Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxiv

I am visiting the three lady teachers of the Faith Hubbard Boarding School for girls, and the visit is an oasis on my journey. It is a most cheerful house, a perfect hive of industry, each one being occupied with things which are worth doing. I cannot say how kind and how helpful they have all been to me, and with what regret I am leaving them.

The house is large, plain, airy, and thoroughly sanitary, very well situated, with an open view over the Hamadan plain. It is closely surrounded by the houses of the Armenian quarter, and all those domestic operations which are performed on the roofs in hot weather are easily studied, such as the drying of clothes and herbs, the cleaning of heads, the beating of children, the bringing out of beds at night, and the rolling them up in the morning, the “going to bed” of families much bundled up, the performance of the very limited ablutions which constitute the morning toilette, and the making and mending of clothes, the roof being for many months both living-room and bedroom.

At sunset, as in all Persian towns, a great hush falls on Hamadan. Only people who have business are seen in the streets, the bazars are closed, and from sunset to sunrise there would be complete silence were it not for the yelping and howling of the scavenger dogs and the long melancholy call to prayer from the minarets. If it is necessary to go out at night a person of either sex is preceded by a servant carrying a lantern near the ground. These lanterns have metal tops and bottoms, and waxed, wired muslin between, which is ingeniously arranged to fold up flat. They are usually three feet long, but may be of any diameter, and as your consideration is evidenced by the size of your lantern there is a tendency to carry about huge transparencies which undulate very agreeably in the darkness.

This is the Moharrem or month of mourning, for Hassan and Houssein, the slain sons of Ali, who are regarded by the Shiahs as the rightful successors of the Prophet and as the noblest martyrs in the Calendar. During this period the whole Persian community goes into deep mourning, and the streets and bazars are filled with black dresses only. In this month is acted throughout the Empire the Tazieh or Passion Play, which has for its climax the tragic deaths of these two men.69

I arrived in Hamadan on what should have been the first day of Moharrem, but there had been a difference of opinion among the mollahs as to the date, and it was postponed to the next day, for me a most fortunate circumstance, as no Christian ought to be seen in the streets at a time when they are filled with excited throngs frenzied by religious fanaticism. On the following day the quiet of the city was interrupted by singular cries, and by children’s voices, high pitched, singing a chant so strange and weird that one both longs and dreads to hear it repeated. The Christians kept within their houses. Business was suspended. Bands of boys carrying black flags perambulated the town, singing one of the chants of the Passion Play. As night came on it was possible to feel the throb of the excitement of the city, and till the small hours the march of frenzied processions was heard, and the loud smiting on human breasts and the clash of the chains with which the dervishes beat themselves, were intermingled with a united rhythmic cry of anguish —Ah Houssein! Wai Houssein! (O Houssein! Woe for Houssein!) Ya Houssein! Ya Hassan! and in the flickering light of the torches black flags were waving, and frenzied men were seen beating their bare breasts.

In some of the cities these processions are a sickening spectacle. Throngs move along the streets, escorting large troops of men either stripped to their waists or wearing only white shirts which expose the bosom. Beating their breasts with their right hands in concert till they make them raw, gashing themselves on their heads with daggers, streaming with blood, and maddened by religious frenzy, they pass from street to street, and the yell rises from all quarters, Ya Houssein! Wai Houssein! Occasionally men drop down dead from excitement, and others, falling from loss of blood, are carried away by their friends. It is at the end of the month of mourning that these processions, called testeh, increase so much in frenzy and fanaticism as to be dangerous to the good order of cities, clashing with each other, and sometimes cutting their way through each other with loss of life. To join in a testeh is to perform a “pious act,” and atones for sin committed and to be committed. The Tazieh or Passion Play itself, acted in splendour before the Shah, is repeated everywhere throughout Persia, lasting from ten to twelve days, the frenzy with which the different incidents are received culminating on the last day, when the slaughter of Houssein is represented. On the whole the Tazieh is among the most remarkable religious phenomena of our age.

Under the rule of the present Prince Governor complete religious toleration exists in Hamadan, and the missionaries have a fair field, though it must never be forgotten that a proselytising Christian, rendering honour to Christ as God, by his mere presence introduces a disturbing element into a Moslem population. In consequence of this tolerant official spirit there are a few Moslem girls among the sixty boarders here. In addition there are a large number of day pupils.

The girls live in native fashion, and wear native dresses of red cotton printed with white patterns, white chadars, and such ornaments as they possess. They sit on the floor at their meals, at each of which one of the ladies is present. They have excellent food, meat once a day in summer and twice in winter, bread, tea, soup, curds, cheese, melons, cucumbers, pickles, and gourds. The winter supplies are now being laid in, and caravans of asses are arriving daily with firewood, cheeses, and melons. The elder girls cook, and all the washing, making, and mending are done at home, each elder girl in addition having a small family of young ones under her care. The only servant is the bheestie or water-carrier. The dormitories, class-rooms, eating-room, and hammam are large and well ventilated, but very simple.

A plain but thorough education of the “National School” type is given, in combination with an industrial training, fitted for girls whose early destiny is wifehood and maternity. Some of the teachers are men, but the religious instruction, on which great stress is laid, is given by the ladies themselves, and is made singularly interesting and attractive. Music and singing are regarded as among the recreations. The discipline is perfect, and the dirtiest, roughest, lumpiest, and most refractory raw material is quickly transformed into cleanliness, brightness, and docility, partly by the tone of the school and the influence of the girls who have been trained in it, but chiefly by the influence of love.

The respect with which the office of a teacher is regarded in the East allows of much more apparent familiarity than would be possible with us. Out of school hours the ladies are accessible at all times even to the youngest children. Many a little childish trouble finds its way to their maternal sympathies, and they are just as ready to give advice about the colour and making of dolls’ clothes as about more important matters. The loving, cheerful atmosphere of an English home pervades the school. I write English rather than American because the ladies are Prince Edward Islanders and British subjects.

Some of the girls who have been trained here are well married and make good wives, and the school bids fair to be resorted to in the future by young men who desire companionship as well as domestic accomplishments in their wives. The ordinary uneducated Armenian woman is a very stupid lump, very inferior to the Persian woman. Of the effect of the simple, loving, practical, Christian training given, and enforced by the beauty of example it is easy to write, for not only some of the girls who have left the school, but many who are now in it show by the purity, gentleness, lovingness, and self-denial of their lives that they have learned to follow the Master, a lesson the wise teaching of which is, or should be, I think, the raison d’être of every mission school. Christianity thus translated into homely lives may come to be the disinfectant which will purify in time the deep corruption of Persian life.

The cost of this school under its capable and liberal management is surprising — only £3:15s. per head per annum! Its weak point (but at present it seems an inevitable blemish) is, that the board and education are gratuitous.

There is a High School for boys, largely attended, under the charge of Mr. Watson, the clerical missionary, with an Armenian Principal, Karapit, educated in the C.M.S. school in Julfa, a very able man, and he is assisted by several teachers. There is also a large school of Jewish girls, who are often maltreated on their way to and from it.

There are a flourishing medical mission and dispensary under Dr. Alexander’s charge, with a hospital nearly finished for the more serious cases. There is another dispensary at Sheverin, and both there and here the number of patients is large. A small charge is made for medicines. Mirza Sa’eed, a medical student of mature years and remarkable capacities, occasionally itinerates in the distant villages, and, being a learned scholar in the Koran, holds religious disputations after his medical work is done. He was a Moslem, and having embraced Christianity preaches its doctrines with much force and enthusiasm. He is popular in Hamadan, and much thought of by the Governor in spite of his “perversion.” He also gives addresses on Christianity to the patients who assemble at the dispensary. Any person is at liberty to withdraw during this religious service, but few avail themselves of the permission. Miss —— speaks on Christianity to the female patients at Sheverin, and befriends them in their own homes.

The day’s work here begins at six, and is not over till 9 P.M. An English class for young men is held early, after which people on business and visitors of all sorts and creeds are arriving and departing all day, and all are welcome. On one day I counted forty-three, and there were many more than these. The upper class of Persian women announce their visits beforehand, and usually arrive on horseback, with attendants to clear the way. No man-servant must enter the room with tea or anything else during their visits. The Armenian women call at all hours, and the Jewish women in large bands without previous announcement. Tea à la Russe is provided for all, and Ibrahim goes to the door and counts the shoes left outside in order to know how many to provide for. “Khanum,” he exclaimed one day after this inspection, “there are at least twenty of them!”

Some call out of politeness or real friendliness, others to see the tamasha (the sights of the house), many from the villages to talk about their children, and some of the Jewish women, who have become Bābis, ask to have the New Testament read to them in the hope of hearing something which they may use in the propagation of their new faith. A good many women have called on me out of politeness to my hostesses. Persian gentlemen invariably send the day before to know if a visit can be conveniently received, and on these occasions the ladies always secure the chaperonage of one of the men missionaries. The concierge has orders not to turn any one away, and it is a blessing when sunset comes and the stream of visitors ceases.

All meet with a genial reception, and the ladies usually succeed not only in lifting the conversation out of the customary frivolous grooves, but in awaking more or less interest in the religion which they are here to propagate. They are missionaries first and everything else afterwards, and Miss — — partly because of her goodness and benevolence to all, and partly because of an uncompromising honesty in her religious beliefs which the people thoroughly appreciate, has a remarkable influence in Hamadan, and is universally respected. Her jollity and sense of humour are a great help. She thoroughly enjoys making people laugh.

I have never been in any place in which the relations with Moslems have been so easy and friendly. The Sartip Reza Khan told me it would be a matter of regret to all except a few fanatics if the ladies were to leave the city. From the Prince Governor downwards courtesy and kindness are shown to them, and their philanthropic and educational work is approved in the highest quarters, though they never blink the fact that they are proselytisers.70

There is an Armenian Protestant congregation with a native pastor and a fine church, and nothing shows more plainly the toleration which prevails in Hamadan than the number of Moslems to be seen every Sunday at the morning service, which is in Persian. In this church total abstinence is a “term of communion,” and unfermented wine is used in the celebration of the Eucharist.

This wine is very delicious, and has the full flavour and aroma of the fresh grape even after being three years in bottle. It is not boiled, as much “unfermented wine” is here, but the grapes are put into a coarse bag, through which the juice drops without pressure. The gluten being retained by the bag, fermentation does not take place, and a bottle of the juice, even if left without a cork, retains its excellence till it dries up.

Hamadan, September 15.—“Revenons à nos moutons”— the moutons in this instance being my travelling arrangements. Three roads go to Urmi from Hamadan, one, the usual caravan route viâ Tabriz, the commercial capital of Persia, and round the north end of Lake Urmi, very long, but safe; another called the “Kurdistan route,” which no charvadar will take by reason of its danger; and a third by Sujbulāk, the capital of Persian Kurdistan, twenty marches, only five of which are reported as risky. I decided on the last, but it was only two days ago that I was able to get a charvadar willing to undertake the journey. “It is too late,” they say, “there are robbers on the road,” they “don’t know the way,” or “provender is dear,” or “snow will come on” before they can return. Kerbelai, the excellent fellow who brought my loads from Burujird, wished to go, and I engaged him gladly, but afterwards his father came and declared he could not let him go, for he did not know the way, and would be robbed. Another man was engaged, but never reappeared.

Soon after I came a tall, well-dressed rich Turk, the owner of sixty mules, applied for the engagement, and we think that by certain underhand proceedings, familiar to the Persian mind, he has driven off other competitors, and made himself my last resource. I engaged him on Saturday, and the mules and Mirza went off this morning. An agreement was drawn up in Persian and English placing five mules under my absolute control, to halt or march as I desire, at thirteen pence a day each so long as I want them, with two men, “handing over the mules and men” to me till I reach Urmi, which arrival is to suit my own convenience. This was read over twice, and the Turk sealed it in presence of four witnesses. All his other mules are going with loads to Urmi, and this accounts for his great desire to send the five with me. I have expressly stipulated that I am to have nothing to do with the big caravan, but am to take my own time. This Turk has good looks and plausible manners, and the animals have sound backs, but I distrust him.

The servant difficulty, which threatened to keep me here indefinitely, is also adjusted. Hassan left me when I arrived, being unwilling to go to the north of Persia so late, and he bought a new opium pipe, saying that he cannot bear the pain and craving of being without it. He was a fair travelling servant for a Persian, not unreasonably dishonest, and I am sorry to lose him. In the attempt to replace him a maze of lies, fraud, and underhand dealing has been passed through. I have at last engaged Johannes, a strong-looking young Armenian, speaking Turkish and Persian besides Armenian. He has never served Europeans, but has learned baking and the wine trade. He looks much of a cub. For appearance sake I have armed him with a long gun. He and Mirza are alike incompetent to make any travelling arrangements or overcome any difficulties, to discover where escorts are needed and where they may be dispensed with, or to meet any emergencies, and as Persian will be considerably replaced by Turki en route Mirza will be of less and less use as an interpreter. I cannot get any recent information about the route, and very little at all. I see endless difficulties ahead, and a prospect of illustrating in my own experience the dictum often dinned into my ears, that “No lady ought to travel alone in Persia.”

This will be my last opportunity of posting a letter for nearly a month. The Persian post is only exceeded in unreliability by the Persian telegraph. To register letters is the only way of securing their safe arrival, and it is necessary to send a trustworthy man to the Post Offices, who, after seeing the effacing stamp put upon the postage stamp, will further insist upon seeing the postmaster put the letters in the bag. In Tihran the Europeans make much use of the Legation bags, and the merchants prefer to trust their letters to private gholams rather than to the post, while at Isfahan people are often glad to send their letters by the monthly telegraph chapar rather than run a postal risk. However, a foreign letter, registered, is pretty safe. The telegraph is worse; you often have to bribe the telegraph clerk to send the message, and unless you see it sent it will probably be destroyed. Of five messages sent by me from Hamadan one was returned because the British agent in Isfahan was “not known” (!), two were slower than letters sent the same day, the fourth took a week, and of the fifth there is “no information.” Even in this important commercial city the Post Office is only open for a short time on two days in the week.

I. L. B.

69 For a detailed and most interesting account of these remarkable representations the reader is referred to Mr. Benjamin’s Persia and the Persians, chap. xiii.

70 Since I returned I have been asked more than once, “What are the results of missions in Hamadan?” Among those which appear on the surface are the spiritual enlightenment of a number of persons whose minds were blinded by the gross and childish superstitions and the inconceivable ignorance into which the ancient church of S. Gregory the Illuminator has fallen. The raising of a higher standard of morals among the Armenians, so that a decided stigma is coming to be attached to drunkenness and other vices. The bringing the whole of the rising generation of Armenians under influences which in all respects “make for righteousness.” The elevation of a large number of women into being the companions and helps rather than the drudges of men. The bestowing upon boys an education which fits them for any positions to which they may aspire in Persia and elsewhere, and creates a taste for intellectual pursuits. The introduction of European medicine and surgery, and the bringing them within the reach of the poorest of the people. The breaking down of some Moslem prejudices against Christians. The gradually ameliorating influence exercised by the exhibition of the religion of Jesus Christ in purity of life, in ceaseless benevolence, in truthfulness and loyalty to engagements, in kind and just dealing, in temperance and self-denial, and the many virtues which make up Christian discipleship, and the dissemination in the city and neighbourhood of a higher teaching on the duties of common life, illustrated by example, not in fits and starts, but through years of loving and patient labour.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52