I am lucky. I am able to regularly see my best friend Fardad, someone I have known and grown up with since we first met in the 10th grade in the Tehran International School better known as Iranzamin. Last week, Fardad and I, as we often do, decided that, despite the warnings of our wives that we need to start watching our waistlines, would go to the local Chelokababi for a nice longer than usual lunch.
So we did. I drove.
We got on the freeway a bit, then onto an expressway a bit, then took a boulevard a bit, and finally the yewie at the light, and parked right in front of the Chelokababi located behind a carwash. Why is it that the best chelokababis are always located behind a carwash?
We went in and it was packed. A healthy mix of non-Iranian and Iranians filled the multi-roomed restaurant adorned with the usual decoration. Two smallish Persian carpets mounted crookedly on the wall, a few posters of faux miniature paintings in gaudy Louis the whatever-teenth fake gold frames. Photographs of the same two Ghashghaie girls weaving a carpet, and the rest of the tribe “kooching”. A golden samavar from Iran in the corner complete with the 220v cord dangling. And under the glass tops of each table, beneath the white tablecloth, the fringed edging of the khatamkari cloth. The usual.
We signaled with our fingers wiggling “2”, indicating to the lady in charge of seating, how many was in our party. She left to hunt out a spot. While she was gone, we did what all Iranians do when they go to a restaurant, namely scan the joint to see if anyone they know is there. A quick pass initially showed no one.
I did notice the now common Indian/Pakistani tag team of programmers. You can always spot the Indian/Pakistani patrons at Persian restaurants. Not because of the color of their skin or anything like that, but because they are often the ones really chowing down! Apparently people from India and Pakistan, really like our food! Which I think is kind of cool, because I really like Indian food! These two gifts to the coding world had both cheeks full, and were going at it faster than a 3gigahertz processor or whatever is really fast these days.
The seating lady came back and asked us how many, to which we responded again, “2”. She left again to find us seats.
A few minutes later she returned and asked us one more time how many, and as we raised our fingers to signal “2” again, she said, “Aha, 2” as she turned and went off again. The third time, must have been the charm, because she returned with menus in hand. She extended her free hand up, out and away into the room, with a perfectly pronounced, “Befarmaied”.
As we moved through the crowded room, I noticed that right in front, was a local friend Behzad, sitting looking at his PDA phone thingey, either checking email, or surfing the web, or opening and closing his garage door, or whatever other magic you can do on them now.
I stopped at Behzad's table and nodded to Fardad to go ahead.
“Hello!” I said. Pumping the gas pedal once.
“Eh! Salam Chetori!” he said. Gunning his engine.
“How are you doing?” I said, accelerator securely under foot.
“Fine, fine, how are you? Are you busy?” he said, letting out the clutch.
And we were off, we got quickly updated and caught up with the important stuff friends need to know from each other when time is short. I apologized for interrupting his meal, to which he said, “Not at all”, and I said goodbye and left him to finish eating.
Initial frontal attack, a probing parry from either, a counter attack, a defensive block, and then the mutually respectful disengagement. The 5 basic moves of Taarof when faced with the standard what-to-do-when-you-see-a-friend-in-the-restaurant scenario.
That's right, Taarof for us is a kind of martial arts battle, but with a major difference. It is all about outdoing kindness towards each other. It often ends up with the craftiest winning. But with one very strange difference, the winner loses and the loser wins. Let me explain.
As I sat down at the table where Fardad was waiting, he said, “Why don't you ask him to come and join us?”
“Good idea!” I said.
As I walked over to Behzad's table, I remembered that Behzad played golf and that Fardad played golf, I realized that would be a perfect way to get the two warmed up if needed.
It is important to note that Fardad has a special problem. Not that kind of problem. His problem is that he cannot stand to see someone eating alone. It drives him nuts. I told Behzad to grab his joojeh and come on over. Behzad's eyes lit up a bit, indicating that Fardad was right.
After the introductions were made, I could tell they would hit it off so I parked the golf topic, in my back pocket just in case I noticed a lull in the conversation. There wasn't one.
Now another thing to understand about the art of Taarof, is that the craftier and subtler you are, the less likely your opponent is to suspect what you are really up to and discovering your move, maneuver to counter. The goal of Taarof is not just to beat someone at this wonderfully Iranian game, but to beat them soundly, mercifully but preferably leave them mouths agape if possible. Often you will not see the agape mouths of your opponents, because having vanquished them, you will have successfully absconded, victory in hand, leaving to fight another day. But you know they are sitting there mouths agape. When done expertly, it is a beautiful thing.
As our food arrived and as we began eating, while we continued talking about our all sorts of things, Behzad was finishing his food and talking about his all sorts of things, and since he was ahead of us by about a half a plate, and even though Fardad and I were gaining on his lead, largely due to that day's unusually outstanding quality of the food, nevertheless, Behzad, continued on ahead, finished his meal, and jumped into the Chaie portion of the ritual.
The conversation continued fast and fun, and with us about a quarter of the way left to go, Behzad downed the last drops of tea.
He then turned and said, “Hang on guys, I need to go wash my hands, I'll be right back” Nonchalant, subtle.
Now it is precisely at this point, that try as I might, I cannot for the life of me replay that move in my head, to find where he may have given us a hint of his next intentions. I cannot see it. We never saw what was coming.
Behzad returned cool as a freshly picked young khiar from your uncle's patch, and was about to sit down, when he looked at his watch, and said, “Well guys, it's been great, but I gotta get back to work.”
Fardad and I stood up, shook his hand and he turned and was gone. Fardad, said, as we sat down, “What a nice guy!”. “I know, I really like Behzad, he's cool”, I said.
The waitress came to clear our plates and said, “Shall I bring your teas now?”
Fardad looked at me and asked, “Are you done?”, I nodded. He smiled at her and said, “Please.”
As she turned to go get our tea, Fardad's mouth suddenly fell open. Agape. I was wiping the last few slurps of diet coke from my mouth when I looked up and saw the look of horror on his face. Fardad is always a synapse or two quicker than me, and at first I wasn't sure what happened, until it suddenly hit me. My mouth fell open. Agape.
“Holy shit! I bet he paid for our lunches!” he said.
“No Way!” I said, knowing it was only true.
The waitress returned with the tea, a growing sly smile on her face, as she must have seen both our mouths. Agape. Fardad was closer and took a shot anyway, knowing it was pointless, “Can you also bring the bill when you get a chance.” he said.
“No need, your friend has already taken care of it.” she said, full on smiling now.
“Ah Shit!” Fardad said, smiling now.
“That Bastard!” I said, laughing “Agha, don't worry, I swear I will track him down, find him, and we will buy him such a lunch, even if it kills me.”
“You'd better. Or I will kill you!” Fardad said, biting his lower lip.
So run Behzad run. Because even if you don't stop running, which you will, we will catch up with you, and when we do, you'll pay for your move, with a lot more than a measly joojeh-kabab. You may have bested the two of us with your mighty and masterful move, clearly you are a Pahlavan worthy of our salute and respect. But know this, we will find you and repay your kindness, with a kind of kindness you can only dream of. You will come to fear our kindness the next time we meet! And it will be soon!
I asked Fardad later in the car, if at any time during lunch, if he ever saw it coming, and he said,
“Only when the tea arrived.”