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My very un-American notion of money

March 27, 2002
The Iranian

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 generous.

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 or theories.

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 money making.

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. Amazon Honor SystemNow, 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 was priceless.

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.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Setareh Sabety

By Setareh Sabety

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