Mohammad Ali Jamalzadeh, acclaimed as the father of modern Persian short story, wrote this work. Sar o Tah-e Yak Karbas. to provide his fellow Iranians a memoir in story form of traditional Islamic life in Iran before westernization.
Originally published in 1983.
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Isfahan Is Half the World
Memories of a Persian Boyhood
By Sayyed Mohammed Ali Jamalzadeh, W. L. Heston
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1983 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
Go to Isfahan so that you see the second paradise! Send greetings to its Zayandeh River from my eyes! [Bahar]
* * *
Memories of Childhood Times
I:18 Everyone knows that I am a legitimate child of Isfahan and born of its pure earth. That Isfahan is called "half the world" is enough to describe the city. That by making a profession of contentment, which is one of their excellent characteristics, its people have been satisfied with "half the world" for a city that is really worth a hundred worlds suffices to describe them.
Hafez of Shiraz, who was originally an Isfahani, considered his Shiraz better than our Isfahan, even though he called our Zayandeh River the Water of Life. Love for homeland is no fault, of course, and given his eminence, I have no alternative except to quote his own phrase, "Praise be on his pure but mistaken view!" Fortunately, others who are fair and perceptive and know the truth have another opinion about our Isfahan, the image of heaven. The poet Jamal-od-din Abd-or-razzaq has said even about its earth: "Reason would take the earth of Isfahan for eye salve."
Fakhr-e Gorgani of Isfahan, who is sometimes called the Pride of Iran, and other notables who have had some acquaintance and dealing with Isfahan have all come up with sayings which are bywords in praise and eulogy of it. One has said:
Who says, "Isfahan is half the world"?
If there is a world, it is Isfahan!
Someone else has sung:
They said, "Isfahan is half the world!"
They half-described Isfahan.
1:19 Another poet who had lost his heart to nature's beauty got to the gist of the matter in these two short couplets:
The lip of the Zayandeh River and the breeze of spring,
The lip of the adored and the delicious wine,
Uproot sorrow from the heart as
The prince's dagger uproots oppression.
Khaqani sent the message from his road far away:
Is it the houri's perfume or the air of Isfahan?
Is it the houri's forehead or the face of Isfahan?
When Khezr's hand found not the spring again,
He made ablutions with the trampled dust of Isfahan.
The sun's eyes always were in pain,
With envy of the kohl-producing earth of Isfahan.
1:20 They have also said a lot, both good and bad, regarding Isfahan's people, but there is no room for doubt and no one denies that they are a sharp-thinking, hard-working, simply dressed, clever, and witty people, and though they pull the wool over the heavens' eyes, no one can pull the wool over their eyes. It is these very Isfahanis who built this historic city and its comfort and thriving state are not the work of recent days; it thrived and flourished for centuries before the Safavids. Naser-e Khosrow Alavi, the writer and traveler who passed through it about a thousand years ago, has written this about one of its lanes: "There was a lane called Street of the Embroiderers in which there were fifty excellent caravanserais and in each one sat many venders and shopkeepers." Elsewhere he says, "A caravan which we accompanied had one thousand, three hundred donkeyloads and, when we went into the city, we could stop without having to look around twice for there was no problem of a shortage of space nor any difficulty about the stage-stop or fodder." Regarding provisions and Isfahan's climate, he writes, "The people there said no one had ever seen less than fifty pounds of bread for one dinar, and in all the Persian-speaking world, I have seen no finer or more complete and thriving city than Isfahan. It is said that wheat and barley and other grains would not be ruined if they were stored for twenty years."
Furthermore, it should not be imagined that Isfahan's comfort and thriving state are simply a gift from God; rather, an important part of it is undoubtedly thanks to the efforts and expertise of its people. I:21 Otherwise, the Zayandeh River's water is, as all know, increasingly brackish and Isfahan's earth is so tough and hard that it is generally recognized that "the Isfahani peasant takes his daily bread from God by force." Those who have taken walks around the outskirts of Isfahan during the growing season have seen villagers bringing water out of the mountains and bedrock with the point of a pick and the blade of an axe. Among those, AIi Jowahar Kalam has written in his exquisite book, The Zayandeh River (printed in A. D. 1933):
Last year in summer, the author was present in the Rudasht district of Isfahan. The peasants were drawing water from wells at the sides of the fields, fearing the rain would not come and the crops would dry out. With no machines or pumps to use, the middle-class peasants had fastened their cows and mules to the well wheel and the poorer peasants had fastened their wives and daughters. They drew water by going up the hill and coming down, and after collecting water in a large vessel, several people would take the end and tip it over at the foot of the fields, for if they poured the water from a bucket into an irrigation ditch, it would dry up right in the ditch and not reach the fields.
I:22 Any witness viewing the drudgery of the night-soil removers going back and forth in the villages around Isfahan at the morning call for prayer knows what great importance dung and manure have in that region's agriculture and why it has been said: "The income of Isfahan's people is derived from the outlet," and the golden jug of the melon from the nearby village of Gorgab will sweeten the palate of the sarcastic Tehranis until the sweet life of the Gorgab peasant is about to leave him.
It is by the zeal and perseverance and knowledge of these same people that not a drop of water of the Zayandeh River, which is famous for the thousand and one canals pouring into it and which runs a length of fifty parasangs from the spring of Chakhan to the salt marsh of Gaw-khuni, is wasted uselessly.
It is obvious that when lazy and self-indulgent people see the comfort of Isfahan's people and grasp that "Isfahani" is actually equivalent to "clever" in the calculations of abjad and that the Isfahani will somehow or other bail himself out and will somewhere or other get hold of money and food and drink, no matter what the obstacle, it arouses their sense of envy. Then they begin the disparagement:
Isfahan is a heaven full of amenities!
Whatever you might imagine possible is in it.
Everything about it is excellent except —
It should have no Isfahanis in it.
I:23 Little by little it reaches a point where the thought of the Isfahanis' orderliness, prosperity, and satisfaction even precludes their compatriots' sleep and disturbs their dreams. It is said:
A mystic saw Satan one night in a dream.
He said, "By Bu Torab, O Satan,
Aren't those born in Isfahan your students?"
He replied, "Those are Their Exalted Excellencies, the teachers!"
From the ancients, we pass to the wits of Tehran and today's jesters in the capital. They show courage in making cracks about the Isfahanis, and while pretending to imitate their accent, which like many of their other peculiarities is basically inimitable, they change short vowels to e even where the Isfahanis do not and have great fun parodying the Isfahani clothsellers.
I:24 But paying no attention to this tasteless insolence and banal vulgarity, the Isfahani is busy as an ant, day and night, at his own work with utmost assurance and confidence. He continually exchanges the products of his factories and the toil of his peasants and craftsmen for coined gold and silver on all sides and in all regions, foreign and domestic. He purifies the dusty, gumlike substance which he pulls off by the tenth of an ounce from the thorns and brush of his plains, and in the form of a wholesome and delicious paste mixed with musk willow and almond and pistachio kernels, he puts it to sleep in the heart of white flour like a pearl hidden in an oyster and, under the name gaz and inside those noted wooden boxes on top of which he glues its picture, he sends one donkeyload after another in all directions of Iran and the world beyond, and purse after purse and bag after bag of round two qeran coins and paper bank notes, peace upon them, are attracted to the Zayandeh River's banks.
The association of Isfahanis with intelligence and shrewdness is not of recent origin. Their knowledge, expertise, and experience have been famous from days of yore, and not without reason has it been said:
A king should have four categories of people from four places,
So he may be permanently distinguished on the throne of
Minstrels from Herat, confidants and cronies from Qazvin,
Military men from Tabriz, executives from Isfahan.
Have you not heard that the Sassanian king, Khosrow Parviz, had 373 generals of whom 200 were Isfahanis? Have you not read in histories that the caliphs selected most of their court officials and agents from the people of Isfahan? Was not the Abbasid general, Abu Moslem, originally an Isfahani?
It is said that Isfahan's people are not openhanded and are, in their terms, stingy, but was not Jamal-od-din, the famous vizier of Mosul who became known as The Generous for his abundant generosity and bounty, an Isfahani?
I:25 The Isfahani is among the distinguished creations of this world. Everyone who has come to deal with him knows that, like those Jom-Jom (Shaking) Minarets which are so much a source of pride and boasting for young and old in that city, even if the Isfahani quakes for a lifetime, he is always still firmly in place, seated where he belongs. He is exactly like the Zayandeh River, which is yet a fountainhead afresh for masses of lush greenery even when it is dry.
I:26 The very surprising point is that despite all the Isfahanis' outward profit-worship, such that you would think of high and low as being created only for accumulating wealth and property and adding fifty dinars to a hundred and that money is, so to speak, bound into their lives, never do they neglect also to remember God. Under the protection of their innate cleverness and shrewdness, they conform to the Arabic words: "How beautiful are religion and worldly things when joined together!" and they have reached a stage where few peers and equals can be found for them on earth. In bringing together this world and the hereafter and this life and the next, which really is taking two watermelons under one arm, the Isfahani openly displays a dexterity and skill which verge on sorcery and sleight-of-hand and leave human intellect amazed. If God has woven the warp of their existence with the thread of cash and capital, he has fashioned their weft with the yarn of piety and goodness. It is exactly as if the Isfahani were keeping the means of living in one pan of the scales of practical knowledge and making room in the other pan for the means of salvation. He continually goes back and forth on the rope of worldliness and the life to come like the most skillful tightrope walker and seldom does it happen that he steps outside the sphere of equilibrium and loses his balance. He is serene and quiet and gets along with priests and police and comes to terms with governors and mullahs, tricking them both and hiding half a bowl of earthly profits beneath the bowl of rewards in the next life with such mastery and cleverness that Satan says, "Congratulations!" If he has one foot in the stirrup of this world, his other is in the stirrup of the Day of Seventy Thousand Years. You surely know about Akhond Molla Abdollah Yazdi, one of the ulama with many noble qualities and teacher of the father of Sheykh Baha'i, and his coming to Isfahan. After just one watch on the very first night, he told his followers to bundle up their bags and baggage to leave the city as quickly as possible because he saw thousands of displays of wine and immoral amusements were arranged and waiting throughout the city. He feared lest God send down some punishment and they too would be burned in the fires from the city. Bags and baggage were readied and they set off, but they hadn't yet gone far from the city when dawn arrived and the great scholar of Yazd focused his mind's eye on the city and ordered them to return instantly because he saw that several thousand prayer carpets had been laid out and thousands of men and women were busy with prayer and worship.
I:27 At the same time, it should be realized that when it comes to his rights and benefits and he sees himself exposed to encroachments and inequities, how often this same modest, ceremonious, reasonable, naive, and simple Isfahani with those hands coming politely out of 1:27 his aba lags behind no one in aggression and highhandedness! Just recently, when our country had throughout become a table to sack and had been confronted with all the legal robberies and transgressions of sacred and secular law, only the people of Isfahan acted boldly with every means and measure whatsoever and did not pay blackmail. In keeping with "None but the wild boar of Isfahan catches the jackal of the thickets of Mazanderan," 5 they not only kept their hats firmly on their own heads and did not pay tribute to the jackal, but going a step further, by selling the local fabric (we won't go more now into the good and bad of quality and price), they not only saved their homeland but they also made a complete collection of tools for obtaining the welfare and prosperity of the city and their townsmen. In short, the Isfahani takes the rod of management in one hand and has the cane of trust in God in the other, and whatever happens, he gets his limping donkey to the destination above whose door has been written both "Being Well" and "Ending Well."
* * *
I:28 Alas that not more than ten or eleven years of my life had yet passed when by order of fate (and from fear of excommunication), as will be described in detail, I was separated from such a city and such townsmen! Thirty-five years later when I happened to pass through there again, some of my hair had turned white and the soles of my feet were callused like the knees of a camel from so much useless roaming all over the world. It is true that I had gone ignorant and I returned ignorant, but what a difference between this ignorance and that! The ignorance of the day I left was all purity and innocence and joy and lightheartedness and childhood freedom, and the ignorance of the day I returned was collected contaminations and anxieties and disillusionments and other mental qualities for which I can't find names. They say the butterfly grows up from a caterpillar; I had gone as a colorful butterfly with lovely wings and was returning as a dirty and disgusting caterpillar.
For all that, on that early morning of 1936 in the freshness of one of autumn's nicest days, when the suburbs of that city became visible and my eyes fell from afar on the enchanting view of Isfahan with all those sparkling domes and minarets and I reached the fresh, green gardens of the city's outskirts, which recall bolts of Kashmiri cloth and carpets full of designs and decoration thrown before the feet of a bride, and the Sofeh Mountain appeared south of the city and I discovered myself opposite the pigeon towers which seemed to be looking for me with a hundred white plumed eyes, I suddenly found myself anew at that same age of ten or eleven years old. My heart, which had long been a drum room of sorrow and unhappiness and didn't beat so easily any more, began to beat its wings like a chicken with its head cut off. Noticing my state, my friend seated next to me in the automobile started softly singing,
Moving majestically with the caravan on the road to Isfahan,
The hundred two-humped camels in a line are lovely.
When the moon rises at night, the camel bell ends;
The melodies sung by the wayfarer's flute are lovely.
With loving affection, some friends I'd never met had come out to meet me. We kissed each other thoroughly and, as it happened and as you know (to use Sa'di's phrase), an hour later I became the complete and total master of the house and the giver of commands and bans with no exceptions in a home which I had not seen even in a dream.
I:29 Our kind host, whose pleasant face I was seeing for the first time, was a son of an old and loyal friend of my father. The engaging features of his dear, departed father were drawn on the tablet of my mind back in childhood and will not be forgotten to the brink of the grave. He was an august sayyid, descended from one of the Twelve Imams, a scholar's son, and known as Ayatollah. He had turned his back on hypocrisy and deceit during that period of autocracy and subterfuge and joined with a group of lovers of freedom and worshippers of justice and had a special status in a limited circle of confidants. Even now long after his death, the rends of Isfahan tell stories of him. They say that one day he was passing in front of the famous Sayyed Mosque in Bidabad. He saw the mosque attendant, one of Isfahan's innumerable turban-wearers, with broomstick in hand attacking a gaunt and spiritless dog. With the callousness and cruelty which is always and everywhere the earmark of those nearest the seat of religious law, the attendant had battered the dumb animal bloody. Even then he didn't desist, and he was beating it to death while the common herd like cattle formed a circle like propped-up planks around the beater and the beaten, blocking the poor dog's means of escape. Ayatollah approached that faithful Muslim and turbanned Ebn Moljam and addressed him by his full name, "Haj Hoseyn Ali, it is well-known that:
The Arab in the desert eats locusts;
The dog of Isfahan drinks ice water!
I:30 Now ice water really is an extra, but tell me, why are you beating that animal of God this way?" He replied with an Isfahani accent, "The damn — the damned bastard went into the mosque and polluted 1:30 the house of God!" Surprised, Ayatollah said, "Hey now, that poor animal doesn't have any intelligence or sensitivity. But as for me, well, I do have intelligence and sensitivity — and you've never seen my feet step into a mosque."
Excerpted from Isfahan Is Half the World by Sayyed Mohammed Ali Jamalzadeh, W. L. Heston. Copyright © 1983 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- FrontMatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. v
- Introduction, pg. vii
- Map, pg. 4
- PREFACE, pg. 5
- PART I. Memories of Childhood Times, pg. 10
- PART II. Wanderings of Youth, pg. 66
- PART I. Roaming and Getting Acquainted, pg. 135
- PART II. Return to the Original or Solving the Problems, pg. 228
- Translator's Postscript Translator's Postscript, pg. 287
- Glossary, pg. 292
- Bibliography, pg. 297