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 child.

“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 — It’s 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 “Sharik-e Gham” (see excerpt).

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