A lie is no longer considered a sin when hospitality is the
March 19, 2005
In response to my article titled "Namiri", a reader
wrote back to
ask if I would
write about the Persian Ta’arof. Unfortunately, due to a computer fault,
I lost her address. I would like to dedicate this article to her and hope she
will enjoy it.
One of the most complicated aspects of Persian culture -- and
language -- is the untranslatable ta’arof. Depending on
the circumstance, it can mean any number of things: To offer,
to compliment and/or exchange pleasantries. But that’s
only the tip of the iceberg. I doubt if any study can lead to
a full understanding of Ta’arof. A born and raised Persian,
even I find myself losing my grasp on it from time to time.
Perhaps Ta’arof stems from the cultural obligation to
put others, especially guests, if not above all else, at least
before oneself. In a society whose hospitality is more than a
way of life, it is of utmost importance to make the guests feel
welcomed. Drastic measures are taken to ensure company’s
comfort: Saving the best room in the house, delicacies, the most
ornate dishes and even fancy beddings for that accidental guest.
Indeed, even a few moral rules are broken for the sake of Ta’arof.
A lie is no longer considered a sin when hospitality is the
intention. In fact, when we offer something, we may assure the
guest by adding, “Honestly, I’m not Ta’arofing!” Which
insinuates that there is some dishonesty in ta’arof?
Let us imagine a typical example: An unexpected guest has arrived
late at night. You are tired, there’s no food in the house
and you are about to go to bed because you happen to have an
engagement early the next morning. Wisdom dictates that you simply
explain this and excuse yourself. But not if you are Persian!
“What an unexpected blessing!” you proclaim. “Which
way did the moon rise to bestow such good fortune on us!”
After you have turned on every light in the house, you get
the guest seated in your best sofa in the living room and rush
to turn on the samovar. (It really doesn’t matter what
time it is, tea is tea and one could not possibly have company
without it.) You wake up the kids, take a quick look in the mirror
and do whatever cosmetic improvement can be accomplished quickly
and send somebody to beg, borrow or steal the needed food.
Hours later, not only has the guest agreed to stay the night,
you’ve also offered the use of that brand new pajamas you
were saving for Nowruz.
“Please step on my eyeball!” is how we invite
people into our homes. (Excuse me? Step on my eyeball?) “This
is your home and whatever I have belongs to you.” Heaven
forbid, he says something in reference to having disturbed the
kids. “My children are your slaves!” you’ll
declare. Let’s hope your guest is also Persian and knows
ta’arof so that not only no one takes advantage, but she
may respond with equal enthusiasm and similar pleasantries. “May
your hand not hurt; may God grant you tea in heaven!” As
for your children, “They are the crown on my head, may
I be sacrificed for them!”
Such lighthearted, yet meaningless, dialogue can go on for
hours, especially if you find nothing else to talk about.
When dealing with a Persian, especially where ta’arof
is concerned, the word ‘no’ takes on a whole new
meaning. In fact, it took me years to understand what my grandmother
meant when she said, “Dish out a double portion to the
one who says no!” Regardless of how desperately you want
what you’ve been offered, it is only polite to first say
no, especially if it involves food.
“Would you like a candy, honey?” you ask a polite
“No, thank you.”
Do not be surprised if you insist and he stuffs half the bowl
in his pocket. Or, you ask a Persian cab driver, “How much
do I owe you?” And he may say, “Ghabel nadareh --
not worthy of you.” Under no circumstances does this mean
that you don’t pay, it is rather a warning that you should
be gracious and not panic at the figure he’s about to quote.
Those familiar with the tradition of ta’arof are able
to decipher “no” to mean, “Let’s hear
that offer again.” Not to get sidetracked, but can you
imagine what would happen if the groom walked out of the wedding
ceremony when the bride says “No” the first and second
times as is the custom?
You put a large bowl of fruit and some plates on the table.
(The fact that there’s only one guest makes no difference.
There has to be enough fruit to feed an army.) Regardless of
how starved company may be, ta’arof dictates that she shouldn’t
touch it until you insist. So you ignore that herniated disk
that has been bothering your back, pick up the heavy bowl and
offer while masking your agony with a smile.
To translate Persian pleasantries word by word may sound bizarre,
but in a given situation, these comments only add flavor to a
conversation. “I wish I had known you were coming,” you
may say. “We could have slaughtered a cow or a lamb for
you. Now, at least have some of this unworthy fruit.”
Over the grumble of the guest’s empty stomach you hear, “No,
thank you. sarf shod -- I’ve already had some.”
“Please, I swear you to the life of your mother, you
must have some.”
“No, thank you. Khoda margam bedeh -- May God
give me death -- I have already caused you enough trouble.”
“No, no. What trouble? Ekhtiar dareen -- you have control
of my life.” You mutter, trying hard not to collapse under
the weight of the fruit bowl. “May I die, please have some!”
At this point you have two choices, either you act devastated,
which would encourage the guest to have some, or you take a plate
and put a heap of fruits before her. To make sure it gets eaten,
you can even peel the orange or apple and cut the melon.
Regardless of how hungry your guest may be, ta’arof dictates
NOT to clean the plate. After all, it is not polite to appear
hungry. No doubt, some readers may think I’m making all
this up, but please be reminded that while many such ta’arofs
are outdated in the larger cities of Iran, they are very much
alive in small towns.
The reverse can also apply. One may offer something just to
be polite, and not mean it. Imagine that you are hungry and have
brought only one sandwich to work, but if someone else is present,
you must offer it to them, “Befarma!” you’ll
say, fully aware that a Persian would know better than to take
you up on the ta’arof.
The same is true for personal possessions. Should someone compliment
you on anything, the first polite response is to say, “Cheshmatoon
ghashang mibineh -- it is your eyes that see beautiful.” I
have heard people change this phrase into, “Your eyes are
beautiful.” But many people go even one step further and
say, “Taghdeem!” -- I’ll make a gift
of it.” Sometimes
they may even insist you should have it. Once I complimented
my mother-in-law on a nice ring she had on. She nearly pulled
off her finger trying to yank it out so that I could have it.
For years after that any time she asked if I liked her jewelry
I pretended to hate it!
Although ta’arof plays a basic role in politeness and
indeed is one of our best traditions, there are embarrassing
times when we make an absolute scene. I remember once after performing
a small dental procedure on a friend, I refused to charge her.
As she pushed a large bill into my hand, I tried to push it back
and when she held my arm and tried to put it in my pocket I must
have raised my voice in protest. The commotion brought my American
secretary into the room. Seeing our struggle, she thought I was
being attacked and asked if she should call security. Do I need
to mention the scenes we make at restaurants over who pays the
bill? We have all seen the frightened look on the waitress’s
face when we play tug-of-war with the check until it’s
torn in the middle.
Those of us who have lived in the West for decades may feel
westernized, but when it comes to Ta’arof, we remain Persians.
I knew this when the other day at the local hamburger joint my
teenage son grabbed the bill in the air before it reached me.
Now, that’s what I call a gentleman!
Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a retired dentist and a freelance
writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is
Gham" (see excerpt).