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Talk Like an Iranian

As the author learned in Tehran, yes sometimes means no.

I may be wrong, but I believe I am the only Englishman to have applied for Iranian citizenship since the 1979 revolution. “We would be happy to receive such an application,” said the smiling man from the Department of Alien Affairs. “It would be an honor to consider your case, and I should say, given your accomplishments, that you stand a good chance of success.” I happily filled out some forms, gathered the required documentation, and went home to tell my Iranian wife the good news. “What accomplishments?” she asked.

Six weeks later, as requested, I returned. The same official received me, with obvious pleasure. He called for tea, asked after my health and that of my family, and spoke to me of this and that. Then he informed me with an air of great confidentiality that my case was “going very well.” “Do me the kindness of visiting again in six weeks,” he said.

I visited the same official four or five times over the next eight months, and on each occasion the pattern was the same—elaborate courtesies, tea, and encouraging words. I had every reason to believe that my name was sailing upward to those regions of the Iranian bureaucracy where decisions are made.

I cannot say exactly when doubt took root. Despite all the courtesies, however, there did seem to be a lack of verifiable progress. I decided to learn more about the citizenship process, and was dismayed to find out that, for all intents and purposes, there wasn’t one. Only the Iranian cabinet could award me citizenship—a prospect that seemed rather unlikely. The forms and documentation and the repeated visits had been a polite fiction. For well over half a year of blissful self-delusion, I had been suckered by ta’arof.

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!”

Sometimes it takes two to ta’arof. If someone you meet on the bus invites you to dinner, for instance, you should recognize that this is merely ta’arof and say no. If a shopkeeper refuses to accept payment for your purchase, you must persist; once the right gestures have been made and honor satisfied, your money will eventually be taken, with infinite regret.

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Christopher de Bellaigue is a London-based writer on the Middle East. His most recent book is Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup.

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