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Hands without salt
Could it be that Iranians are such a helpful nation, that most of us expect others to offer help when help is needed, and that we consider it, not a favor, but indeed their duty?



January 22, 2007 

There’s a peculiar phrase in Persian, “My hands have no salt,” which refers to having done much for others without receiving the due gratitude. This old cliché may have originated from the times when the best favor you could do others was to feed them, be it the sick, the poor, or anyone else in need of attention. But, if you forgot the salt, not only would your efforts be unappreciated, but also you might hear them complain that you are indeed a bad cook.

My grandmother strongly believed that her hands had absolutely no salt and even went so far to say, “Every time I do something for others, not only is there no gratitude, but they throw stones at me,” I thought she was being melodramatic, after all, there must be someone who had shown her the appreciation she deserved.

As I grew older, and in my pursuit of happiness for all, the pleasure I drew from helping others prevented me from evaluating the responses I received. In fact, if it weren’t for a comment my husband made, I might have never noticed what was missing or make the connection to my grandmother’s phrase. “I don’t know what you expect,” he said after I told him how hurt I felt that my friend, whom I had helped for four consecutive days, forgot to thank me. “Don’t you see that your hands have no salt?”

Wow! That coming from a guy who has lived outside of Iran for more than fifty years, and one who is not superstitious at all, was the ultimate awakening and perhaps the very message I needed to hear.

Not being one to give in to negativism, I don’t appreciate his logic and prepare my counter-argument. “What about those who show me more gratitude than I expect?” I say. “Remember the PTA?  I did so little for them and yet, there would be articles in the school paper, where the PTA president went on and on to thank “Zoe”. And, let’s not forget the San Diego Book Awards Association, who refused my resignation from the Board. And what about the San Diego Writers’ Ink that has my name up on a shelf and continues to shower me with gratitude for the smallest efforts I make to help their events?”

“Those are all Americans!” he says and, having given me more than enough to think about, he goes back to his newspaper.

Talk about a rude awakening! Does this mean that my hands indeed have no salt, and if so, does it suggest that Americans are on a salt-free diet? As I continue to ponder over this matter, a third possibility pops into my mind. Could it be that Iranians are such a helpful nation, that most of us expect others to offer help when help is needed, and that we consider it, not a favor, but indeed their duty?

Looking back, I realize that when and if I help, it is my way of making sure what needs to be done gets done in the best possible way.  I usually prefer to work behind the scene, and according to my American friends, “Volunteer” is my middle name! But lately, a nagging thought has entered my mind, and I have begun to wonder if “the hands that have no salt” could indeed be inherited.

For the first time in my life, I begin to I make a list of anyone whom I have helped in the past couple of years. Yes, I did do those flower arrangements for the Iranian event, but oops, they forgot to thank me and sold them too cheap at the auction. Yes, I did help in such and such fundraising event, and watched as someone else took all the credit. And, I wonder why my articles were pushed back in that magazine, despite my years of contribution.

Iranians are great at offering a helping hand. Ask anyone who has an Iranian friend, neighbor, or colleague. We go out of our ways to be there for those we care about, we are so good at getting involved that sometimes can even be overwhelming. The way I see it, most Iranians are born with three hands: A right, a left, and a helping one! But the system of “ta’arof” that we grew up with is designed mostly around personal contacts. We know how to thank people in private, and may even overdo that, but when it comes to public acknowledgement, most of us are rather careless. And of course, there are those who are so eager to take all the credit that they may forget the “little guy”, the one who has worked hard behind the scene to make it happen. “The hands that have no salt,” often belong to those who don’t need to make a name for themselves, don’t expect very much in return, and when ignored, are willing to forgive and forget.

At dinnertime, I tell my husband that I have analyzed the oversight and refuse to let such matters hurt me in the future.

“I hope this means you’re going to put an end to this volunteering business,” he says, and I can see how pleased he is that I have finally come to my senses.

“Oh, no, I will go on doing what I’ve always done. It’s in my nature.” Then, seeing the disapproving look in his eyes, I add, “ But next time they forget to thank me, I’ll blame my grandmother for passing down a pair of hands that have no salt!” Comment

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani gave up dentistry to be a full-time writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is "Sharik-e Gham" (see excerpt). Visit her site

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