Please and thank you (and sorry), part II: when you need to apologize

How do you apologize in Persian? As in English, you might say “I’m sorry,” or you might go for the more formal apology, and these are two different concepts. As you may already suspect, given that you maybe know a little Persian by now, there’s more than one way to say these things–the way that’s been imported from Arabic  and the way that’s more “Persian.”

Hopefully most of your transgressions will be minor enough that a simple “I’m sorry” will suffice, in which case you’ll want to use an Arabic import, مُتاسِف (which is written as though it should be mutāssif, but is actually transliterated mutaʾassif and pronounced “mota-as-sef” because that’s how it’s pronounced in Arabic). Just tack on a first person “to be” short ending (“-am”) and you’ve got “I’m sorry”: مُتاسِفَم (mutaʾassifam). There is a Persian word that means “sorry” and actually shades into stronger concepts, like remorse or repentance, so hopefully you won’t need to use it: پَشیمان (pashīmān), which you would again use with a short “to be” ending, so پَشیمانَم (pashīmānam) is “I’m sorry.” Yet another word that can mean “sorry” is غَمگین (ghamgīn), but this really means “sad” and means “sorry” more in the sense of the emotion of sorrow than an expression you’d use to ask forgiveness. It’s an interesting word, though, because it combines an Arabic word (غم) that suggests extreme sadness or sorrow with a Persian ending (گین) that means “full of ___.”

Now, if you have to formally apologize, you also have a couple of options, but both require you to know the verb خواستَن (khwāstan), which means “to want” or “to wish” or “to ask” and uses that archaic/silent و we’ve seen every now and then, so the verb is actually pronounced “khaa-stan.” The present stem of the verb is خواه (khwāh, “khaah”). When we talk about future verb tense we’ll see that خواستَن is used to form that tense. I guess you could say that Persian treats the future tense as an intention, something you “want” to do, rather than something you “will” do, which could be kind of deep and meaningful if you’re into that sort of thing. Persian imports the Arabic word عذر (ʿaẕr), which means “excuse” or “pardon,” and combines it with the verbal noun form of خواستَن, which takes the present stem and adds the letter ی, so the whole thing is عذر خواهی (ʿaẕr khwāhī). Altogether this means “a request/desire for pardon,” so i.e. “apology,” and to make it a verb (“to beg pardon,” “to apologize”) you add the typical helper verb کردن and the whole thing becomes عذر خواهی کَردَن (ʿaẕr khwāhī kardan). “I apologize” would be عذر خواهی می کُنَم (ʿaẕr khwāhī mī kunam). However, and this should come as no great surprise by now, Persian also has its own word for “apology” or “pardon,” پوزِش (pūzish), which gets made into a verb (“to beg pardon,” “to wish to apology,” “to apologize”) by adding خواستَن in its verb form, the whole thing being پوزِش خواستَن (pūzish khwāstan). “I apologize” using this vocabulary would be پوزِش می خواهَم (pūzish khwāham). The exclamation “Sorry!” can be rendered as با عَرضِ پوزِش (bā ʿarż-i pūzish), which is somewhat idiomatic since با means “with” and عرض means “breadth,” so the literal translation is “with a breadth of apology.”

عاشورا (Ashura)

Sundown today marked the beginning of the Islamic holiday known as Ashura or عاشورا (ʿāshūrā). This is the tenth day of the month of Muharram (محرم), or in other words the tenth day of the new Islamic year, and it takes its name from the Arabic name of the numeral ۱۰ (our 10), عشر (ʿashr). Please read some of the general information about the holiday at my Arabic site, but then come back here for the story of why it is such an important day in Shiʿism.

Ashura is fundamentally important in Shiʿism because on this day, in the Hijri year 61 (680 for non-Muslims), Imam Husayn (حسین), the son of Ali (علی), was martyred in battle with the armies of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid I (یزید) at Karbala, in modern Iraq. Yazid was the son of the previous Caliph, Muʿawiyah (مُعاویه), who had promised when he became Caliph that he would not appoint his son as his successor, so, um, it was kind of awkward when he did exactly that. Before he died Muʿawiyah warned Yazid that the latter would have to do something about Husayn, who as the son of Ali and grandson of Muhammad (محمد) was uniquely positioned to re-litigate the grievances of the civil war that had put Muʿawiyah in power. When Husayn, who was living in Medina but relocated to Mecca around the time that Yazid took power, got wind that Yazid was probably about to send an army into Arabia (Yazid ruled out of Damascus as his father had done) after him, he proposed to leave Mecca and go to Kufa, in Iraq. In doing this he intended to spare Mecca the ravages of war and to establish himself in a city that had strongly supported his father Ali during the aforementioned civil war.

Husayn sent an emissary to Kufa to pave the way for his arrival, who was warmly received by the Kufan people. Husayn set out, but as he approached Kufa word came that the newly appointed governor there had executed Husayn’s emissary and that the people of Kufa really hadn’t tried to stop him, nor did they seem inclined to come out in support of Husayn. With a Caliphal army bearing down on him and no sanctuary ahead, Husayn could either stand and fight or try to retreat back into Arabia; he chose to fight. The Battle of Karbala was over before it really began; Husayn’s men were outnumbered on the order of 35-to-1 in the most generous historical estimate (5000 in Yazid’s army against 150 in Husayn’s force; the army Yazid sent may have been as large as 100,000 against as few as 80 or so of Husayn’s men). Although Husayn is reputed to have fought incredibly well, he was eventually surrounded and killed.

Husayn’s martyrdom, commemorated each year on Ashura, is arguably the event that crystallized what we now know as Shiʿi Islam. Although the roots of Shiʿism go back to Ali and his right to succeed Muhammad, Husayn’s death was the point of no return for Sunni-Shiʿi relations. It’s a bit analogous to the Christian emphasis on Easter, but instead of celebrating a resurrection Ashura mourns an execution; it’s also analogous to Good Friday in this way. Fasting is in order, and pilgrimages to Karbala and to Husayn’s shrine there are common. It’s also an opportunity for Shiʿi worshipers to seek repentance on behalf of those in Kufa who turned their backs on Husayn in his hour of need. Practices like self-flagellation are common but usually discouraged by mainstream Shiʿa clerics (like Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, for example). This is not a celebratory holiday and there is no special greeting that one would use on this day.

Because Ashura is such a heavily sectarian holiday, it takes on modern political overtones and has in the past seen brutal sectarian violence. Reza Shah Pahlavi tried to ban the commemoration in the 1930s because he feared its implicit reverence for the idea of martyrdom against an unjust or repressive authority (like, say, the Pahlavis). Saddam Hussein tried to stop Iraqi Shiʿa from commemorating the day, again because of the whole “resistance to repressive authority” thing but also because he feared the day’s power to unite Iraq’s Shiʿi majority. Virtually every Ashura since Saddam was shuffled off this mortal coil has seen some violence directed at Shiʿi mourners in Karbala; this year’s Ashura has been no different. Ashura violence has struck at one time or another in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, and it’s entirely possible that this Ashura will see some kind of violent clash in Egypt.