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War, Iranian Style
Ta'rof is, in fact, prepartation for major battle

October 28, 1998
The Iranian

The age-old Iranian tradition of ta'rof can be loosely likened to the various stages of a war.

Greetings start with the inevitable exchange of an array of compliments and the ensuing battle to convince the other party of their relative higher status. This is similar to diplomatic efforts preceding a war.

"Hi. How are you?"

"I'm barely alive. How are you?"

"Not terribly bad. How's your mother? How's your father? How's your dog? How's your spare tire?"

"Fine, all thanks to you. May your shadow not be reduced. How about you? How are your distant relatives? How's the brother of your bus driver? How's the tombstone on the grave of your great grandpa? How's the vegetable garden? How's your dog's tape worm situation?"

"Fine, all because of your generosity, of course. Thank you."

"Not at all! You're the crown of my head. This house and everything in it belongs to you. May my life be sacrificed for you."

"May I stroll around you? I'm your slave."

"No way! I'm the dirt under your feet."

"You have complete control. You're hitting me with a stick."

The next stage of the battle resembles initial territorial posturing prior to every war as the hosts attempt to trick the guests to sit at the seemingly better part of the reception area. Apparently, one side of the room is considered better than the other three. When someone buys a house, unbeknownst to everyone, he decides which end of the room is more premium, and designates it as the "high" end even though the elevation of the room is the same all the way around. This decision may seem entirely random to most.

Some postulate that the high end of the room is the side with the worst vantage point overlooking the entrance. When the guests sit at the so-called high end, they are unable to keep an eye on the traffic outside the living room. Naturally, this gives the host a strategic advantage as their troop movement and positioning can go undetected on the enemy radar. In retaliation, the enemy may send out their kids as reconnaissance teams to survey and report back as to what's cooking in the kitchen.

At the next stage of the impending war, the conversation turns into a battle to drag news out of the other party and a recipient's persistent denials of such attempts. This stage is similar to border skirmishes after diplomacy fails.

"So, what's new?"

"Nothing! Good health."

"Everything is okay then, I trust?"

"Yes, thanks to you and your humbling favors."

"So, what else is new?"

"Oh, nothing much thanks to your long shadow. What's new with you?"

"Oh, hichi, thanks to your heavenly presence. Is work okay?"

"Yes, thanks to you. Is everything okay at home?"

"Yes. So, what else is new?"

"Oh, nothing. And what's up with you?"

"Nothing at all. Same as a few second ago. And you?"

"Let me think... Yes, nothing new has developed. I'll let you know when something comes up. So, what else is going on?"

You could be hoarding the most refreshing news, someone's impending wedding, someone's pulling out a brand new car, or the most distressing ones, but nobody will be able to dislodge it just yet. This is war. Nothing comes easy in the beginning.

At the next stage, tactical weapons are used to soften up enemy positions. The ensuing strike may utilize a battery of fruits, mixed nuts and pastry. This is comparable to an aerial bombardment prior to engaging ground troops. There will be troop movement along the borders of the kitchen, with the gunner (usually the lady of the house) attacking with a barrage of machine-gun style rounds of tea and drinks.

All eligible members of the household are drafted into service to defend their motherland. Children as young as six will play support roles such as snipers (serving candy), taking away the used ammo (pistachio shells), or causing distractions to the enemy (by being generically cute). Children's premature loss of innocence with their induction into the war scene constitutes collateral damage, one of the reasons why war is hell.

The hosts will send paratroopers behind enemy lines to extract information. Sometimes their spies trick enemy children into letting out some juicy secret. Major bombshells go off as an unwitting enemy child confesses to a sister's upcoming wedding. At this point, the enemy/guest can't take it anymore and news begin to erupt like Mount Vesuvius.

A barrage of news begins to hit the host from every angle. Other news follow: how much someone else paid for their brand new used car, some neighbor's demolishing their house to build a "tower", some absent Schmoe's opening a new business, or the latest on who the national team's coach de jour is. The hosts may be able to hit back with some juice of their own. Full scale war gets underway then. Both sides sing like a canary. You'll be lucky if you can get a word in. This is like being in no man's land with bullets and canon balls flying all around you.

The people who were resisting the irresistible force at the beginning of the conversation and would not divulge the most minor news item, now vie for strategic superiority of air time. In a tactical maneuver similar to carpet bombing at the pinnacle of a war, the clever host may force the talkative guest's mouth shut by a timely dumping of some unwanted fruits onto the plate of the guest. If the dense guest is too busy to notice the strike, the host will resort to peeling the fruits and possibly even manually force-feeding the guest, a move equivalent to launching cruise missiles.

Furthermore, the hosts may mine the enemy territory by bringing a picture album and coercing the guests to look at them and be forced into asking questions, at which point the host can opportunistically tell the enemy all about every single picture. The guest is now at the mercy of the host who has the upper hand and can talk at will about how the daughter of a distant cousin in the picture has a villa in Shomal and the villa has beige ceiling and its bathroom sink leaks and its front door squeaks.

War may be waged on more than one front. While the host keeps the enemy men under fire, the hostess engages the enemy women. It's usually the women who cover the most territory. Men are like the cavalry, but it's usually the infantry who win wars. The information firepower wielded by the infantry is many folds more advanced than that of the cavalry.

Having lost the battle, the enemy tries to minimize losses and make a tactical retreat, withdrawing before losing more ground. A scaled down battle of ta'rofs happens during the retreat. The enemy shoots for negotiations during which they'll try to lure the hosts into their territory in order to recover lost ground. Battle-hardened hosts will not give in easily, not before squeezing more info out of the guests. This is a vulnerable stage and many weaklings succumb and let out more info than they intended to. Seasoned guests leave before they let out all their secrets which is tantamount to unconditional surrender. They might as well walk around naked at that point.

As far as the hosts are concerned, an armistice is preferable to peace talks. After the departure, mop-up operations take place. The host and hostess get together and consolidate their war loot, consisting of the dirt that they have squeezed out of the guests in exchange for the useless information the hosts have given out.

On the way back home the defeated enemy tries to regroup, to look for token consolations, and to figure out how exactly they lost the war.

Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form