Persian in 3 Easy Steps
Text by Haleh Anvari in English only
The piece is the artist's interpretation of the cacophony of noise that Ta'arof created in her life when she returned to Iran after a long absence during her formative years.
Iranians are an ancient people with ancient habits. Amongst these habits is our abhorrence of direct speech. We Iranians simply can't say what we mean in a straightforward, unblemished, unadulterated way. Our speech is flowery and convoluted with many twists and turns of etiquette and poetry that have become standard utterances. What we call Ta'arof or what I would translate as ‘Profuse Persian Pleasantries’. This system of pleasantries is like a maze, it creates diversions and hidden corners, it gives us a chance to be grand when we are in view but it also helps us to be illusive when we wish to be invisible. Like the quintessentially Persian decorative art of mirror-work used on the walls of our old houses, Ta'arof serves to refract and break the harshness of direct contact with an unreliable outside world. Our convoluted politesse gives us a chance to play a social game in which we are civil but not always sincere.
This has led to the charge that Iranians are two faced specially by foreign visitors who are confounded by the difference in what we say and what we mean. But this is a complex cultural habit and not simply some character flaw. In Iran it is regarded as rude, uncultured and downright uncivilized to be direct. So Ta'arof is a cultural and social requirement. The politesse extends itself to every sphere of life even to the offer of food. In Iran it is an unbreachable rule that guests must be fed and watered. But to accept the offer of refreshment immediately is not good etiquette; the host must be allowed to plead for the guest to take a cup of tea. The guest must be allowed to decline several times and in various forms. The host must be allowed to demonstrate his benevolence and generosity; the guest must safeguard his pride and not appear to need the food. The host must offer the food even if he can't afford it. The guest must take the food even if she doesn't want it.
Confusing isn't it? And it's not just accepting that we can't do directly. We also mustn't say no directly. ‘No’ isn’t a good word in Iran, it's far too final. Let’s say you invite me over for dinner and I actually don’t want to go, for whatever reason. It is not correct for me to say: ‘I don't actually feel like coming to your house.’ That would be tantamount to trying to break relations with you. I have indicated that I will not enjoy your company. Being tired or having something else on will definitely offend, so we use the art of the indirect ‘No’. We tell a white lie. We come up with a fib; something that will make me exonerated and still protect the feelings of the host. That could call for some very creative storytelling. One recent European Ambassador to Tehran begrudgingly spoke of the legions of fictional aunts Iranians keep in their closets so that they may be maimed or killed depending on how important the event they don't wish to attend happens to be.
Full disclosure, then, is unnecessary and imprudent. You can always save the last word for the very end. It makes sense when you remember invaders or hostile rulers have ruled this country for centuries, so keeping your thoughts and feelings to yourself, is a matter of survival. And Iranians have evolved this necessity into an art form. We are taught an elaborate system of politesse, which operates both through words and behavior. We are taught to be politic, to be opaque, a trait that is admired in the whole population, even children! It seems that everything in life in Iran is so entwined with politics, and this has been the case for so long that the word is now used as an adjective for sensible behaviour in our daily interactions. Politic as in “possessing or displaying tact, shrewdness, or cunning” is very much an intentional word in the context of this introduction, because it is in fact the word closest to the word we would use in Persian when we refer to exercising tact or being discreet in domestic matters in our lives. We call people who have tact ‘ba siasat’. ‘Ba’ means with and ‘siaist’ means politics in Persian. We are bound to Ta'arof because we are bound in politics, perhaps.