Monday, July 24, 2006

Tiring Of Taarof

It is a well known fact that Iranians are generous to a fault, thinking nothing of inviting complete strangers to dinner, giving copiously to charity and fighting pitched battles over being able to pay for a meal (the custom of splitting bills is almost unheard of). Along with this open-heartedness (open-walletedness?) goes a great deal of cultural etiquette and formal language known as taarof. It is the polite, ceremonial to-ing and fro-ing between a host and his guest, whereby the latter must refuse anything offered to him and the former must insist upon its acceptance. This charade goes on for as long as unnecessary and is extremely irritating for me because, not only is a complete waste of time, but it also means that it is impossible to recognise genuine refusal. For example if I am offered some food that I honestly dislike I am sometimes forced to eat it anyway because, after my tenth, polite, refusal has been swept aside with another, more forceful, offer, I just give up. Or when you have to pay for things. A fair price for a fair service (be it a taxi ride or buying a chunk of cheese) is what makes the world go round, but can be difficult to get here in Iran. And, strange as it may seem, not because people are trying to rip you off, but because the first response to any queries about how much something costs is ghabeleh nadareh (loosely translated as "think nothing of it"). It takes a lot of cajoling to get a decent figure. I've often been tempted to just say "OK mate" and walk out without paying.

Another aspect of this etiquette-ish rigmarole is greetings. When Iranians meet each other a simple salam (hello) rarely suffices. Various more or less intricate greetings formulations are strung together in a random order, each side taking it in turns to come up with a new incantation (slightly akin to a word association game, or, for Brits of my generation, Mallet’s mallet). This also takes as long as unnecessary, which makes TV and radio phone-in programmes hilarious as callers end up asking the health of every member of the panel and wishing them (and their extended family) prosperity, health and happiness for at least 5 minutes before actually asking their main question or making their point. One common such greeting is khasteh nabasheen (may you not be tired). Indeed, khasteh (tired) is the worst thing one can be in polite society. It can express annoyance, anger and dislike as well as tiredness and hosts continually ask to assure themselves that their guests are not khasteh. Needless to say I’m getting rather khasteh of the whole farce myself.

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