Expressions and Idioms Iranian Culture

12 Persian Idioms and Proverbs Related to Animals

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

When it comes to Persian, being well-versed in idioms and proverbs (and to some extent poetry) is a must to fully grasp the language. I’ve never felt that I use (or even know) many proverbs in English, but Iranians tend to toss Persian proverbs around in everyday conversation. And I think the stories of where they come from reveal a lot about the culture. Because the common themes make them easy to bundle, I thought I’d write about some Persian sayings related to animals. There are so many that I’m sure I’ll have a part 2 (and possibly part 3) soon, but for now, here are 12 common animal-related Persian idioms and proverbs and the stories behind the most interesting ones.

Divâr moosh dâreh, moosh ham goosh dâreh

Literally: Walls have mice, and mice have ears.

English equivalent: Walls have ears.

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Doostiye khâleh kherse

Literally: Auntie bear friendship

English equivalent: the bear’s service

This idiom comes from a Persian parable (and also Slavic from what I understand though it might be slightly different). A man and a bear become best friends. One day, the man is sleeping when flies land on his face, disturbing his peace. The bear, wanting to protect his friend, picks up a stone and throws it on the man’s head to kill the flies. In the process, he inadvertently kills the man, too.

So this is when you set out to help someone with the best of intentions and out of sheer kindness and devotion, but end up doing more harm to that person. I believe in some languages, it translates as “the bear’s service,” and I found it on Urban Dictionary as such, but I’ve never actually heard this in English. Have you?

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Kine shotori [dâshtan]

Literally: [to have] a camel grudge

English equivalent: to hold a grudge like… [a camel]

I think camels are such sweet, docile creatures. But who knew that they not only hold a grudge but also seek revenge! So when someone holds a grudge, in Persian, we say they hold a grudge like a camel.

Example: Amoom kine shotori dâreh! (My [paternal] uncle holds a grudge like a camel!)

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Filesh yâde hendustân kardeh

Literally: His/her elephant remembers India.

English equivalent: a nostalgic feeling about someone or something and a longing to go back

My dad grew up in a small village in Iran that has beautiful nature- mountains, rivers, forests, etc. Many years ago, I was at a park in the US with my parents, and my dad decided to roll up his pants and stand in the river for a bit. My mom was super anxious and upset because the current was fairly strong. After my dad got out, she just shook her head saying filesh yâde hendustân kardeh, of course implying that this place reminded him and made him nostalgic for his hometown. 

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Sage zard barâdare shoghâleh

Literally: The yellow dog is the brother of the jackal.

English equivalent: One is as bad as the other.

Once upon a time in a village, there was a jackal so mischievous that the villagers eventually banned it. Knowing how fond they were of dogs, the jackal decides to paint himself yellow and return, this time, causing trouble in secret. Because he sort of resembles the jackal, the villagers name him “the jackal’s brother.” One day, it rains and washes the yellow paint off the little trickster, and his true identity is revealed. The villagers discover that the “jackal’s brother” is, in fact, the jackal itself.

The yellow dog is symbolic of a bad person and the jackal of someone even worse. This proverb is especially relevant in political matters. For instance, a politician didn’t fulfill his campaign promises, and now here comes another saying he’ll fix everything (but who are we kidding?). When two people are equally bad, don’t be fooled by thinking one may be slightly better. After all, the yellow dog is the brother of the jackal.

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Engâr az damâghe fil oftâdeh

Literally: It’s as if s/he’s fallen from the elephant’s nose.

English equivalent: S/he’s as proud as a peacock.

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Shotor didi nadidi

Literally: You saw a camel, you didn’t

English equivalent: You saw nothing, you heard nothing.

The background of this idiom comes to us from Sa’adi. Like the roots of many idioms, I’ve read subtle variations, but it basically goes like this:

Sa’adi was once crossing through the desert and was in desperate need of rest. He encounters camel footprints and decides to follow them because he is sure that the camel would find a good resting spot. As he follows the footprints, he comes across a grassy area and notices that only the grass on the left side of the path has been eaten while the right side is untouched. Pondering how this could be possible, he draws the conclusion that the camel must have been blind in the right eye and therefore couldn’t see the patch on the right side.

Further down the road, he sees the imprint of a camel on the ground and footprints of a woman’s shoes. He infers that the camel must have rested here and that a woman was riding it. When he notices honey has spilled on the ground and flies have collected around it, he concludes that the camel must have been carrying honey.

He looks up to see a man in the distance walking towards him. The man tells Sa’adi that he’s lost his camel and asks if he’s seen him.

“Was it blind in one eye?” asks Sa’adi.

“Yes,” the man says.

“Was it accompanied by a woman?”

“Yes.”

“Was it carrying honey?”

“Yes! Please tell me where my camel is,” the man pleas.

“Haven’t seen it,” replies Sa’adi.

The man, now furious, asks how Sa’adi could have known all the camel’s specifics if he hadn’t seen it. So, he starts to beat Sa’adi. And that’s when the camel and the man’s wife return. The man apologizes, and Sa’adi says it was his own fault for getting involved. He should’ve just said he hadn’t seen any camel.

So now, when you find out some sort of secret, and getting involved could create a problem for yourself, we say shotor didi, nadidi! (You saw nothing, you heard nothing, you know nothing.)

(I once saw “Camel see, don’t see” written on the back of a truck in Tehran. After much confusion, I couldn’t stop laughing at the translation. Another part of me wondered what kind of shenanigans they were involved in to feel so compelled to write that.)

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Morghe hamsâyeh ghâzeh

Literally: The neighbor’s chicken is a goose.

English equivalent: The grass is greener on the other side.

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Shir tu shir OR khar tu khar

Literally: Lion in lion OR donkey in donkey (“Lion in lion” is the more polite version.)

English equivalent: chaotic

Example: Like when you’re at a busy intersection in Tehran, and you can’t even decipher what’s going on- ajab shir tu shiriye! (It’s so lion in lion!)

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Gorbeh shu kardan

Literally: Cat washing

English equivalent: Careless washing

When you don’t wash something good enough to get it clean, we say you wash it like a cat. Like if you’re in a hurry one morning and don’t have time for a proper shower and instead quickly hop in and out, that’s gorbeh shu kardan. When I was a kid and we’d go to my grandmother’s house in the village, the shower was always a problem. The water trickled out, there was no water pressure, and it would alternate between scalding and freezing every 5 seconds. So going to the village meant either not showering for the duration or gorbeh shu kardan. (Thankfully the situation has long since improved.)

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Khoshbakht ânke kore khar âmad, olâgh raft.

Literally: Lucky is he who came as an ass and died a mule.

English equivalent: Ignorance is bliss.

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

Kâre hazrat fileh!

Literally: It’s a job for his excellency the elephant.

English equivalent: It’s a tough nut to crack.

I couldn’t help but wonder why “his excellency” and why an elephant, so I did some digging and uncovered a theory: “elephant” because they’re so powerful, and “his excellency” to make it more inspiring that you’re smart and strong enough to solve the problem! I’m not sure how official this is, but I’ll take it. And for the record, I’m all for referring to all elephants as “[their] excellency.”

Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

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Love Persian idioms and proverbs? Check out these 12 related to animals, and find out the fascinating cultural stories behind them.

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  • Lisa
    26 July 2018 at 17:54

    Hey Pontia, those sayings are beautiful. Especially the “His elephant remembers India.” I would love to use that. Can you give me an example in what context to use it? Thanks in advance and great job with your blog 🙏

    • Pontia
      28 July 2018 at 12:13

      Hi Lisa, I’m so glad you liked them! “His elephant remembers India” can be used in any context where you do something because it’s nostalgic. For instance, the other day, I made a soup that my grandmother used to make. Later, I was talking to my cousin, and when I told her what I ate, she said, “How come you made that? Filet yâde hendustân karde?” Sort of like I made it to remember the good old days with my grandmother. Or if I buy a pair of shoes because they remind me of a pair I had in high school, someone might say this to me implying that I’m nostalgic for my high school days.

      Hope that helps a bit. Thanks so much for reading!

  • Liam
    31 July 2018 at 22:17

    So,….are these idioms firmly set in the third person? Can I say, “Engar az damaghe fil oftadi?” or “Filam yade hendustan karde.” or Amum kine shotori dari?” or ” Shotor didam, nadidam.” ??? Faghat konjkavam.

    I’ve never heard or read “the bear’s service”. But new terms seem to coined or popularized every day.
    I’m also curious enough to ask if you have a Alabaman accent? I’m originally from Missouri and I can sometimes still hear it in my speech.

    • Pontia
      1 August 2018 at 02:52

      Good questions! “Shotori didi nadidi” is firmly set. I’d keep “Engar az damaghe fil ofateh” in the third person (singular or plural) because it’s something you would say behind someone’s back rather than to their face. And the last one is more commonly something someone would say to someone else, so “filet, filesh, fileteun, or fileshun” would all work. Saying it about yourself with “filam” is also ok. It could be like your making a joke.
      Yah, I didn’t think we had “the bear’s service”, but who knows, maybe it’ll catch on.
      Haha, I have no Alabaman accent. I never have- not really sure why. I can certainly do one (a good one:) ), but it’s not how I normally speak.