Dear Alex Bettesworth,
First of all, let me give you my background. I was born in Iran, however, I have spent the majority of my life in the U.S. My father is an American who lived in Iran for about 10 years where he met my (Iranian) mother. My father knew Iranian culture well and, in fact, spoke the language almost like a native. I left Iran in 1979 when I was almost 6 years of age and have spent the rest of my life trying to piece together the best that both cultures have to offer and to try to view life through logic and science rather than through culturally biased or superstitiously biased eyes.
Let me start by saying that I have run into other Americans who have had these negative experiences with Iranians and their conclusions mirror that of Mrs. C Mohammadi. My father's own experience in Iran was a very positive one. He enjoyed Iran to the fullest and he spoke very highly of the Iranian people. He had problems with some of the idiosyncrasies within the culture, however, his experience was a positive one.
I, on the other hand, have a slightly different opinion altogether. My father was an American in Iran and he was treated as such. I, unfortunately, am treated by Americans as an American and by Iranians as an Iranian. Having to please both cultures can be taxing sometimes. In the following few paragraphs I will share my own experiences with Iranians and try to explain some of the behaviors that I do understand.
First and foremost, Iran is a country with a great history, heritage, fantastic art, poetry, literature, and the like. The Iranians who are the “best of the best” do in fact live up to this standard. Iran has churned out great architects and artisans, great poets and philosophers, great thinkers and leaders. Under Cyrus the great, Iran was one of the noblest empires on the face of the Earth. Today, however, the country is ruled by the most debased government on Earth. Iran has produced some of the most wicked and evil people as well as good. Some of the former shahs of Iran were tyrants who killed and tortured many people. The current regime in Iran is notorious for its fanaticism and mistreatment and torture of political dissidents and religious minorities like the Baha'is.
In essence, yes, Iranians are a people of extremes where one can find the best of people and the worst. In nature, this is truly the case — The capacity for good equals the capacity for evil. The greater good something can do, it can in turn do the equivalent level of harm.
Let us now examine your comments as well as that of Mrs. Mohammadi. Mrs. Mohammadi says “Iranian people, in general, are on the surface overly hospital and friendly. However, underneath they are power hungry, money hungry, backstabbing, critical, and extremely superficial.” I would say that this is only partially true and it does not apply to all Iranians. Iranians are hospitable and friendly by most standards and exhibit this friendliness genuinely. I do agree, that there is a segment of Iranian society that is definitely not genuine underneath and this segment, not the whole, is what we are discussing.
Now let us move to some of the reasons behind some of these behaviors. Iranians are, as a society, deeply concerned with status. Being a doctor, being wealthy, or being successful financially, does in fact bring great status to an individual. For this reason, Iranians are money hungry and will pursue those avenues which will result in larger houses, bigger cars, more status, etc… The status factor is a double-edged sword. Iranians in the U.S. have become one of the more affluent immigrant populations in the U.S. They have become doctors, lawyers, engineers, and the like and have made a name for themselves here. Iranians, facing obstacles such as language barriers, residency, exile, and discrimination have succeeded whereas certain segments of the native-born American population do not seek to better themselves and continue to live in sub-standard conditions.
On the other hand, some Iranians' only goal in life is to make money, save money, spend very little money, and do it at any cost. This has led to greed and materialism and has created a cast system of sorts. Iranians have become more concerned with the type of car that you drive rather than what your true personal attributes are. In America, this is called snob-appeal and it is alive and well among certain American populations as well.
Backstabbing or backbiting rather is another detrimental quality that Iranians possess. Iranians love to talk about people, saying those things both good and bad. Islamic culture mixed with the status factor creates this very detriment. Iranians are very nosy people by American standards. They want to know what is going on in your life and will even sometimes volunteer to tell you what they think you should be doing. They do this out of concern, however, it is a detrimental quality which Iranians must try to change. For example, If Mrs. Dashti sees the son of Mr. Khaki doing something less than desirable, you had better believe that the whole community will know about it. People have to watch themselves carefully in public to make sure that they act in good character outside (the superficial factor here) despite what they may really do in their own homes.
The criticism, the criticism, what can I say? Iranians are critical and opinionated and sometimes about things which they know nothing about. I would agree with Mrs. C Mohammadi only partially here. Many Iranians are resentful because their country was taken away from them by Islamic fantasists. Under the Shah most Iranians enjoyed the same freedoms that we do now. I'm sure that many Americans who live abroad any number of years have criticized those countries for not being more like the U.S. Iranians are only comparing a way of life that was known to them previously with a changed life that they have now. I know many Americans who criticize America for that matter. However, Iranians should realize and be thankful that in this country we HAVE the freedom to criticize. In essence Iranians should probably not be so critical.
The lying, deception, manipulation for the lack of better words deserves our attention. These behaviors are, in fact, “socially-sanctioned” as your friend mentioned. Iranians have been taken advantage of over the years by many people and have become very mistrusting of others at times. They were invaded by the Greeks, Mongols, Turks, Afghans, and the Arabs all of whom tried to change the language and culture of the nation. The country underwent many changes and many dynasties of tyrannical rulers who robbed the people. Wealthy nobles and lords took from the poor and created an atmosphere where people had to lie, cheat, backbite, and manipulate their fellow man to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the current government of Iran has not helped the situation. Not all Iranians make a practice of this but the ones that do ruin it for the rest.
Now, I would like to share those things which I also find annoying. One of them is the status factor, the nosy factor and the final one is the tarof (pronounced tar – oaf). Here in America, when one graduates high school he or she then starts choosing a career path. Iranians, almost all, choose biology or chemistry with a pre-med option. I find this quite amusing since most of them don't really know what they want to do, all they do is take pre-med like daddy told them. Most of my Iranian friends were pre-med students, however, only a few of them really wanted to do it. Again, here is the pursuit of status at work.
The nosy factor comes in when every adult Iranian male above the age of 35 starts telling you that medicine is the only way to go. Not only do they not understand why you would want to study anything else, they go out of their way to tell you why the medical field is great when they themselves are not even doctors! The doctors who are Iranian, on the other hand, have never ever told me to become a doctor and when a prospective student asks them about it they simply just say “are you sure that's what you want to do?” By the way I never became a doctor and thank God for it!
Finally, the tarof gets on my last nerve. For those who are not familiar, tarof is a hard thing to describe. Loosely translated it means hospitality but not quite. Here's an example:
Knock Knock. (Ali opens the door)
Ali: “Hassan, Frezia Khanoum, I hope you are doing well please come in.”
Hassan: “Are you sure that this is not a bad time. We're not a burden are we?
Ali: “No, no please, I insist please come in for a little while. Would you two like some tea?
Hassan: “No, it's really too much trouble. I'm fine.”
Frezia: “Really don't go through the trouble.”
Ali: “Really I insist, it's no trouble at all.”
Hassan: “Are you sure? We really did not want to be this much trouble.”
Frezia: “Mr. Ali we are such a burden…”
Ali: “I'll have Shahnaz put the kettle on right now.”
Hassan: “Well, okay, if it's not too much trouble.”
Tarof, in essence, is the act of declining an offer, to decline for the sake of politeness. One does not want to become a burden, even if the party inviting is sincere. The problem comes when the inviting party is not sincere and makes an offer out of ceremony. If the offer is taken, then the inviting party has to oblige his guest with tea. This gets very complicated and can't be explained to the fullest. One must experience it to fully understand how ridiculous it ca get. I do respect it as a part of the culture, but I do not do it unless absolutely necessary.
I hope I've cleared up a few things in Iranian culture as I see them. Please don't take my word as the final authority and do ask around a bit. Iranians are really interesting people once you get to know them. Do be careful though, I know that you have been hurt before so don't let your guard down too easily.