Friday, March 13, 2009

Merchant of Chaarmahaal

A Jew lends someone money, the borrower can’t pay it back so the Jew demands a chunk of flesh in payment. This isn’t Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice; it is a story from Iran’s Chaahaarmahaal and Bakhtiaari province. The subtleties of this anti-Semitic characterization are explored reasonably well in Shakespeare’s work, so we’ll move on to the legal adventures of the protagonist: the idiot who borrowed the money.

He was simple man who at an old age resolved to improve his lot in life. The Jew was a neighbor who according to the story had amassed his wealth in “many different ways.” At first he was reluctant to lend money to an old man with no collateral whatsoever. But the old man wouldn’t hear ‘no’ for an answer. Fleshing out this bare bones story, the Jew must have been impressed by the old man’s insistence. Surely if this borrower started a business with the money, his determination and perseverance would help him succeed. So the Jew struck a deal with the old man. For every coin loaned the old man must put up a mesghaal (about 5 grams) of flesh for collateral. Never mind the motive for this macabre contract, for that I recommend renting Al Pacino’s The Merchant of Venice. Meanwhile let’s find out how the old man lost his shirt.

He bought merchandize from one place to sell somewhere else. On the road, highway robbers attacked him and stole his wares. Here’s where our Iranian Jew faced a different predicament than Shylock, the Jewish moneylender in Shakespeare’s play. The old man’s Venetian counterpart, Antonio, lost his fortune at sea, whereas the Iranian Antonio (we’ll call him Hassanio) could have taken precautions against highway robbers. Did Hassanio hire security guards, or did he risk his neighbor’s money by skimping on preparations? This detail is important in the court battle that is about to ensue.

Needless to say, Hassanio wouldn’t let Shylockpour cut him up, so they set off to see the judge. Part way to the city, they ran into a fellow whose donkey was stuck in the mud. Hassnio wanted to help, but Shylockpour said, “If you feel so sorry for him, you lend a hand. I’m staying out of this.” Was Shylockpour an unhelpful man? Don’t jump to conclusions until you see what happens next.

Hassanio got into mud, grabbed the donkey’s tail and pulled as hard as he could. Now anyone who has ever helped a donkey out of the mud knows you don’t pull the animal by the tail. It’s not a tow cable. The donkey’s tail broke off, and the very upset owner joined the march to the city to demand compensation from Hassanio. Did the donkey owner say, “Good Hassanio, this was but noble intent fouled by misfortune, so thou art off the hook?” Nothing of the sort, and this wariness of human ingratitude may have been why Shylockpour didn’t want to get involved. We’ll knock a few points off him because if he had helped, the donkey may still have had a tail. But Shylockpour gets fewer demerits now that we’re on to his Shakespearean complexity.

With two plaintiffs on his case, Hassanio was so distraught that at the next town he climbed to the top of a minaret and threw himself from it. He didn’t bother to look where he would fall, and soft-landed on top of a beggar who was instantly killed. So the beggar’s son joined the procession of Hassanio’s accusers. Any judge has to consider that Hassanio’s negligence lost another person's gold, his stupidity seriously injured an animal, and his carelessness cost someone his life. By all accounts Hassanio was a menace to the kingdoms of man and beast. Yet somehow we still root for him. Anyone this unlucky must have a powerful horde of demons conspiring against him. To have a happy ending, the story must give Hassanio a break. And so it does, in a way that reveals how the Chaahaarmahaal and Bakhtiaari folks viewed their society.

When they arrived at the judge’s house, Hassanio noticed that His Honor was hobnobbing with the very highway robbers that had stolen his wares. Did the simple and honest Hassanio cry out to the world that the judge is in the pay of thieves? No, instead of helping his fellow citizens rid themselves of a corrupt official, he and the judge went into a whispering huddle and made a deal. So the judge ignored the case we have been meticulously building against Hassanio. The verdict handed down was that Shylockpour could cut off Hassanio’s flesh, but if he removed even a smidgeon over the amount, Hassanio would be allowed to carve him up in retaliation. Filling in again for Shylockpour’s thinking, he knew that scales in such a town are likely to measure a one mesghaal weight as two mesghaals. So he wisely withdrew his claim, perhaps happy to have fought and relieved to have lost.

The judge told the beggar’s son he is welcome to climb a minaret and throw himself at Hassanio’s head if he wished. That was the end of that claim. Finally it came to the guy holding the detached tail of a donkey as exhibit A. Seeing the state of affairs in this town, he too gave up on justice. But he withdrew his claim with a biting remark that is now as quotably famous as any line of Shakespeare's: “Your Honor,” he said, “khareh maa az korregi dom nadaasht.” (My donkey didn't have a tail to begin with).

Orignial folk tale from the collection Afsaanehaaye chaahaarmahal va Bakhtiaari
Edited byAli Asmand and Hossein Khosravi.
1998 Eel publications
Printed in Shar-e-Kord, Iran

1 comment:

Nazy said...


I loved the story and the parallel you so cleverly drew! It's indeed a good story, retold to be great story, with a lesson or two to be learned in the end! Perfect storytelling my friend, and kudos to you!