Non-Iranian readers seem to find the cultural aspect of my recent novel interesting and often ask questions about it at discussions. It was during one of these book talks that I came across yet another unique aspect of my culture. Someone asked me the reason behind the Iranians’ love of poetry and my spontaneous respond surprised even me. “Persians are all poets at heart and we memorize verses and use them in our conversations. It is not surprising to hear someone recite a poem at our social gatherings. In fact, it’s often a toss between poetry and/or telling jokes!”
As I continued to expand upon this thought, scenes of the two extremes danced before me. I became conscious of how for most of us, there is black and there’s white, but somehow the “gray zone” is missing. We do deep sorrow and loud laughter, but it’s rare to see us in a medial phase.
Take our funerals. The first reaction to a disaster often is a fainting episode, beating the chest, screaming, bashing the head against the wall and “ripping the collar off garments!” (Yagheh jer dadan!) When the initial shock has passed – thanks to a tea made of “Cow’s tongue flower” and other herbs – we go through the rituals. We wear black all over and stock up for an entire year of clothes. Women quit wearing makeup while men grow a beard for forty days. After the burial, we hold elaborate ceremonial khatms on the first day, the third day, the seventh day, the fortieth day and the year. The first Norooz is another morbid ceremony. In short, even if the survivors want to get over it, tradition won’t allow them.
But give us a reason to celebrate and boy, do we take it to the limit. Take a wedding, for example. It begins with the Khostegari. The proposal isn’t a simple asking of the question. No, we need the entire family present: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and sometimes even a good neighbor! While everyone gathers to examine the groom-to-be, there’s a lot of festive tea and shireeni served amid laughter and joy. Should there be an agreement, there comes an engagement party followed by aghd, aroosi, the madarzan salami – hello to Mother-in-law party – the first Yalda night and of course, also a first Norooz celebration. By the time their anniversary rolls around, the bride is often sick of her role!
Our moods swing between happy and sad a hundred times a day. If a friend is sad, we won’t rest until we’ve done or said something that will make him laugh out loud. In fact, jokes are such a common daily exchange that we don’t even need an excuse. Right in the middle of a serious meeting someone may say, “There was a Torkeh who went to a meeting . . .” and not only no one seems surprised at the odd interruption, they all laugh at the joke and soon others jump in with one of their own. Heaven forbid there should be a true jokester in the group for soon the whole meeting may turn into a comedy club.
The two extremes are evident in our music as well. One minute we cry true tears with a Haideh song – not to mention experience deep melancholy with Shajarian, and the next we may dance ourselves silly with Shahram Shabpareh! When it comes to food, we either “love” fessenjan or “hate” okra, we either refuse the food offered to us or eat and eat until someone has to call 9-1-1. Our political expressions are either “Long live . . .” or “Death to . . .” and at a concert, we invariably give a standing ovation and ask for encore.
The expression “take it or leave it” means nothing to an Iranian. For us it’s either, “Please, may I be sacrificed for you, take it. I swear you to the life of your mother to take it, may God kill me, it is really not worthy of you, do me a great honor and swear to your father’s spirit that you’ll take it.” OR it’s “You dare take that and I will make your days black and take your father out of the grave. I will bring such disaster to you that the birds in the sky will shed tears for you!”
So if you should come across someone who goes from tears to loud laughter in less than a minute, or witness grown men ending a horrible fight with a hug and juicy kisses on both cheeks or notice friends shifting from love to hate and back to love, please take a moment and say hello to your new Iranian friend. He/she doesn’t know you yet, but soon you may find yourself among a whole new clan. Mind you, we don’t become friends easily, but when we do, it’s for a lifetime.