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.
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?
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“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.)
Morghe hamsâyeh ghâzeh
Literally: The neighbor’s chicken is a goose.
English equivalent: The grass is greener on the other side.
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!)
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.)
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.
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.”
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