard, saying, 'Repent, all salvation given is through Jesus; the coming of the Lord is nigh.' Afraid to divulge their dream to the village mulla, they kept it to themselves until a day or so later they happened to see a dervish sitting by a stream eating his midday meal with a book (the Bible) open in front of him; as he proved to be rather an attractive sort of man they told him their dream. This man had been baptized early in the year, and since had suffered a great deal for his new-found faith, and at the time was fleeing away disguised as a dervish, exactly for Avhat reason is not known. Anyhow, he proved a veritable Philip to the three inquirers, with the result that shortly after they turned up at Isfahan for teaching."

"A man in hospital had his finger amputated. A few months later he returned with gangrene of the foot; this, too, was amputated, but the gangrene appeared again and the man became very ill. The doctor thought there was no hope for him, so let him go home, as a Mohammedan objects to dying in a Christian hospital. He was visited several times after he left. Then one night he had a dream in which he saw Christ, and waking up he said, 'I am going to get better; Christ has healed me,' and from that day the black of the gangrene fell off. He begged to return to hospital, and whenever he is asked how he is, he says Christ has healed him. He is very bright and happy, and attending the inquirers' class regularly. Truly his spared life is as a miracle."

A noticeable feature in the streets of a Persian town is the absence of houses and the presence of high walls, with occasionally a tiny barred window high up, and at intervals either low doors or sometimes a large, important-looking, nail-studded door. Where are the houses? and how dark they must be! Enter one of the doors, it may lead you into a long passage or almost directly into a paved courtyard varying from a few feet to hundreds of feet square. Often there are trees and flowers in the centre, and sometimes a tank at one side--these tanks are not only unhealthy, but many children fall in and are drowned. Parents look upon it as kismet, and do nothing to safeguard them. The house, with many doors and windows, is built round the courtyard, and a large house has a summer and a winter side. Parts of the house may have a second story; all the roofs are flat and useful. Among other things, people walk and sleep on the roof, or dry clothes and fruit, such as apricots and sultanas, there; children play on the roof, and, as may be expected, accidents are not at all uncommon. The chief reason for this style of house seems to be protection from thieves and privacy for the women. A man entering a compound will often cry, "Women, away!" and frequently a blind man is chosen as the muezzin who gives the call to prayer from the minaret, so that he may not see the women in the courtyards below. The flat roofs of different houses join, and make an easy way of getting from house to house, but this is only permissible among acquaintances. Many houses appear almost palatial, but the contrast in the interior between the apartments of the men and women is very marked. A room is well furnished with carpets, curtains, and cushions, but is often spoiled by European clocks (generally all showing different time), and rows of cheap lamps and vases, which the natives consider beautiful additions. The ceilings in large houses are often painted, and the walls decorated with stars of looking-glass. In some of the old palaces there is very beautiful coloured glass, the art of making which has been lost. Still, no care is taken of the glass.

Betrothals, which are as binding as marriages, are often made a means of social and political alliance between families and rulers. Though Persian literature abounds in stories of romantic love, the ordinary and most commonplace plan is for the arrangements for a betrothal to be made without the knowledge of either party, and as children, and particularly girls, are betrothed as young as 5 years of age, it seems the only course. On the wedding-day, when the bride is 10 or 12 or older, the bridegroom, who may be a youth or an old man, sees her for the first time, though she may have seen him through her veil. The nuptials mean the veiling of the bride to receive her husband, and she is behind this veil when he first comes to claim her, and only by marriage is that veil lifted to him. Bitter disappointment, as well as unanticipated satisfaction, are among the surprises of these bridal unveilings.

A Mohammedan may have four wives at once, generally having separate apartments and often different houses. This applies mainly to the well-to-do middle class. Many of the upper class who have been to Europe or come much in contact with Europeans, consider it to be the right thing to have only one wife. Among the poor there are not many who can afford more than one, though muleteers are frequently found with a wife at each end of the caravan route, and sometimes one on the way. Divorce and re-marriage are very easy, temporary marriages are often resorted to, and widows may marry again. A woman can easily be divorced by her husband for no better reason than that she is sick, childless, or ugly. As a woman she has no rights. There is no word in Persian for "home" or for "wife"; a man speaks of his "house" and his "woman," or his "son's mother." The word zenana, derived from the Persian word zan, a woman, is not used, but anderún, meaning inside, is the name given to the women's apartments, and birún, meaning outside, to the men's apartments.

Though the women are secluded, they have liberty to go out, as they are closely veiled and difficult to recognize. The royal and other great ladies only drive out in closed carriages and, except in the desert, with blinds down and a eunuch on the box, and they only visit their own relatives. They are not allowed to go to the mosque, and their religious life is confined to their own houses. It is rarely possible to see a lady of this class alone, for though she may be the only one sitting in state, a bevy of servants and slaves (of the latter there are still many in Persia) surround her and frequently join in the conversation. A Persian lady once said, "We are slaves in our own houses; our servants are free compared with us."

There are model wives and mothers in the East to-day, and nowhere are husbands more completely under the influence of wise and devoted wives, or of evil and designing ones, than in some Persian homes. Boys and girls are heavily handicapped in their home life, the Persian "home" being perhaps the worst possible sphere for their moral development.

In a Mohammedan house, at the very moment of death, the nearest to the dead proclaims the fact to all who are within hearing. Their cry is taken up and repeated by friends of the family near and far. Every sympathizing woman friend, and every hired mourner, who hurries to the house announces her coming by the conventional shriek. The Oriental death-cry is indescribable in its peculiar tones, and its unique impressiveness. Persians are emotional and demonstrative, and their tears flow easily. They feel intensely, and give utterance to their feelings as only an Oriental can. Friends' tears at a time of sorrow are highly valued, and are often caught and preserved in little tear bottles. These expressions of mourning may not commend themselves to our judgment, but we should be lacking in charity and a knowledge of human nature if we condemned them. Persians have so little wherewith to give comfort at such a time. The body is quickly borne to a running stream, washed, wrapped in cotton wool and camphor, and folded in a sheet, and is then taken, carried shoulder high on a bier, to the burying-ground, people following wailing and reciting the virtues of the departed. If the deceased was a person of repute, a tent is put up over the grave, where a mulla recites passages from the Qur'an for several days. Relatives and friends come at least once a week to weep at the grave. The eyes of the dead, they say, will be "on the road" watching for them to come. Some specially holy people are buried temporarily above ground, awaiting the opportunity of being taken to a holy place such as Kum or Kerbela, for final interment. To the friends the light has gone out, and how great is the darkness!

Something has already been said of Persian roads and the means of transit, but a few details are needed to show the delights and difficulties of what is such an essential part of life in Persia, namely, journeys. They may extend over days and even months. Getting a caravan together, sorting out necessary travelling kit, buying supplies of food, are all lengthy proceedings. The best season for a journey is the early spring or late autumn, when the stage can be done by day. To get off at 4 a.m. it is necessary to be stirring before 3 a.m., unless the party is very small, breakfast, packing, and loading the animals may take two hours. About half-way a halt will be made for a meal, either by a stream, or under a tree, it may be a walnut, an olive, or a mulberry; or it may be by a ruined tower, or under the shadow of a great rock. The day's stage may take eleven or twelve hours, and at the end of it a blackened, dilapidated room in a chapar-khaneh (post-house) or caravanserai (the inn of the East) may be secured as a resting-place for the night. Then immediately follows a cup of tea for every one. After this the room will be swept out--the floors are mud and the dust is terrible--a rug or two laid down, beds and mosquito nets put up, and a curtain nailed across the place where the door should be.

In the hot weather travellers start about 4 p.m., halting for dinner at 9 p.m., the destination being reached just when the sun rises and the flies wake up. Happy are those who can readily adapt themselves to existing conditions, and eat and sleep when and where possible. To such these night journeys over the deserts are entrancing. It is seldom really dark. The silence is only broken by the caravan bells, and a good traveller can most restfully ride on through the night. But there are many irregularities arising from the party, the road, or the season, and all the journeys are not over deserts and plains. Many are the rivers to be forded, and the stony mountain-sides to be climbed. The horses and mules are wonderfully sure-footed, but there are places where it feels safer to be on one's own feet. And there is often the possibility of encountering brigands, and parting with some of one's most cherished possessions. Miss Bird gives many picturesque accounts of nights and days of travel. The following extracts are from diaries of different journeys:--

"To-day we passed such quantities of gypsies, the women carrying the babies on their backs. All their worldly possessions were on small cows and donkeys; on the top of one donkey-load a little child was lying fast asleep, strapped firmly round the waist; two tiny donkeys were carried in saddlebags on the back of a cow, sick lambs are always carried thus, cocks and hens perched on the loads without being tied. Some of the people were very handsome, but sunburnt till almost black. Their clothing was very poor, but the women wore bracelets or necklaces. They were so generous, offering us milk, and food for the horses. I took such a sweet baby for a few minutes. The women said a sidesaddle must be very tiring unless English women had one leg stronger than another! "

"The place we usually stay at was entirely filled by a Persian Prince-Governor from Tabriz, on his way to Teheran; he passed us yesterday riding a beautiful white Arab horse with richly-worked crimson saddle-cloth, and twenty attendants all well mounted and armed. Each had a beautiful falcon on his right hand, which, when the horses go fast, spread their wings, as if flying. To-day we met a party coming from Teheran to meet him, with sweet little lambs and kids peeping out of their saddle-bags, which they will sacrifice the moment they meet the Prince."

"To-day off by 3.30 a.m., and arrived here at 12.15, a long ride through a howling wilderness. We passed two rivers, but the water of both was so salt that even the poor thirsty mules would not touch it. Wherever there has been water, the ground is covered with salt, and is quite barren; for miles the only living things we saw were lizards and huge black flying beetles. We all exclaimed with delight when a lark sprang up singing. The sunrise was very pretty, and the morning star so bright. I wonder if it is ever so bright in England?"

"My seat is the gnarled root of a great white mulberry tree which shelters me from the brilliant sunshine while we halt for lunch; the sky is absolutely blue, not a cloud anywhere, and against it, in grand silent beauty, stand out endless peaks and crags of the surrounding mountains. A rushing, bubbling mountain torrent reminds one of the text, 'Everything shall live whither the river cometh,' for the valley on either side of it is terraced with fruit trees and with corn just ripe and golden. Vines are not planted separately, but are allowed to climb over any and every fruit tree, as 'it never kills the tree it grows over.' Walnut and peach trees are planted as closely as possible together."

"I stopped at a caravanserai, which was very noisy, some pedlars had come from Yezd, and the villagers crowded round in eager excitement to see the latest patterns in prints, handkerchiefs, and other things, and strike a good bargain. Their patience is marvellous! They will sit and haggle for hours over ld.; the pedlar declaring by all the prophets he paid more for the article than the price offered; the customer rising in hot haste declaring he is being cheated and will not pay more, but returning to the business with fresh vigour in a few minutes. How often one is reminded of the text, 'It is nought, it is nought, saith the buyer.' Truly the East is marvellously unchanged!"

During the last ten years many travellers in Persia have fallen into the hands of brigands. Miss Bird told how "Dr. Carr fell into the hands of a robber band, who carried him, his servants, and his caravan off to one of their mountain haunts, and took everything--clothes, money, goods, and animals--from him, only allowing him to have his sun hat and some old clothes of their own. After keeping him two days, almost without food, he and his party were released and had to tramp about eighteen miles to a village. While he was with these brigands, they constantly expressed their regret that it had been his kismet to fall into their hands. He returned their treatment by doctoring them and telling them of the true way of salvation. The man who told us of it said, 'It was wonderful, the doctor never swore once, though we took all his things.' "

In January, 1912, Miss Bird wrote: "I am safely in Yezd, . . . the journey from Isfahan, owing to delays, took sixteen instead of ten days. . . . We had a false alarm of robbers and the muleteer drove our mules and donkeys back to the last village at a gallop ... It was disappointing . . . but the false alarm had saved us ... from a small robber band who were waiting about a mile beyond where we turned back. They captured another caravan . . . the owner was very distressed, but his friends tried to console him by repeating constantly, 'Do not boil, it was fate!' That night we joined a big camel caravan and marched from sunset to sunrise ... it was a glorious bright frosty night . . . but a bitter wind. Our caravanserai was on a mountain summit deep in snow, and it snowed for six hours over the pass and while we were descending to Nain. Here we heard a band of robbers had taken possession of the lonely caravanserai in the midst of the desert, and the Governor of Nain . . . said we must wait until the robbers moved, or a large caravan came along. The fourth morning . . . we rushed out, almost ready to hug one hundred and fifty camels with merchandise and money for the bank in Yezd; thirty-four armed men accompanied it. ... They gladly consented to our travelling with them, only we must wait twenty-four hours for a friend's caravan with sixty donkeys and thirty-four men to arrive. I wish you could have seen the cavalcade--each set of twenty camels fastened together and led by a man riding a donkey, our little party of five mules and my donkey, one guard sent by the governor to march with me, and then the sixty donkeys. Every bell had been muffled, no one was to speak aloud to man or animal, and my guard undertook to conduct us 'without road,' i.e. off the main road. We started a little before sunset, and by dark were four miles off the caravan road in the midst of a stony desert, it was a very dark night with a cutting wind and snow. The men were very much alarmed and asked if I was. I was so glad I could tell them that God had taken away all fear from me, I had asked for His protection and believed He would guard us. A number of men came round and asked me to pray with them in a whisper. We could see the robbers' fire on the mountain side, but the God-sent dark clouds hid us from view and we passed quickly and noiselessly along. The men longed to smoke but were afraid of the lights being seen; they were so thoughtful and kind, leading my donkey over bad places and making it keep in the middle of the caravan. At daybreak ... we had passed the 'thieves' place.' The men began to talk and untie the bells, and when I proposed to my guard that we should thank God that He had answered our prayer, such a number came round, exclaiming, 'Elohi' at the end of each sentence. . . . We were only allowed to remain while the bipeds had a hasty meal of bread and the quadrupeds of barley, and then went on ten miles to a larger village. My guard asked me about England, our constitution, rates, and taxes, and why English girls as well as boys were educated. I explained to him, and he exclaimed,' Nearly all the people in Persia are like wild animals wandering in the dark'; and then he listened quietly while I told him of Jesus Christ' the Light of the World.' To my surprise he said, 'We do not know, we have not seen the light.' "

Then to the rolling Heaven itself I cried,
Asking "what lamp had destiny to guide
Her little children stumbling in the dark?"
And--"A blind understanding!" Heaven replied.

One moment in annihilation's waste,
One moment of the well of Life to taste,--
The stars are setting and the caravan
Starts from the Dawn of Nothing--Oh, make haste!


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