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.

Some scholars believe that ta’arof has roots in the Sufi disapproval of worldly recognition and riches. It may also be connected to the practice of ta­qiy­ya, or concealing your true religious beliefs, something Shia Islam encourages its followers to do in the face of persecution. I have heard many Westerners complain that ta’arof is symptomatic of a broader Iranian tendency to clothe every­thing in ambiguity—and to spend an inordinate amount of time doing so.

Ta’arof can be particularly dis­orienting for Americans, who tend to prize efficiency, frankness, and in­formality. John Limbert, a retired diplomat who has been involved in Iranian affairs for 50 years, has given this culture clash more thought than most. Iranian society, he notes, is full of apparently inconsistent elements that we in the West regard as hypo­critical. “Our instincts are to reconcile the contra­dictions,” he told me recently, while Iranians prefer “to live with them.” Limbert was among the Americans held hostage by a group of Iranian militants for 444 days in 1979–81. In April 1980, he was paraded on Iranian TV alongside the revolutionary cleric Ali Khamenei. In flawless Persian, Limbert joked that his captors had “overdone the ta’arof”—­going on to explain that they were such diligent hosts, they had refused to let their guests go home. The joke was itself a very Iranian way to level a sharp criticism: it allowed Limbert to highlight the hostage-takers’ breach of traditional Iranian hospitality.

Khamenei is now Iran’s supreme leader, and is in charge of the country’s nuclear negotiations with the United States and its allies. Viewed from the outside, such dialogue has less to do with ta’arof than with threats and counter­threats. Behind closed doors, however, events proceed more sedately and decorously—to the frustration of the West. As a former European ambassador involved in the negotiations put it to me recently, Iran’s approach over several years of on-and-off talks has been defined by “indirectness, circumlocutions, and obfuscation.”

Even in the course of fraught negotiations, there is room for ta’arof. In the late 2000s, recalls the same diplomat, a European delegation went to Tehran to confer with the then–­foreign minister, Manuchehr Mottaki. During the talks, the Europeans were following Mottaki down a corridor in the Foreign Ministry when suddenly he stopped outside a door to let them enter before him. Standing aside for officials of an inferior rank was a mischievous act of ta’arof designed to wrong-foot his guests. Mottaki succeeded in more ways than one. The Europeans were moving at such speed and were so surprised by his sudden halt that they backed violently into each other and had to scramble not to fall over. Mottaki smiled innocently as the Europeans filed sheepishly in.

Ta’arof is not always supposed to have a resolution; the best conclusion may be an open-ended one. So it has proved with Iran’s nuclear dossier. So, too, with my own, more personal, diplomacy. I applied for Iranian citizenship in 2004. My “accomplish­ments” have not diminished. But I am still waiting for a reply.