A story is told of a Western businessman who had lived a number of years in Iran and, at some time during the reign of the Shah, was meeting with then Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveida. Their business concluded, the foreigner asked him, “Why do you Iranians have a habit of rhyming a real word with a nonsense word immediately after?” (By the way, the businessman’s observation was right on the money.) The prime minister answered, “Not all Iranians, only the lAti-pAti.”
The retellings never mention whether Hoveida was kidding or not. It would be surprising if he weren’t. From his press conferences it was clear he was capable of irony and even self-irony. He spoke English, French, German, and Arabic, and of course Farsi. He discreetly shared the services of the Shah’s Italian tailor. When the Shah fell, he turned himself over to Khomeini and was sentenced to death at a farcical trial and shot the next day.
“Why would you call it Farsi? You don’t call German Deutsch or French Francais.” This objection was raised by a professor of the language whom I was asking about a certain poem. “Persian is the term you should use,” he said. In fact the English term is closer to the original than Farsi, which starts with an “F” only because the Arabic alphabet imposed in the wake of the Arab invasion of the country, has no letter “P”. The word for elephant similarly evolved from “pil” to “fil”.
Thus the nonsense term Hoveida used would have been a Persian word: pAti, pronounced like “potty”, which may have been his joke after all. The non-nonsense word, lAt, means hooligan, which in turn may well come from the name of Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu who swept through the country on his way to Baghdad and, as some recently learned, would slit a vein in his horse’s neck and suckle when he was in too great a hurry to dismount and have a real lunch, of mare’s milk, or the slab of meat being tenderized beneath his saddle as he galloped.
Rhymes of course are no joke. It has been argued that the patterns of rhyme in a language create a primary conceptual framework which precedes all other thought structures, including logic, creating associations and pathways between words that constitute a sort of linguistic unconscious: kAbus, tAvus, for example, meaning nightmare and peacock, as in the peacock throne. It’s an absurd theory of course—what would we have to conclude about English and its minefield of diphthongs, in which there is virtually no consistency between spelling and pronunciation – as in “through thorough thought the rough bough broke?”
This is the reason why the transliteration of Persian into English is too often incoherent and nearly useless in indicating how the original was spelled or pronounced. It only compounds the difficulties of understanding the language. While the vowels are quicksand, the real challenge is the letters whose sound does not exist in English: the catarrhic kh, the glottal stop, and the aspirated h, and the two guttural q’s. Then there are the four z’s, the three s’s, the two t’s, etc etc.
But it is this labyrinth of transliteration that brought English the invaluable term “check mate”, which etymologically has nothing to do with either word. The original Persian term was “shAh mAt”, meaning the stupefied or astonished king – the term still used in Russia and much of the Slavic world. In Arabic mAt means dead, but the movement of the term and the game was from East (beginning in India) to West. “ShAh” was rendered as “chah” in French, and the “ch” made its way into English. And “mAt” became “dead”, perhaps because of its resemblance to the Latin word for sacrificial killing, the root of matador.
Transcription, however, is inevitable. There is no other way to present the little poem I consulted the professor about. Here it lies:
dar in dargah ke gah gah kah koh o koh kah shavad nAgah
masho qarre ze emruzet ke az fardA nei Agah
It has been said that the Arabic alphabet was drawn from the lines of waves of the sea driven towards the shore—or from the shimmering of mirages in extreme heat. In fact the center span of the top line of the poem is a series of what could be waves, slightly skewed S’s with a small loop off the bottom curve, one after another after another. The poem seems to lie somewhere between writing and drawing.
The beauty and plasticity of the Arabic script is astonishing and can be adapted to almost any subject. In certain Sufi manuscripts, the writing appears like a flock of birds circling towards the reader, in others, submerged vines in a stream, or woven ironwork over a window, or a city viewed from the sky.
There is a poetic form called the Parvaneh written in both Persian and French (it could be any left-right tongue) in which the writer writes from the outer margin to the center—Persian from right to left, French from left to right—lines of equal length that meet at the center, where the final Persian letter and Roman letter must join. The goal is not to translate one side with the other but rather to write two completely separate poems which together, because they are different, create a structure that would be impossible with just one. Parvaneh means butterfly, which is the shape the completed poem must have, each side comprising a wing.
The poem, however, cannot be fully experienced by being read or even recited. (In Persian the same word, khAndan, means read (pronounced reed) and recite and sing.) It is the simultaneity of the form that is its essence, the flapping of both wings as it were, of a creature that exists only in flight, that can only be made, not observed or heard, or even spoken. The most virtuosic practitioners of this form, referred to as parvanehgirs, are said to have written both wings at the same time.
This brings to mind another story of perhaps the same western visitor to Iran. Moving slowly through traffic during the outbreak of the riots that would eventually bring down the Shah, the man, sweating and nervous in the back seat of a cab, repeatedly noticed a certain name written across the front of a number of the cars behind him. He fled Teheran within a few days, but for years after would ask people familiar with the country what it meant, whose name it was. What made it striking was that the name seemed to be a European name and was written in Roman cursive script. In fact it reminded him of the name of the Shah’s (and Hoveida’s) Italian tailor. Years later, talking with a Persian-speaking Afghani cab driver crossing a bridge, he suddenly realized that he had seen this name only in the rear view mirror, which changed everything. He wrote the name out as he remembered seeing it and held it up for the driver to see in his rear view mirror. Ambulance, the driver said. The word used in Iran is phonetically the same, AmbulAns. Written backwards, i.e., left to right, the Alef looks like an “l” and the Lam and Alef together form a “v”.
Why the capital A in the middle of certain words? (By the way, there are no capitals in Persian, or Arabic.) There are two a’s in Persian: a long “A” (here capitalized) as in “shot”, though it is held longer and with the mouth opener. And there is the short “a”, as in “cat” . The long A is the Alef and is written; the short “a”, though, is not written, and nor are the short “e” and “o” (as in “spelt” and “haut” respectively). And nor is one of the most essential grammatical features of the language: the ezAfe, an “eh” sound between two words that indicates possession or relation.
Everywhere you turn, it seems, there is only denser thicket, or as they say in Persian, jangal, which rhymes with jang, the word for war. To one unfamiliar with Persian, there would be no way of knowing whether the first word of this poem, for example, was dar, der, or dor.
This then is what the little couplet looks like in Persian, i.e., without the short vowels written in:
dr in drgh ke gh gh kh kh o kh kh shvd nAgh
msho qrre z emruzt ke az frdA nei Agh
A glance at this reminds you of the fables of scholars locked in dungeons with coded messages or magic incantations and told they will be killed unless they decipher them by morning—like the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin, locked away with her spinning wheel and the mountains of straw. For her, translating this poem would have seemed equally impossible.
Begin with the first four words. The first two are very common: dar = in, and in = this. Then another dar (which can also mean door) and then a g-h. Goh means shit, is this a possibility? What about dargah? There is no such word. However, if it were dargAh, it would make sense, but there is no long a.
This would be the moment for Rumpelstiltskin to enter and explain. What we have here is a poetic usage that would be impossible to know otherwise. In the poetry of certain periods, many or most of the long A’s will be shortened, from cot to cat, as it were, because it was thought to be more sonorous. After this, the poem begins to make more sense. gAh alone means place, and dargAh means doorway, or threshold, or palace, or court, or audience. (For now we will use the word ‘’place’’ to keep all the meanings open.)
But the word gAh is one of the most intriguing semantic treats in Persian: it can mean both place and time. gAh-gAh simply means from time to time. nAgAh, with the negative prefix, means literally no time, or suddenly. And then in the next line, the word AgAh is used, meaning aware.
(ke, by the way, is simply the word for ‘which’ or ‘that’—like ‘que’ or ‘che’ in Spanish and Italian—or at times ‘when’.)
At the center of the line we now come to four apparently identical words: they are spelled no differently that ke. In fact, however, they are kah –straw- and koh -mountain. Shavad means ‘’become’’.
And thus the first line begins to come into view: this is how it reads literally:
In this place where timetime straw mountain and mountain straw becomes suddenly.
Or to fill it out a little:
In this place where from time to time straw suddenly becomes mountain and mountain straw.
And onto the second line:
masho qarre ze emruzet ke az fardA nei Agah.
Be not proud of your today, as of tomorrow you are not aware. or, Be not proud of what you are today, as you have no idea what tomorrow holds.
The elements of straw and transformation take you back to the miller’s daughter again, and the crazy boast of her father that she could spin gold from chaff. In fact, the second line of the poem could well be addressed to the father. To push a bit further into the story, how perfect that it is Rumpelstiltskin, the crooked man with the indecipherable and unguessable name, who is to help the girl with the poem the king left for her to crack. It would have been a natural choice for the Grimm Brothers, who codified the story, given their work in linguistics. They may well have come across a version of this tale with that exact situation: a lowly person locked away with a formula or text to decipher by a merciless monarch. Then at dawn, if you haven’t succeeded, you are lead a weigh.
Not unlike the end of Hoveida after the revolution, held in prison at the mercy of Khomeini’s lAti-pAti, just months after the Shah—by then ShAh mAt—whom he had served for decades, had him arrested as a sop to the rage of the mobs, with no effect. All he had in his cell was a Koran from which to spin a defence for himself against the mullah’s wrath. Hoveida’s “trial” by the new regime was held in the middle of the night – two impromptu sessions, a judicial farce. The next day he was led out and shot.
A better end, perhaps, than that of the Caliph of Baghdad at the hands of Hulagu in the 1200s, which was a fantastic variation on the plight of the miller’s daughter: he was locked in a cell full of gold and left to starve to death.
In this court where mountains turn to straw and straw to mountains suddenly, again and again, do not be proud of your today, for you know nothing about tomorrow.
There is another word for court (of justice) in Persian: dAd-gAh, literally, a place of screaming.
What would have happened if Rumpelstiltskin had taken the miller’s daughter’s boy? And who gave him that name? Was it his real name, this name invented never to be guessed? But invented how? What better system of encryption than Persian transliteration? It wasn’t beyond the Brothers Grimm. Why not try it out? Persian is an Indo-European language after all. It gave English, among others, the words “bad”, “shawl”, “sugar”, “typhoon”, and “candy” in addition to “jungle” and “checkmate”.
To detransliterate Rumpelstiltskin, we first remove the vowels that would not be written in Persian and break it into four possible words: r-m p-l st-l sk-n. Then try the three possible vowels in the place of each dash like tumblers in a lock. And in fact it is possible. Many words seem to fit. Here is one string: mercy, bridge, length, revenge. In this reading, Rumpelstiltskin is not a name but a statement, then:
Mercy is a bridge the length of revenge. Or is it:
Revenge must span the length of mercy
Teddy Jefferson, author of One Inch Leather: 14 Stories (pendulum books), and Rorschach Tempest: A Dialogue on Shakespeare’s Tempest (in Italian and English, published by sedizioni), and numerous stories, essays, and plays, including The Wedding, The Desk, and The Insomniac (performed in New York and at the Prithvi Theater in Mumbai), text for Blessed Unrest’s Eurydice’s Dream, and Savitri: In the Forest of Death, performed by Preeti Vasudevan in India and Chicago and nominated for India’s META theater award in 2013. 2010 NYFA fellow, his translation of Pirandello’s However You Want Me (Come tu mi vuoi) won the PEN translation prize. His next book of stories is due out in spring 2014.