Talk Like an Iranian
َAtlantic / Christopher de Bellaigue


Ta’arof comes from an Arabic word denoting the process of
getting acquainted with someone. But as with so many other Arabic words that
have entered the Persian language through conquest and acculturation, the
Iranians have subverted its meaning. In the Iranian context, ta’arof refers to
a way of managing social relations with decorous manners. It may be charming
and a basis for mutual goodwill, or it may be malicious, a social or political
weapon that confuses the recipient and puts him at a disadvantage.


Ta’arof is the opposite of calling a spade a spade; life is
so much nicer without bad news. As I discovered in the Department of Alien
Affairs, ta’arof can also be a way of letting people down very, very slowly. It
often involves some degree of self-abasement, through which the giver of
ta’arof achieves a kind of moral ascendancy—what the anthro­pologist William
Beeman has called “getting the lower hand.” Thus, at a doorway, grown men may
be seen wrestling for the privilege of going in second. For years in Tehran,
we had a cleaner who insisted on calling me “Doctor” as a way of lifting me up
the social scale. “I am not a doctor,” I snapped one day. Undaunted, she
replied, “Please God, you shall be!”


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