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Chapter 19

A Persian wedding--Polygamy--Seclusion of
women--Match-makers--Subterfuges--The Nomzad, or official
betrothal day--The wedding ceremony in the harem--For luck--The
wedding procession--Festival--Sacrifices of sheep and camels--The
last obstacle, the ruhmah--The bride's endowment--The
bridegroom's settlement--Divorces--A famous well for unfaithful
women--Women's influence--Division of property.

The general European idea about Persian matrimonial affairs is about as inaccurate as is nearly every other European popular notion of Eastern customs. We hear a great deal about Harems, and we fancy that every Persian must have dozens of wives, while there are people who seriously believe that the Shah has no less than one wife for each day of the year, or 365 in all! That is all very pretty fiction, but differs considerably from real facts.

First of all, it may be well to repeat that by the Mahommedan doctrine no man can have more than four wives, and this on the specified condition that he is able to keep them in comfort, in separate houses, with separate attendants, separate personal jewellery, and that he will look upon them equally, showing no special favour to any of them which may be the cause of jealousy or envy. All these conditions make it well-nigh impossible for any man of sound judgment to embark in polygamy. Most well-to-do Persians, therefore, only have one wife.

Another important matter to be taken into consideration is, that no Persian woman of a good family will ever marry a man who is already married. So that the chances of legal polygamy become at once very small indeed in young men of the better classes, who do not wish to ruin their career by marrying below their own level.

An exception should be made with the lower and wealthy middle classes, who find a satisfaction in numbers to make up for quality, and who are the real polygamists of the country. But even in their case the real wives are never numerous--never above the number permitted by the Koran,--the others being merely concubines, whether temporary or permanent. The Shah himself has no more than one first wife, with two or three secondary ones.

In a country where women are kept in strict seclusion as they are in Persia, the arrangement of matrimony is rather a complicated matter. Everybody knows that in Mussulman countries a girl can only be seen by her nearest relations, who by law cannot marry her, such as her father, grandfather, brothers and uncles--but not by her cousins, for weddings between cousins are very frequently arranged in Persia.

It falls upon the mother or sisters of the would-be bridegroom to pick a suitable girl for him, as a rule, among folks of their own class, and report to him in glowing terms of her charms, social and financial advantages. If he has no mother and sisters, then a complaisant old lady friend of the family undertakes to act as middlewoman. There are also women who are professional match-makers--quite a remunerative line of business, I am told. Anyhow, when the young man has been sufficiently allured into matrimonial ideas, if he has any common sense he generally wishes to see the girl before saying yes or no. This is arranged by a subterfuge.

The women of the house invite the girl to their home, and the young fellow is hidden behind a screen or a window or a wall, wherein convenient apertures have been made for him, unperceived, to have a good look at the proposed young lady. This is done several times until the boy is quite satisfied that he likes her.

The primary difficulty being settled, his relations proceed on a visit to the girl's father and mother, and ask them to favour their son with their daughter's hand.

If the young man is considered well off, well-to-do, sober and eligible in every way, consent is given. A day is arranged for the Nomzad--the official betrothal day. All the relations, friends and acquaintances of the two families are invited, and the women are entertained in the harem while the men sit outside in the handsome courts and gardens. The bridegroom's relations have brought with them presents of jewellery, according to their means and positions in life, with a number of expensive shawls, five, six, seven or more, and a mirror. Also some large trays of candied sugar.

After a great consumption of tea, sherbet, and sweets, the young man is publicly proclaimed suitable for the girl. Music and dancing (by professionals) are lavishly provided for the entertainment of guests, on a large or small scale, according to the position of the parents.

Some time elapses between this first stage of a young man's doom and the ceremony for the legal contract and actual wedding. There is no special period of time specified, and the parties can well please themselves as to the time when the nuptial union is to be finally effected.

When the day comes the parties do not go to the mosque nor the convenient registry office--Persia is not yet civilised enough for the latter--but a Mujtehed or high priest is sent for, who brings with him a great many other Mullahs, the number in due proportion to the prospective backshish they are to receive for their services.

The wedding ceremony takes place in the bride's house, where on the appointed day bands, dancing, singing, and sweets in profusion are provided for the great number of guests invited.

The high priest eventually adjourns to the harem, where all the women have collected with the bride, the room being partitioned off with a curtain behind which the women sit. The bride and her mother (or other lady) occupy seats directly behind the curtain, while the priest with the bridegroom and his relations take places in the vacant portion of the room.

The priest in a stentorian voice calls out to the girl:--

"This young man, son of so-and-so, etc., etc., wants to be your slave. Will you accept him as your slave?"

(No reply. Trepidation on the bridegroom's part.)

The priest repeats his question in a yet more stentorian voice.

Again no reply. The women collect round the bride and try to induce her to answer. They stroke her on her back, and caress her face, but she sulks and is shy and plays with her dress, but says nothing. When the buzzing noise of the excited women-folk behind the curtain has subsided, the priest returns to his charge, while the expectant bridegroom undergoes the worst quarter of an hour of his life.

The third time of asking is generally the last, and twice the girl has already not answered. It is a terrible moment. Evidently she is not over anxious to bring about the alliance, or is the reluctance a mere feminine expedient to make it understood from the beginning that she is only conferring a great favour on the bridegroom by condescending to marry him? The latter hypothesis is correct, for when the priest thunders for the third time his former question, a faint voice--after a tantalizing delay--is heard to say "Yes."

The bridegroom, now that this cruel ordeal is over, begins to breathe again.

The priest is not yet through his work, and further asks the girl whether she said "Yes" out of her will, or was forced to say it. Then he appeals to the women near her to testify that this was so, and that the voice he heard behind the curtain was actually the girl's voice. These various important points being duly ascertained, in appropriate Arabic words the priest exclaims:

"I have married this young lady to this man and this man to this young lady."

The men present on one side of the curtain nod and (in Arabic) say they accept the arrangement. The women are overheard to say words to the same effect from the other side of the partition. Congratulations are exchanged, and more sherbet, tea and sweets consumed.

The religious ceremony is over, but not the trials of the bridegroom, now legal husband.

When sufficient time has elapsed for him to recover from his previous mental anguish, he is conveyed by his mother or women relatives into the harem. All the women are veiled and line the walls of the drawing-room, where a solitary chair or cushion on the floor is placed at the end of the room. He is requested to sit upon it, which he meekly does. A small tray is now brought in with tiny little gold coins (silver if the people are poor) mixed with sweets. The bridegroom bends his head; and sweets and coins are poured upon his back and shoulders. Being round--the coins, not the shoulders--they run about and are scattered all over the room. All the ladies present gracefully stoop and seize one pellet of gold, which is kept for good luck; then servants are called in to collect the remainder which goes to their special benefit.

This custom is not unlike our flinging rice for luck at a married couple.

The bridegroom then returns to the men's quarters, where he receives the hearty congratulations of relatives and friends alike.

From this moment the girl becomes his wife, and the husband has the right to see her whenever he chooses, but not to cohabit with her until further ordeals have been gone through.

The husband comes to meet his wife for conversation's sake in a specially reserved room in the harem, and each time he comes he brings presents of jewellery or silks or other valuables to ingratiate himself. So that, by the time the real wedding takes place, they can get to be quite fond of one another.

There is no special limit of time for the last ceremony to be celebrated. It is merely suited to the convenience of the parties when all necessary arrangements are settled, and circumstances permit.

Usually for ten days or less before the wedding procession takes place a festival is held in the bridegroom's house, when the Mullahs, the friends, acquaintances, relations and neighbours are invited--fresh guests being entertained on each night. Music, dancing, and lavish refreshments are again provided for the guests. The men, of course, are entertained separately in the men's quarter, and the women have some fun all to themselves in the harem.

On the very last evening of the festival a grand procession is formed in order to convey the bride from her house to that of her husband. He, the husband, waits for her at his residence, where he is busy entertaining guests.

All the bridegroom's relations, with smart carriages--and, if he is in some official position, as most Persians of good families are,--with infantry and cavalry soldiers, bands and a large following of friends and servants on horseback and on foot proceed to the bride's house.

A special carriage is reserved for the bride and her mother or old lady relation, and another for the bridesmaids. She is triumphantly brought back to the bridegroom's house, her relations and friends adding to the number in the procession.

Guns are fired and fireworks let off along the road and from the bride's and bridegroom's houses. One good feature of all Persian festivities is that the poor are never forgotten. So, when the bride is driven along the streets, a great many sheep and camels are sacrificed before her carriage to bring the bride luck and to feed with their flesh the numberless people who congregate round to divide the meat of the slaughtered animals. In the house of the bridegroom, too, any number of sheep are sacrificed and distributed among the poor.

There are great rejoicings when the procession arrives at the house, where the bridegroom is anxiously awaiting to receive his spouse. As she alights from the carriage more sheep are sacrificed on the door-step--and the husband, too, is sacrificed to a certain extent, for again he has to content himself with merely conducting his bride to the harem and to leave her there. It is only late in the evening, when all the guests, stuffed with food, have departed, that the husband is led by his best man to a special room prepared for him and his wife in the harem. The bride comes in, heavily veiled, in the company of her father or some old and revered relation, who clasps the hands of husband and wife and joins them together, making a short and appropriate speech of congratulation and good wishes for a happy conjugal existence. Then very wisely retreats.

There is yet another obstacle: the removal of the long embroidered veil which hangs gracefully over the bride's head down to her knees. This difficulty is easily surmounted by another present of jewellery, known as the ruhmuhah or "reward for showing the face." There is no further reward needed after that, and they are at last husband and wife, not only in theory but in fact.

True, some gold coins have to be left under the furniture to appease expecting servants, and the next day fresh trials have to be endured by the bride, who has to receive her lady friends and accept their most hearty congratulations. This means more music, more professional dancing, more sweets, more sherbet, more tea. But gradually, even the festivities die out, and wife and husband can settle down to a really happy, quiet, family life, devoid of temptations and full of fellow-feeling and thoughtfulness.

Ten days before this last event takes place the wife is by custom compelled to send to the husband's house the endowment which by her contract she must supply: the whole furniture of the apartments complete from the kitchen to the drawing-room, both for the man's quarter and for her own. Besides this--which involves her in considerable expense--she, of course, further conveys with her anything of which she may be the rightful owner. Her father, if well-off, will frequently present her on her wedding-day with one or more villages or a sum in cash, and occasionally will settle on her what would go to her in the usual course of time after his death. All this--in case of divorce or litigation--remains the wife's property.

On the other hand, the bridegroom, or his parents for him, have to settle a sum of money on the bride before she consents to the marriage, and this is legally settled upon her by the Mullah in the wedding contract. She has a right to demand it whenever she pleases.

It can be seen by all this that a Persian legal marriage is not a simple matter nor a cheap undertaking. The expense and formalities connected with each wedding are enormous, so that even if people were inclined to polygamy it is really most difficult for them to carry their desire into effect. Among the nobility it has become unfashionable and is to-day considered quite immoral to have more than one wife.

Partly because the marriages are seldom the outcome of irresistible--but fast burning out--love; partly because it is difficult for a husband and almost impossible for a wife to be unfaithful, divorces in Persia are not common. Besides, on divorcing a wife, the husband has to pay her in full the settlement that has been made upon her, and this prevents many a rash attempt to get rid of one's better-half. To kill an unfaithful wife is, in the eyes of Persians, a cheaper and less degrading way of obtaining justice against an unpardonable wrong.

One hears a good deal in Persia about a famous and extraordinarily deep well--near Shiraz, I believe--into which untrue wives were precipitated by their respective offended husbands, or by the public executioner; and also how dishonoured women are occasionally stoned to death; but these cases are not very frequent nowadays. The Persian woman is above all her husband's most intimate friend. He confides all--or nearly all--his secrets to her. She does the same, or nearly the same with him. Their interests are mutual, and the love for their own children unbounded. Each couple absolutely severed from the outside world, forbidden to get intoxicated by their religion, with no excitements to speak of, and the wife in strict seclusion--there is really no alternative left for them than to be virtuous. Women have in Persia, as in other countries, great influence over their respective husbands, and through these mediums feminine power extends very far, both in politics and commerce.

At the husband's death the property is divided among his children, each male child taking two shares to each one share for every girl's part, after one-eighth of the whole property has been paid to the deceased's widow, who is entitled to that amount by right.

Most praiseworthy union exists in most Persian families, filial love and veneration for parents being quite as strong as paternal or maternal affection. Extreme reverence for old age in any class of man is another trait to be admired in the Persian character.