Persia/Chapter 33

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The Persians are too much addicted to etiquette and ceremony, not to be fond of visiting. The dependant would not on any account allow a day to pass without paying his respects to his patron, the courtier without presenting himself before the sovereign, and friends without mutually visiting one another. The ceremonies and compliments differ with the rank of the visitor. If an inferior is honoured with a visit from his superior, he does not sit down till the latter is seated, nor rise till he has risen. The master of the house commonly occupies the upper end of the cushion or carpet; but if he wishes to do honour to the stranger, he gives up his place to him or makes him take a seat by his side.

When the master of the house is of higher rank than his visitor, the latter softly slips into the divan-kaneh, takes the first vacant pla6e, and there stands with his hands crossed over his girdle, his head somewhat inclining forward and his eyes fixed: and in this rave attitude he continues t the host invites him to be seated.

There exists a kind of etiquette in regard to the manner of sitting, which every well-bred person must observe. Thus before his superior he squats on his heels, keeping his knees and his feet close together; in the presence of his equals he sits down cross-legged, with his body erect; and in any company whatever, it is deemed extremely rude to suffer the extremities of the feet to be seen when seated: they ought to be covered with the robe.

A visit between persons of distinction and of equal rank consists of three acts. In the first the visitor is furnished with a kallioun or pipe, the smoke of which is cooled by water, and a cup of very strong Coffee without sugar. In the second another kallioun is given with sweet coffee, so called because it is composed of rose-water and sugar. A fresh kallioun, sweetmeats and sherbet, make up the third act.

These sweetmeats are generally brought on silver, plated or japanned trays, adorned with painted flowers or other ornaments: they usually consist of sugar-almonds and pistachio-nuts, or small orange-flower cakes. The Persians are passionately fond of sweetmeats, and excel in the art of making them.

The manner in which the Persians take their meals, is totally different from ours: they are strangers to the use of tables, knives and forks; and such is the power of habit, that articles with which we cannot dispense are to them most troublesome and inconvenient. Thus Abu Taleb, in the narrative of his travels in Europe, complains bitterly more than once of the necessity of eating with a knife and fork.

The method of proceeding at a Persian entertainment, will be best explained by the descriptions of some regent travellers.

At an entertainment given to Sir Robert Porter by Mirza Bezoork, minister to the prince-royal, the routine was as follows:—

The whole company being seated in the eastern style cross-legged, in an extensive saloon, carpeted all over, and with the usual accompaniments of nummuds, which are long, narrow pieces of a thicker and softer substance made of wool or felt, kalliouns were presented, and then coffee served in very small cups without cream or sugar. Kalliouns succeeded; then tea in larger cups; and this over, conversation filled an interval of ten minutes, when the minister gave a signal for dinner to be brought. Several servants immediately entered, bearing a long narrow roll of flowered cotton, which they laid down and spread before the whole company, who now occupied both sides of the room. This napery was placed close to our knees. The next service was, to set a piece of a thin sort of bread or cake before each guest, to be used as a plate and napkin. Then came a tray between every two persons, containing two bowls of sherbet, each provided with a wooden spoon of delicate and elegant workmanship; a couple of dishes of pillau, composed of rice soaked in oil or butter, boiled fowls, raisins, and a little saffron; two plates, with melons sliced; two others, containing a dozen kabbobs, or morsels of dry broiled meat; and a dish presenting a fowl roasted to a cinder. The whole party being in like manner supplied, the host gave the sign for falling to; a command that seemed to be well understood, for every back became bent, every face was brought close to the point of attack, and every jaw was in motion in an instant. This is done by a marvellous dexterity in gathering up the rice, or victuals of any kind, with the right hand, and almost at the same moment thrusting it into the mouth. The left hand is never used by the Persians, but in the humblest offices; however, during meals at least, the honoured member certainly does the business of two, for no cessation could be observed in the active passage of meat, melon, sherbet, &c. from the board to the mouths of the grave and distinguished assembly. I must say, I never saw a more silent repast in my life, nor one where the sounds of mastication were so audible. I could only think of a range of respectable quadrupeds, with their heads not farther from the troughs than ours were from the trays. For my part, whenever I wished to avail myself of the heaps of provender on mine, at every attempt to throw a little rice into my mouth, it disappeared up my sleeve; so that after several unsuccessful essays, I gave up the enjoyment of this most savoury dish of the feast, and contented myself with a dry kabbob or two.

When the servant cleared away, it was in the order the things had been put down. A silver-plated jug with a long spout, accompanied by a basin of the same metal, was carried round to every guest by an attendant, who poured water from the jug on our right hands, which we held in succession over the basin, while each individual cleansed his beard or mustachios from the remnants of dinner. We had no towel to dry one or the other, save our own pocket-handkerchiefs; the bread-napkin or plate having no capability but to be eaten off, and wipe the ends of the fingers between every new plunge into the opposite dish. A kallioun with tea followed, and continued with few interruptions during the conversation which had broken the dead silence, on the departure of the rolled-up web and its appendages. A fresh kallioun finished the entertainment, and we then rose to take our leave. With extreme difficulty I obeyed the general movement; but when I did get upon my legs, they were too cramped to stand, and had it not been for the support of one of my countrymen, more accustomed to such curvature of limbs, I must have fallen. A few minutes, however, restored me to locomotion; and having made my bow, we passed through the curtain entrance, to resume the slippers we had left at the door.

At a dinner given by the Ameen-ed-Dowlah to Sir Gore Ouseley, that gentleman and his suite enjoyed better fortune, but at the expense of the naive guests. An attempt was made to lay out the entertainment in the European manner. On a number of rude unpainted tables, some high, some low, arranged in the horse-shoe fashion, were heaped all the various dishes which compose a Persian feast, not in symmetrical order, for their number made that impossible, but positively piled one upon another; so that stewed fowl lay under roasted lamb, omelet under stewed fowl, eggs under omelet, rice under all, and so on. Every European was provided with knife, fork, napkin and plate: but the poor Persians made rueful work of it. Some were seated upon chairs so high, that they towered far above the alpine scenery of meats and stews: others again were seated so low, that they were lost in the valleys, their mouths being brought to about the level of the table. When a Persian eats his dinner in his ordinary way, the dishes are placed on the ground before him, and crouching himself down, he brings his mouth so close to them as commodiously to transfer the victuals from the dish to his mouth: but here, his mouth being placed at a great distance from the good things, and his fingers being the only medium of communication between both, their commerce was but slow and uncertain. There was much amusement in observing how awkwardly they went to work, and the indignation expressed in the faces of the most ravenous, who, out of compliment to the British guests, were deprived of their full range over such a scene of good cheer.

Kotzebue has given a humorous account of the manner in which the gentlemen of the Ruzsian embassy were entertained by the serdar of Erivan. After describing the preliminary arrangements, he thus proceeds:—

I shall only mention the things on the table which stood opposite to Dr. Muller and myself; from these, some idea may be formed of the other dishes. First came a large pancake, which not only covered the whole table, but hung over it on all sides nearly half a yard deep; it is called tshurek, and serves the Persians both for bread and napkin: then half a sheep, the leg of an ox, two dishes filled with various roasted meats, five dishes of ragouts sprinkled with saffron, two dishes of boiled rice, two of boiled fowls, two of roast fowls, two roasted geese, two dishes of fish, two bowls of sour milk a large quantity of sherbet, and four jars of wine; but with all these there was neither knife, fork, nor spoon. One dish was piled upon another, with such rapidity, that Dr. Muller and myself suddenly found ourselves stationed behind an entrenchment of viands which concealed all view of the court, and only allowed us a peep at our friends opposite through the interstices of the multiplied dishes.

Through one of these openings, I endeavoured to observe what the serdar was doing. With his left hand resting on his dagger, for the Persians never eat with the left, he gravely stretched out his right into a dish of greasy rice, of which he kneaded a small portion with three fingers, and conveyed it with great address into his mouth, seldom soiling either his beard or his mustachios. After repeating this operation several times, he broke a piece off the enormous pancake, and having wiped his fingers with it, swallowed it with an air of placid satisfaction. In the sane manner, he poked into a variety of dishes which he fancied; and at last, seizing a goblet of sherbet, and drinking it off, smiled around upon his wondering guests. Scarcely any of the party had tasted any of the dishes, from the impossibility of getting at them; for not one of them could have been removed from the middle, without demolishing the structure of the whole. The signal for clearing the tables was at last given, and the removal of the dishes occasioned some curious scenes. The dish of ragouts could not be separated from the plate of sour cream, upon which it so conveniently reposed; the butter had entered into close alliance with the pancake; and the fish would not dissolve partnership with the roasted fowls. Force, however, succeeded at last in effecting the desired separation, and the eatables were delivered up to the persons waiting outside. It is the custom in Persia to give the remains of a feast to the attendants, or such persons as may happen to be in the way; often also to the gaping populace. Thus, in a great house, where they daily cook treble the quantity consumed by its inmates, the leavings are consigned to hungry amateurs.

At another entertainment given at Sultania, by the prime minister, to the Russian ambassador and his suite, we are told by the same traveller, that a mound of earth had been raised in the middle of a tent, as a substitute for a table, but so very high, says he, that we could but just see the noses of those who sat opposite to us. This table, which was of immense breadth, was covered with different sorts of dishes and fruit. In the middle a narrow space had been left open, and I could not imagine for what purpose, until, when we were seated, I saw the servants jump upon the table, and stand there, handing round such dishes as might be agreeable to us. I would have given much to be allowed to laugh heartily; but we were obliged to repress our risibility. One of the men, however, having stepped into a dish of sour milk, and his neighbour having, in the attempt to relieve him, nearly fallen over another dish, it was no longer possible to refrain from laughing outright; and luckily the conversation of the ambassador and the minister, who did not observe the accident, having turned upon a circumstance of a ridiculous nature, our laughter could not excite particular observation. The clumsy servant modestly withdrew, leaving the marks of his footsteps on the table. Besides this awkward mode of waiting, which must have been unpleasant to the servants themselves, others had to stand behind us and keep off the flies with large straw fans.

The minister then sent to several gentlemen bonnes bouches from his own plate, which is considered the highest honour that a person of distinction can show to a foreign guest. With the Persians that degree of ceremony is dispensed with: he throws the food at once into their mouths, and they evince much dexterity in catching it. Should a great man happen to take a liking to his neighbour, he nicely kneads a portion of greasy rice with three fingers into a lump, and with a condescending smile conveys it into the mouth open to receive the honour.

The silence which prevails during a genuine Persian repast, is a circumstance that does not fail to strike a European. Here is no clatter of plates, knives and forks; no noise caused by servants, or the drinking of healths; no interruption is given to the main business, the satisfaction of the cravings of appetite, by the laughter excited by some humorous sally. Many entertainments are succeeded by the exhibitions of hired dancers and music.

Unlike the Europeans, the Persian does not keep his doors shut at meal times. He would think himself deficient in his duty to God, did he not spread the table of his bounty for all; every one may share what he has, without his ever being displeased on account of the number of his guests. As he is temperate, his provision plentiful, and he never reserves any thing for another day, there is always sufficient to satisfy every appetite. This virtue is common to all the nations of the East. Abraham, say they, never ate alone; and they relate that his fortunate meeting with the three angels who shared his repast took place one day when, being by himself, the hospitable patriarch had gone forth from his tent in search of guests.