|Walking the line: Footwear in Iranian culture||
An old acquaintance of mine, when faced with the uncertainty of life choices, would smugly quip that: “The one who says “na!” (Persian word for “No”) always holds his head up high.” The metaphorical nuances of this quotation are perhaps lost on the world of English language readers who acknowledge ‘shaking one’s head’ as a non-verbal sign of saying no. This is while Persian language speakers lift their chin and throw back their head a little when they want to say “Na!” and bring back their head and nod down when they mean to say “baleh” (yes) or “aareh” (less formal way of saying yes, yeah).
But how does find one’s balance in maintaining the highs and the lows of one’s life? How does one arrive at a meaningful equilibrium of “yes” and “no” from the weightlessness of “maybe” and “perhaps”? How is it possible to always hold one’s head up and also to look down from time to time to actually see where one is going anyway? I remember reading about a remorseful middle-aged man in search of happiness, a protagonist from contemporary Persian fiction, who was hit by a car one night on the streets of Tehran and the beautiful starry night was the first thing he saw as he fell on his back. As the story and his life end, he wonders why he had never stopped to lie down on the ground on his own accord and admire the city nights. Perhaps no one could have said it better than the Persian poet Hafez:
For years my heart inquired of me where Jamshid's sacred cup might be
And what was in its own possession, it asked from strangers, constantly
Translation by Dick Davis
It is customary for Iranian people to look up when they say a prayer or make a wish, the repercussions of which one expects to see down on earth. But we do have to look down from time to time, if only to make sure that we are wearing the right shoes for our journey, not to mention to reflect within in order to discover our way step by step. No wonder that the word kafsh (in Persian, shoes) and kashf (Persian word for ‘discovery’) are composed of the same letters.
With these thoughts in my head, I wear my good old katooni (sneakers) and head for the baazaar-e kaffaash-haa (the Shoemakers Market) in the historical Grand Bazaar of Tehran. With the heavy traffic that escalates towards the end of the year, particularly due to the rush for the ritualistic pre-Norouz (the Persian New Year) shopping spree, it takes me twice as long to get there.
I arrive at in the midst of hustle and bustle of the vendors and taxi drivers who single out potential passengers coming out of the market with heavy shopping bags. The bazaar is packed with the urge to possess and people are in a hurry to renew whatever they can at home, in the most affordable fashion. For a second, I am reluctant to go inside, concerned that it might be quite a challenge to reach the shoemakers section in time. But I get into the crowd anyway, mainly because I had heard of a quite old but articulate shoemaker who could help me learn more about footwear in Iranian culture.
Mr. Sadafian who has been in the trade since 1942, has had an address that has moved with his shoes. He was born in Tabriz, one of oldest places for shoe traders, presumably in 1932 for “like many other people born in those days my birth date was registered much later. So, I am not sure” He was in third grade during the reign of Reza Shah but dropped out of school to support his family of four sisters, all of whom, thanks to his insistence, have a high school diploma, a highly challengeable degree for women from a traditional family of those days. He shifted his profession to Tehran in 1954 and began his work in the Sepehsalaar Garden which is probably the oldest and most famous place for purchasing shoes in Tehran. Mr. Sadafian tells me that unlike today that synthetic material has found its way into the shoe industry, everything was previously natural about shoes. And I can take his word for all that he says, because this old man has seen quite a few generations of Iranian footwear. There are still people, he says, who will order handmade shoes like tailored clothes. They were, in fact, previously in fashion and wealthy families refused to buy anything readymade.
It is then that ask him why shoemakers are also called pinehdooz (literally, callus stitchers), particularly in the past. As we sip tea, he tells me that traditional shoemakers earn callous hands because of the pressure of the shoemaking tools and the way they hold them in their palms. He then gives me a small demonstration of how the tools are held and the parts of the palm that get the most pressure, and therefore calluses. Another meaning of pinehdoozi is “sewing patches”. Previously shoemakers would set up their boxes near barber shops, communal bathrooms or at crossroads. Those days not everyone could afford to buy new shoes as often and so, patching old shoes with bits of fabric and leather was another task of the kaffaash (shoemaker) who was also a pinehdooz (literally, the one who patches shoes).
Also shoes were a signifier of social prestige and class as much as they probably are still today. Bikafshi (shoelessness) was an indication of poverty and therefore the derogatory word paapati (colloquial, barefoot) was used to describe people of lower standards and less fortunate upbringing. In fact, the wealthier the person, the richer his shoes would look. Apparently, our shoes do retain a lot of information, for instance they also easily give away the size of one’s feet and they have the memory of the roads we have treaded so far. No wonder they have been a secret place for many film and literature characters to hide things.
Each one became my companion out of his thought
No one the secrets of my heart has ever sought
Persian poet Rumi (13th century)
“Are people’s shoes the first thing you look at?” I ask all ears.
“I can’t help it. It is only natural that I do,” says Sadafian with a mild smile.
“They say a friend looks at your head but an enemy at your feet, so you always have to be prepared and wear good shoes,” he adds with a little laugh.
“But why the ladybug is called kafshdoozak (little shoe stitcher) in Persian language?” I pose the question I had intended to ask since the beginning of our conversation, the answer that I had been looking for.
“Well, there is a little story. Centuries ago, a shoemaker who could not afford an apprentice sat mending shoes for a client when all of a sudden a ladybird flew down and sat on his lap. The shoemaker smiled and joked that the bug was his little apprentice (apparently the reputation of traders also depended on the number of their apprentices) He later took the ladybird to the meadows and let it go while he joked once again that he could not pay his little apprentice for his work. Since then word spread that the little creature is the little shoe stitcher, the shoemaker’s assistant” he narrates amusedly as he reminds me that names are manmade.
In Persian folk beliefs killing ladybirds is bad luck, probably because they are one of those rare insects useful to farmers as they eat damaging bugs. The colorful insect takes me to the realm of most desired shoe colors. Black was and is always in vogue, says Sadafian, because it goes with almost any attire.
“I can say since the past 30 years, it is for the first time that red, blue and white shoe colors have made a comeback,” says the observant and well-read Sadafian who has not stopped leafing through books even after dropping out of school. The number of shop windows displaying red shoes and outfits has indeed increased recently across the city.
But white has always been the color of bridal and nursing shoes. In fact, in some provinces, it is customary for the father of the bride to put the bride’s shoes on her feet and a white bridal chador (tent like veil) before he says a prayer for her Sefidbakhti (literally, white fortune, meaning good fortune) and sends her to her husband’s home.
I notice that all the shoes in Mr. Sadafian’s shop are flat heels for women. Women, he says, make great customers, particularly in this season, just less than 10 days before the New Year.
“You don’t make high heels, do you?” I ask looking around.
“I used to but I have stopped now because they take a lot of time, patience and consistent work,” he responds.
“So does wearing them,” I remark. A certain actress once said that she doesn’t know who invented high heels but women owe him a lot. I quite agree, they also owe him a lot of pain.
If previously good shoes were durable ones that lasted the vicissitudes of life, today it is also and at times all about style. Doctors say that our feet are our second heart and we have to make them as comfortable as possible. In Persian language, kafsh-e tang (tight shoe) is a metaphor for an uncomfortable situation that one must get rid of as soon as possible. A good shoe, Sadafian believes, must be comfy and sheek (as they say in Iran, chic). There is a popular saying in the Persian language descriptive of a dandy and well-groomed person: The crease of his trousers cut cantaloupes and the point of his shoes can slice an eggplant.
“One of the best ways of maintaining your shoes is to walk nicely in them and this is something you are taught by your elders as you take your first steps. Some people walk so nicely and neatly that you could actually measure the equal spaces between their steps, neat like railroad tracks,” he explains in his Azari accent as he pours us a second round of tea.
Mr. Sadafian works from 7 in the morning to 7 in the evening. “Patience” and “precision” are the key words he uses in describing his trade. He also tells me that all shops have been inspected for safety measures and it is mandatory for each store to have a First Aid Cabinet, a firefighting cylinder and a hygiene license from the Ministry of Health, among other standard safety measures.
“You know, there is flammable stuff here. We work with glue which catches fire faster than petrol and there is also acetone,” he says as he points at different containers in one of the corners of his shop.
At this point our shoe centered conversation is interrupted by the sound of dohol (drum) playing of a cheerful man who moves about the bazaar and demands money and blessings for the approaching New Year. Suddenly I have an urge to see the old man’s shoes which are hidden from me behind his work table.
“Do you make your own shoes?” I ask.
“Of course, also for my entire family,” he replies happily.
“May I please…?” I begin to ask very courteously before I stop short of telling him that I would like to see his shoes. But he has already sensed that, because he just looks right at me and after what seems a rather long pause I add, “You know, in Persian language, they say the potter drinks from a broken pot (roughly equivalent to the English proverb, a shoemaker’s son goes bare feet!)”
“And this is why I am not going to show them to you!” he retorts with a long hearty laugh and I join him. “You got me there!” he says in good humor.
Mr. Sadafian has three sons, two of whom have a PhD in Sociology and Mathematics. Although his sons used to help him out at the shop during their summer breaks, he made sure that went back to school every time.
“I told them, if you want to be a shoemaker it is OK but be an educated one. You can complete your studies and come back here and make shoes. I don’t mind that,” he says with affectionate pride.
As I walked back into the crowded bazaar, I realized that although now I had become sensitized to people’s footwear more than I had actually intended to, it was the faces who walked them that gave the shoes purpose and direction, faces of “yes” and “no”, of “maybe” and “perhaps”, faces that while one could appreciate, acknowledge or ignore, one could never judge. After all, I guess one has to walk a mile in their shoes before one could ever do that.
Shoe instances in Persian Literature
Perhaps one of the many memorable quotes from contemporary Persian poetry that embodies a sense of longing and restlessness are the opening lines of a well-known poem “The Primeval Call” by the Persian poet Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980):
“Where are my shoes?
Who was it that said Sohrab!?
The voice was familiar like the breeze with the body of a leaf…”
Footwear is a recurrent element in Persian poetry and appears in the form of culturally contextual symbols.
“I have dreamed that someone will come
I have dreamed of a red star
And my eyelids keep jumping
And my shoes keep joining each side by side
And may I go blind if I lie”
From the poem Someone Who Is Like No One
By the Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967)
In Persian language, when they say someone’s shoes line up side by side and stand perfectly next to each other, they are metaphorically speaking about that person’s spiritual level and worth before God. Also when one shoe falls on the top of another, it is believed that their owner will head for a long trip in the near future. Persian poet Saadi (1184-1291) once wrote: “I had never lamented the turn of fate…but for the time my feet were bare…and I saw a man who hath not legs and I thanked the Lord for his blessings and proceeded with patience in my shoelessness”.
In Persian mystical literature, the story of the encounter of Moses and God is recounted when he has to remove his shoes as he enters the holy realm. There are also many Persian shoe idioms which may be used in daily conversation. “To put one’s feet in the shoes of the great” means to speak of or do something in which one has no claim or background or to irritate and disturb others. “To have a pebble in the soles of one’s shoes” is said of a person who seems deceitful and therefore a target of suspicion. To “put both feet in one shoe” is said of the stubbornness and insistence of individuals. When they want to explain a disadvantageous situation with no way out, they say “If you go on your feet, your shoes will be torn and if you go on your head, your hat will be,” Another popular Persian proverb is “Even one shoe is a ghanimat (plunder taken from an enemy’s camp in war, meaning: valuable) in the desert.” “To beat someone with a shoe on the head” is a metaphoric way of referring to humiliation of someone or disrespecting them. To wear ahani (literally, iron) shoes is to persistently go after something. Also “to wear metal shoes and hold an iron staff” is to get ready for and persist in something despite all challenges. “New shoes make sound” is said of the initial spark of a new event or thing which dies out gradually. Also Kafsho kolah kardan (to wear shoes and a hat/cap) means to get ready and go out prepared.
No Shoes Here
One of the many reasons as to why Iranians do not wear outdoor shoes inside the house, other than keeping their carpeted homes clean, is also to observe cleanliness which is emphasized to a great extent in the religion of Islam. The daily prayer rug is spread on the floor which is always clean and carpeted. In fact, a clean space is a prerequisite for prayer.
Similarly, when people go to the mosque or on a pilgrimage to visit holy shrines they remove their shoes at the aastaan or aastaaneh (literally, threshold) and say a prayer and demand ezn (Arabic word for permission) to enter. These places have a harim (sanctum) and this is why the interior of the shrine is called haram (the inviolate zone) and pilgrims remove their shoes before they step into the house of God. In fact, there is a kafshdaari (shoe keeping section) at the entrance of these holy sites, such as the shoekeeping sections at the multiple entrances of Aastaan-e Ghods-e Razavi or Imam Reza's Holy Shrine in Mashhad.
Presently there are 16 permanent shoe keeping sections where pilgrims can deposit their shoes before beginning their rituals. Shoe sections for men, women and family are of course different. The kafshdaar (shoekeeper) who works with a pair of gloves, hands them a token with a number with which they can take their shoes back after return. The shoes are kept free of cost and in fact it is considered a highly respected service to be a shoekeeper and assist the pilgrims.
Interestingly, people from different all walks of life, from doctors to engineers to workers and celebrities volunteer to be a khaadem (server) at Imam Reza’s Shrine as a shoekeeper.
1- The oldest evidence of footwear in Iran is of the Medes tribe (second millennium BCE). The second oldest evidence is from the Achaemenid era (550–330 BCE). The reliefs in the historical site of Takht-e Jamshid reveal that people from different social standings wore differently designed and colored shoes. Also, the Persians are carved as the only people who have footwear alongside people of different origins.
2- Giveh is a soft and hand-woven traditional shoe that is still common in rural areas of Iran. Zanjan province is also known for its beautiful traditional sandals called charoogh.
4- Pootin-e sarbaazi (army training shoes) are specifically purchased by men for their two years of compulsory military service.
5- Kifo kafsh (shoes and bags) are an item in shopping centers and in fact, many shoe stores also sell bags.
6- The top shoe shopping centers in Tehran are in the following locations: Sepahsalar Garden, the Shoemakers Market in the Grand Bazaar of Tehran, Vali-e Asr, Jomhuri and Baharestan streets. Also different brands of sports shoes can be found in Monirieh district. Boutiques and malls across the city are other spots for shoe shoppers.
7- The first industrial shoe producer in Iran is Kafsh-e Melli (National Shoes) which was founded in 1957. In 1961 another Iranian shoe company, Kafsh-e Bella or do shir neshaan (two lines, logo of the company) began its work. Kafsh-e Wiene is also another well-known Iranian trademark.
8- Iranians remove outdoor shoes before stepping into the house. There is footwear specifically for different sections of the house. Different pairs of slippers for the kitchen, the bathrooms and also comfort shoes for walking about the house are typical in most Iranian homes. Pairs of emergency slippers also come handy for short and nearby trips outside the house.
9- In traditional Iranian houses which have a back or front yard, shoes are placed outside the door, but in today’s apartments, shoe stands are placed indoors, usually near the front door.
World’s largest shoe in Iran
The largest shoe in the world was exhibited for the first time on the third anniversary of the establishment of the first school for students of shoe industry on 23rd November 2011 in Tehran. The giant shoe was produced by the veteran Iranian shoemaker Iraj Khalilzadeh for the famous Iranian shoe company Wiene. The shoe is two meters and fifty five centimeters long and one meter wide. Khalilzadeh who made the shoe in a span of three months said of his goal and motivation, “I do this for my people. Because the Chinese produced a shoe 25 centimeters smaller and I produced this shoe with the help of leather industry to do something for our industry.”
The world’s biggest shoe was made out of three large cow skins. The insole of the shoe was made out of two complete buffalo skins and its heel was made out of 20 kilograms of leather.
Previously, the Chinese had produced a shoe with 2.25 length and one meter width.
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|Last Updated on 15 March 2012 08:39|