My very un-American notion of money
March 27, 2002
One of the biggest and most persistent obstacles to adjusting to life in the
States has always been my very un-American notion of money. My first encounter with
this pecuniary cultural gap took place when I came here at sixteen. I had just arrived
at a rather posh boarding school in a small North Eastern town.
There was a local ice cream parlor on Main street were everyone went after school
to hang out and eat. The first time I went to this ice cream parlor in Concord, Massachusetts,
like a good Iranian, I picked up everyone's tab. In Iran that is what was done even
if you were just a teenager. Everyone eventually ended up paying for everyone else
at some point and it all evened out.
But no one would pay individually because it was considered uncivil not to want to
pay for all of your friends who were present at the table. Friendship for us teenage
Iranians meant going all out for your friends. Acts and gestures of generosity, whether
sincere or not, were the visible forms of that notion of friendship as devotion.
Of course on my first visit to the ice cream parlor, when I offered to pay for everyone,
no one made any protestation or counter offers or what we call taarof (the
Iranian art, some would claim hypocrisy, of offering and refusing favors and compliments
with eloquence). After a few times of this picking up of the tab of the ever-growing
bee -taarof retinue, I realized that I was not doing the right thing. Far
from my generosity ever being reciprocated it was not even going to be appreciated.
Quickly I was labeled and even a bit ridiculed, as a rich Arab kid with enough pocket
money to buy everyone ice cream. In the unfortunate American tradition of the inability
to speak in another's language no one understood my gesture of generosity. It was
not seen, my act, as a sign of extending friendship but as a bad habit of an overly
rich kid. It was taken out of the Iranian context thrown into an American one and
misunderstood completely. This happened often later on in my life but with more subtle
attempts and results until at some point I lost that particular urge to be conspicuously
Now, in the Iran that I grew up in money was, of course, important, as it is anywhere
else. But talk of money especially amongst women of a certain social background was
considered vulgar. Of all the inherited prejudicial and patriarchal notions that
I have managed to shed the notion that the overly eager pursuit and talk of money
is lowly, is one of the most difficult to abandon. This is partly because this disdain
for money that we have in the East was in fact discovered, revered, and adopted by
the youth culture of the sixties and seventies.
So my contact with the west and that youth culture and the wonderful outburst of
music that gave it meaning, affirmed to me the inherent correctness of my ancestral
notions of money as being somehow dirty and corrupting and better left to the men
of the bazaar or Wall Street. John Lennon and Hafez came together nicely to cement
a notion of money that was very easy for an Iranian like myself to embrace. Also
hand in hand with this view of money there is a fatalism that we Iranians possess
that dealt appropriately with the cold war era anxiety about nuclear disaster.
One of the first serious books I read in English was the dark, doomsday classic by
Neville Shute, On The Beach, which was required reading in the Community School
in Tehran for eighth graders. A pessimism about the imminent destruction of the world,
was something that you could not avoid feeling if you were a sensitive teenager growing
up in the midst of the cold war.
Later on in college I came to understand the importance
of economic theory to the understanding of history and the importance of money to
basic progress. I also came to understand that in order for the traditionally oppressed
to become independent and productive they needed that "room of their own"
that "fifty acres and a mule."
I admired the Medicis, that illustrious family of early capitalists, and knew that
without them we would not have Florence the way it is -- money after all created
or allowed great art to flourish. As a budding feminist I knew in theory, at least,
that economic independence was the first step towards any sort of liberation.
Living in America I did see the Protestant work ethic and its respect for all work
in motion and appreciated the entrepreneurial impetus that such conviction creates.
But I did not consider myself really as a part of these equations or categories or
traditions when it came to money. I carried with me a certain elitism, springing
perhaps from both my rather gilded upbringing and a peculiar form of Iranian fatalism,
that made me see myself as somehow not in need of following any generalized precepts
I had grown up in wealth and lost it and knew how ephemeral and empty it could be.
I knew from experience that happiness it did not bring. I also had this intuitive
fatalism and sense of donya doroozehgi, that life is short, which made me
mistrust the idea of thinking ahead to the future, of saving for some arbitrary date
in forward time. To this day the American preoccupation with retirement investment
is mind boggling to me. I can understand saving for the children's college, but for
some life after seventy? I can see myself reading this in old age and shaking my
head in regret at my own youthful arrogance.
As a nouveau peuvre exile I had to get a job while in college. So I worked
in shops and restaurants like most other college kids in America. I was not at all
averse to work. But the money I made I spent immediately and carelessly. I did not
value it. To hold on to it was vulgar. To worry about it was vulgar.
I remember going through the little allowance that I
still got from my parents and my paychecks from work with a dizzying rapidity. At
the beginning of the month all would be spent on good things of life and by the end
of the month I would be completely broke. My friends, also spoiled Iranian kids,
and I would go to the best French restaurant in town and drink the best Bordeaux
wines at the beginning of the month and then subsist on rice alone by its end.
We were young and careless fatalists who possessed a "ready to eat rice at the
end of the month so long as you get the Bordeaux" kind of earthiness or darvishi.
This rather spoiled semi darvishi attitude was not the most authentic or grounded
of qualities but it was our peculiar way of dealing with loss of both our wealth
and a place where we belonged, our home.
The loss of my ancestral wealth was something that I wore like a badge of honor --
I was, I thought, after all, above all of that, a khaanoom and a hippie all
wrapped in one. Not one to fret about things material. The way I handled the loss
of our property and wealth I saw as a witness to my true khaanoomi and darvishi.
My disdain for money too I carried with pride. It is what kept me an Iranian in a
sense. It was what distinguished me from the main stream of this new society of shameless
This notion of money informed my decisions about my education as well. I remember
getting in a big spat with my uncle, a pioneer heart surgeon, who had emigrated here
after WWII and knew the value of financial success, about the choice of my major
in college. I was a philosophy major in undergraduate school. My uncle believed I
should study accounting, which was not a "Mickey Mouse Major" as he put
it, and would provide me with chances of securing a stable life.
I, of course, replied in a long, rather sharp letter to him that besides being very
bad with numbers I believed that if I studied in order to make money I would be selling
my mind which after all has to be worse than selling my body. To the eighteen-year-old
me only knowledge and wisdom and pleasure were worth any pursuit.
Only since I have had children have I come to value, not necessarily achieve, savings
and tending to finances with care. Only since I had children, out of pure love for
them, have I come to see the importance of thinking in the future. Love alone, justifies
in my mind, the pursuit of money. Now,
I do admire people who pursue money immensely, perhaps secretly more than others,
but it is an admiration of their otherness really. And of course as retirement gets
closer thinking about it is easier.
I have often thought about my uncle's advice with the tenderness that I now believe
it deserves. But in my youth this brand of spoiled darvishi, khaanoomi
and hippie feminism, even though it may have kept me from adapting to the necessities
of the new society that I had come to inhabit, gave me a sense of confidence that
It did not matter that some of these notions were difficult to reconcile to one another
or that they were not really "authentic." They were creative. They were
attempts of a young person to navigate a new world using the so many pieces of clothing
and accessories that filled her bag of meanings.