Monday, October 1, 2012

“Don’t Hurt Your Hand”

Photo by Hamed Saber
By Heidi Noroozy

When my Iranian in-laws first came to stay with us, I decided I needed to learn a few words of Farsi so we could communicate without requiring constant translation. So I asked my husband to supply a few useful phrases—hello, goodbye, please, and thank you, for starters.

What I didn’t anticipate was the slew of options he offered for “thanks”—mersi, mamnoon, motshakkeram, to name but a few. Who knew that there were so many ways to express gratitude?

“Just say mersi,” he advised.

I could get my mind around that one. It was easy to pronounce. Better yet, it was already familiar, having been borrowed from French. But soon I realized that the word sometimes came up a bit short. In a culture that has had millennia to perfect the art of gratitude, often what is said is less important than what is left unspoken. Mersi just doesn’t say enough.

Then I learned this useful phrase: dast-e shoma dard nakoneh. It covers many situations but is usually offered at the end of a meal to thank a hostess for preparing the delicious feast. Literally, it means “don’t hurt your hand.” And the phrase even has a standard response: sar-e shoma dard nakoneh, or “don’t hurt your face.” At first, I thought this was a joke. “Don’t hurt your face?” It sounds like something Groucho Marx might say.

But it’s meant quite seriously. In fact, the exchange is far more than “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” The guest is acknowledging how much hard work went into preparing the meal, which, in Iran, probably took all day and multiple sets of helping hands to prepare. The hostess, in turn, is graciously accepting the praise and expressing her joy at the opportunity to provide such a satisfying meal.

A similar expression took me longer to figure out, partly because it means something different in every situation: khasteh naboshi (literally “don’t tire yourself out”). If followed by a request for a favor, it means “I hate to trouble you, but…” On another occasion, it might be offered in acknowledgement of a favor rendered, in which case it’s more like, “you shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.” And you might say this even if you were the one asking the favor in the first place.

Things get even more complicated in a situation like this: Last year, when my mother-in-law was recovering from knee surgery and hobbling around with a cane, she couldn’t do her household chores for several months. I pitched in with the cooking and cleaning. At the end of the day, I’d sit down with a glass of tea after the washing up was done, and she’d give me a sad look and say, “khasteh naboshi.” Translation: “thank you and I’m sorry I couldn’t help out.” Gratitude and apology rolled up into one convenient phrase.

Try to pack all that meaning into a simple, easy-to-pronounce mersi.

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