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Marriage Customs Of Persia

( Originally Published 1897 )

IN a country like Persia, where women are strictly veiled, love-matches are somewhat rare ; in spite of all precautions, however, such things do occasionally take place. Although shrouded from head to foot in a great blue sheet, and wearing a calico or cambric veil a yard long, a little aperture partly covered by threads across the eyes enables the Persian belle to see other people. If inclined to flirt, she can do so, and will find some way to reward an admiring passer-by with a glance at her features. Hence it sometimes happens that a marriage is the result of some early attachment. Cousins frequently marry, and such unions are considered natural and proper because the young people have generally been brought up together, almost as brother and sister. In justice to the people of Persia let it be said at the outset that their women are hardly such down-trodden creatures as they are generally supposed by Europeans to be. The wife is not a slave to her lord, nor yet a mere toy, but his friend and counsellor, and, if a capable person, may rule his household. In most cases a young girl is betrothed to a man of her own class ; if a merchant's daughter she marries the son of a merchant, and so on ; but personal attractions are greatly sought after, and a poor girl, if exceptionally good-looking, may be as fortunate as Cinderella, though probably not so happy.

Married women have no objection to wearing the veil ; in fact, they would not or dare not drop the custom. Without this protective covering they would be considered neither modest nor respectable. In the higher ranks of life women are often well educated ; they delight in all domestic duties, such as cooking. Barring a taste for scandal, very little can be said against them, and they appear to win the love and admiration of their husbands and children.

When a wife becomes the mother of a son her position is greatly improved, and greater freedom is allowed to her. For example, she can then go about if accompanied by her child and her mother, or mother-in-law.

Betrothals are arranged by match-makers as in: so many other countries. These are crafty old women who know how to drive a hard bargain, and they get a commission " from the parents on each side.

Child-marriages are frequent. There is, first of all, a marriage contract or legal ceremony ; the wedding itself may take place on the same day, in the evening, or, if the bride is a child, some years later. The former ceremony sometimes takes place in the open air, the women veiled ; or it may be in a room, the bride being screened off by a curtain. A mullah, an official of the Mosque, reads out the contract which he himself has drawn up somewhat as follows : It is agreed between Hassan the draper, who is agent for Houssein the son of the baker, that he Houssein hereby acknowledges the receipt of the portion of Nissa the daughter of Achmet the grocer." Then follows a list of the bride's property, in which a copy of the Koran and a certain amount of silk are always included. In case of her death or divorce the husband surrenders it all to her family or to herself. When both parties have given their consent to the bargain, in the presence of their relations and friends, the ; mullah thus pronounces them to be legally married :

" Then, in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, and of Mahommed the prophet of God, I declare you A. and you B. to be man and wife." The document is then sealed. This is followed by a feast, at which no small amount of tobacco is consumed by the men, and of sweetmeats by the women (in their separate apartment). There is no music on this occasion.

On the wedding-day great preparations are made for the entertainment of a large party, both in the men's court and in that of the women.

The poor are not neglected on these occasions, but come in for a share of the good things. The entertainment takes place at the house of the bride's family. Great is the variety of the drinks consumed, tea, ices, and sherbets being the favourites. The latter are fruit-syrups delicately scented and sweetened, and may be made from roses, oranges, lemons, pomegranates, cherries, and other fruits. All is ready ; the master of the house, dressed in his best, gives a last anxious glance at the preparations, and has an excited discussion with his wife, or wives. He waves his hand to the musicians and hurries to a seat near the door, to be ready to welcome his guests ; the music strikes up a merry tune (it is an air, barbaric but inspiriting). The tremendous din of the dohol (drum) is heard at intervals. Then in a loud scream rises the voice of the principal solo singer, who commences one of the sad love songs of Persia in a high falsetto voice. His face reddens with his exertions, which last through a dozen verses. His eyes nearly start from his head, the muscles of his neck stand out like ropes ; but he keeps correct time on the big tambourine, which he plays with consummate skill. The rest of the musicians watch his every movement, and all join in the chorus of ' Ah ! Lalla, Lalla, you have made roast meat of my heart ! '

The music is the signal to the invited guests ; they now commence to arrive in crowds. The music and singing proceed, and go on unceasingly for some ten hours till the bride leaves for her husband's home. As the guests pour in the host receives them with transports of pleasure ; all the extravagant compliments of Eastern politeness pass between them. ' May your wedding be fortunate ! "You You are indeed welcome ; this is a never-to-be-forgotten honour to me your slave ! '

" In they pour, the men in their best ; the women, closely veiled, pass on unnoticed by the men into the anderin, where they unveil and appear to their de-lighted hostesses in their finest clothes, and all their jewelry, and, we are sorry to add, in most cases with their faces carefully painted." Here buffoons and musicians are the only men allowed ; the former bring performing bears, or monkeys, or even a wretched, half-starved lion, cowed by much beating.

Before dinner is served the bride goes to the bath accompanied by female relatives and friends. At night, as the procession of the bridegroom approaches, alms are distributed, and women and children look from neighbouring roofs. Loud cries from the women welcome the bridegroom on his arrival, while the bride, carefully veiled, mounts the horse awaiting her at the door. All the men who have been feasted and entertained join in the procession, in which lanterns are borne. The bride's departure is the signal for the discharge of fireworks and a great beating of the big drum. The final ceremony is similar to one observed by the Arabs and the Kopts, namely, the sacrifice of sheep ; these are killed as the bride steps over the threshold of her new home. One wonders what is the idea underlying the sacrifices. Are they intended as acts of propitiation inherited from an earlier age, when people thus endeavoured " to appease the anger of the gods " or of the spirits of their ancestors ? or is it merely a way of sealing in blood an important act and covenant?

In October, 1867, the heir to the throne of Persia was married to his cousin, both of them being only sixteen years of age, and the wedding was celebrated with great pomp. The bride's cavalcade, on leaving her home, was preceded by about one hundred horses, mules, and camels, carrying servants, tents, carpets, &c. ; then followed many led horses covered with rich trappings. The Princess's carriage, with the blinds down, was drawn by six horses, and followed by mules carrying palanquins closed with curtains, which contained the women of her suite. And lastly came a large number of officers and dignitaries on horseback. The players made music with their violins, trumpets, and tambourines. The journey took thirty-three days. On her arrival the Princess was temporarily lodged in a palace. Public rejoicings preceded the marriage, and on the wedding-day, three hours after sunset, the bride was conducted in a torch-light procession to the palace of the bridegroom.

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