I don’t know about other cultures, but we Iranians thrive on little lies. As a child, you grow up with exaggerated expressions of love such as, “May I be sacrificed for you,” or “You are my liver!” Not to mention the grizzliest accounts of hatred: “If I catch him, I’ll cut him into little meat cubes!” Though this sounds horrific to the non-Iranian, to the rest of us it’s just words and you know that when your dad is “going to kill you,” it just means he’s mildly annoyed at something you did.
Back when physical punishment was ruled out, grownups came up with scary lies. We all knew about “Lu-lu”, but each family also came up with their own fictitious character. Ours was the “Big Head – kalleh gondeh”. I had seen him once in the darkness outside the window, searching for bad kids and it was years before I learned that it had been our nanny with a huge pot on her head. To this day I make sure the shades are drawn at night, just in case.
Then you’re old enough to stay up and listen to family stories: the long tale of Uncle this defeating the lion on a hunting trip and Aunt that having a face that crowds lined up to get a glimpse of. You look at the frail figure of your uncle and the wrinkles on your aunt’s face and listen to the rest not so much for its glorification of the family, but just because it’s a good story.
To tell a caller that Mom’s out shopping, while she sat there and watched, was simple obedience. To sneak out on a date but tell your parents you’re going to study was your only chance at it, and a pretend fasting was your way of showing respect for your parent’s religion. You never had to tell your teacher that your absence of last week was due to grandma’s family luncheon because Uncle Doctor would provide a note to explain how sick you’d been.
What the rest of the world may consider lies, to us is a means of preventing harm. The teacher would much prefer for your homework to burn in a fire than realize you never did it, it was much kinder to your father’s heart if he thought you lost your report card, and why should a good girl ruin the family reputation by broadcasting that she had a boyfriend?
So far, we may not seem any different from the rest of the world. After all, our lies are justified by good motives, which isn’t all that different from what the West calls “white lies.” But what about the lies that aren’t justified, and which shade is no longer considered “white?”
The youngest in the family, I was amazed at how quickly I’d be caught lying. While my brothers and sisters could get away with murder, I failed at the simplest schemes. No sooner had I begun my story than someone would demand, “What did really happen?”
How could they know?
Years later my sister told me it was because I swore even before anyone had expressed doubt. “I didn’t take the cookies, I swear to God!” or, “As God is my witness, I didn’t break that!” This may explain some of my suspicions of anyone who swears by the holy saints or takes their father’s soul witness.
The beauty of a good lie is in creativity, use of imagination, as well as narrative skills. The more people lie, the more detailed their scenarios are. I remember the story of one of my brother’s classmates, who skipped school and was caught playing in the arid riverbed behind their school.
“What are you doing here?” the principal asked him.
The scared boy responded. “Fishing, sir. I’m fishing!”
The principal looked around. “Fishing in dry land?”
“Smoked fish, sir, smoked!”
But that’s a kid. What about grownups? My uncle’s stories were the best because he never told the same version twice. If it involved money, the amount went up in time, if it had something to do with politics, the era changed from World War to Reza Shah to Mossaddegh, and if my aunt was present, his adventures never involved any ladies.
Living in the Midwest before the revolution, we’d hear less of such accounts, but then came the revolution and the surge of immigrants also brought their unbelievable stories. Aware of the Pahlavi’s rather short family lineage, I was amazed at the number of Iranians who claimed to be relatives of the shah, and while many people did lose everything, the number of mansions – if not palaces – that people had left behind made Tehran bigger and more glamorous than Paris. I have to yet meet an Iranian who will tell me they had much less in Iran, that they are doing well here, and that the land of opportunities has indeed offered them a chance to build a better life.
Years ago, I promised myself I’d set a good example for my kids by being honest, but then came a day when I asked my daughter to answer the phone.
“Whoever it is, just say I’m in the shower.”
“I won’t lie for you, Mom.”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
She blushed. “Are you really in the shower?”
Unable to respond, I was reminded of a relative who actually lives in the shower. I’ve called her morning, noon, and night and that’s where she always is!
We are a nation of top students, we were all “hot” in our days, our physical features are all natural – and oh, that surgery was to fix a broken nose. We are all younger than our birth certificates indicate, weigh a lot less than the scale shows. We all meet people who think we were classmates but are in fact were the same year as an older sibling. I grew up an Iranian and to me a lie isn’t a lie unless you’re really lying.