The Art of Ta’arof

Some years ago in Tehran a 90 something gentleman got up to greet someone half his age since he said those are the manners he was taught as a young lad. I instagrammed it as “amazing ta’arof” and my Persian friends immediately corrected me that was not ta’arof but genuine.

So Ta’arof is not always a positive force since it’s mixed in with traces of deception. This article below was a very old post in my blog and thought I would share it since it’s so well-written.

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One of the most complicated aspects of Persian culture — and language — is the untranslatable ta’arof. Depending on the circumstance, it can mean any number of things: To offer, to compliment and/or exchange pleasantries. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. I doubt if any study can lead to a full understanding of Ta’arof. A born and raised Persian, even I find myself losing my grasp on it from time to time.

Perhaps Ta’arof stems from the cultural obligation to put others, especially guests, if not above all else, at least before oneself. In a society whose hospitality is more than a way of life, it is of utmost importance to make the guests feel welcomed. Drastic measures are taken to ensure company’s comfort: Saving the best room in the house, delicacies, the most ornate dishes and even fancy beddings for that accidental guest. Indeed, even a few moral rules are broken for the sake of Ta’arof.

A lie is no longer considered a sin when hospitality is the intention. In fact, when we offer something, we may assure the guest by adding, “Honestly, I’m not Ta’arofing!” Which insinuates that there is some dishonesty in ta’arof?

Let us imagine a typical example: An unexpected guest has arrived late at night. You are tired, there’s no food in the house and you are about to go to bed because you happen to have an engagement early the next morning.

Wisdom dictates that you simply explain this and excuse yourself. But not if you are Persian!

“What an unexpected blessing!” you proclaim. “Which way did the moon rise to bestow such good fortune on us!”

After you have turned on every light in the house, you get the guest seated in your best sofa in the living room and rush to turn on the samovar. (It really doesn’t matter what time it is, tea is tea and one could not possibly have company without it.) You wake up the kids, take a quick look in the mirror and do whatever cosmetic improvement can be accomplished quickly and send somebody to beg, borrow or steal the needed food.

Hours later, not only has the guest agreed to stay the night, you’ve also offered the use of that brand new pajamas you were saving for Nowruz.

“Please step on my eyeball!” is how we invite people into our homes. (Excuse me? Step on my eyeball?) “This is your home and whatever I have belongs to you.” Heaven forbid, he says something in reference to having disturbed the kids. “My children are your slaves!” you’ll declare. Let’s hope your guest is also Persian and knows ta’arof so that not only no one takes advantage, but she may respond with equal enthusiasm and similar pleasantries. “May your hand not hurt; may God grant you tea in heaven!” As for your children, “They are the crown on my head, may I be sacrificed for them!”

Such lighthearted, yet meaningless, dialogue can go on for hours, especially if you find nothing else to talk about.

When dealing with a Persian, especially where ta’arof is concerned, the word ‘no’ takes on a whole new meaning. In fact, it took me years to understand what my grandmother meant when she said, “Dish out a double portion to the one who says no!” Regardless of how desperately you want what you’ve been offered, it is only polite to first say no, especially if it involves food.

“Would you like a candy, honey?” you ask a polite child.

“No, thank you.”

Do not be surprised if you insist and he stuffs half the bowl in his pocket. Or, you ask a Persian cab driver, “How much do I owe you?” And he may say, “Ghabel nadareh — It’s not worthy of you.” Under no circumstances does this mean that you don’t pay, it is rather a warning that you should be gracious and not panic at the figure he’s about to quote.

Those familiar with the tradition of ta’arof are able to decipher “no” to mean, “Let’s hear that offer again.” Not to get sidetracked, but can you imagine what would happen if the groom walked out of the wedding ceremony when the bride says “No” the first and second times as is the custom?

You put a large bowl of fruit and some plates on the table. (The fact that there’s only one guest makes no difference. There has to be enough fruit to feed an army.) Regardless of how starved company may be, ta’arof dictates that she shouldn’t touch it until you insist. So you ignore that herniated disk that has been bothering your back, pick up the heavy bowl and offer while masking your agony with a smile.

To translate Persian pleasantries word by word may sound bizarre, but in a given situation, these comments only add flavor to a conversation. “I wish I had known you were coming,” you may say. “We could have slaughtered a cow or a lamb for you. Now, at least have some of this unworthy fruit.”

Over the grumble of the guest’s empty stomach you hear, “No, thank you. sarf shod — I’ve already had some.”

“Please, I swear you to the life of your mother, you must have some.”

“No, thank you. Khoda margam bedeh — May God give me death — I have already caused you enough trouble.”

“No, no. What trouble? Ekhtiar dareen — you have control of my life.” You mutter, trying hard not to collapse under the weight of the fruit bowl.

“May I die, please have some!”

At this point you have two choices, either you act devastated, which would encourage the guest to have some, or you take a plate and put a heap of fruits before her. To make sure it gets eaten, you can even peel the orange or apple and cut the melon.

Regardless of how hungry your guest may be, ta’arof dictates NOT to clean the plate. After all, it is not polite to appear hungry. No doubt, some readers may think I’m making all this up, but please be reminded that while many such ta’arofs are outdated in the larger cities of Iran, they are very much alive in small towns.

The reverse can also apply. One may offer something just to be polite, and not mean it. Imagine that you are hungry and have brought only one sandwich to work, but if someone else is present, you must offer it to them, “Befarma!” you’ll say, fully aware that a Persian would know better than to take you up on the ta’arof.

The same is true for personal possessions. Should someone compliment you on anything, the first polite response is to say, “Cheshmatoon ghashang mibineh — it is your eyes that see beautiful.” I have heard people change this phrase into, “Your eyes are beautiful.” But many people go even one step further and say, ” Taghdeem!” — I’ll make a gift of it.” Sometimes they may even insist you should have it. Once I complimented my mother-in-law on a nice ring she had on. She nearly pulled off her finger trying to yank it out so that I could have it. For years after that any time she asked if I liked her jewelry I pretended to hate it!

Although ta’arof plays a basic role in politeness and indeed is one of our best traditions, there are embarrassing times when we make an absolute scene. I remember once after performing a small dental procedure on a friend, I refused to charge her. As she pushed a large bill into my hand, I tried to push it back and when she held my arm and tried to put it in my pocket I must have raised my voice in protest. The commotion brought my American secretary into the room. Seeing our struggle, she thought I was being attacked and asked if she should call security. Do I need to mention the scenes we make at restaurants over who pays the bill? We have all seen the frightened look on the waitress’s face when we play tug-of-war with the check until it’s torn in the middle.

Those of us who have lived in the West for decades may feel westernized, but when it comes to Ta’arof, we remain Persians. I knew this when the other day at the local hamburger joint my teenage son grabbed the bill in the air before it reached me.

Now, that’s what I call a gentleman!

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8 Replies to “The Art of Ta’arof”

  1. Traces of Ta’arof etiquettes exist in Indian culture too (We call the word ta’areef here). This excessive fawning over guests, insistence on footing the restaurant bills, plying guests (especially wedding guests) with food and drink till they just can’t take it in anymore, all this exists in Indian society too. But all this is now fading away and people are becoming more practical and businesslike, like the Americans.

    There is an interesting anecdotes about two Lakhnau nawabs who missed their train, because each one kept insisting that the other one should board the train first. (The famous pahle-aap etiquette). Interestingly, Lakhnau nawabs, who were Shia, traced their roots to Persia. The British takeover of Awadh put an end to the nawabi high culture. Those were really India “Gone with the wind days”.

    Glimpses of those days survive in Bollywood movies like Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan.

    A story, probably apocryphal but still very instructive, goes like this. Apparently when British Army marched into Lakhnau to arrest last Awadh nawab Wajid Ali, he couldn’t flee in time. Reason was, even though he had his shoes handy, the servant who put these shoes on his feet was nowhere to be seen! And thus the last nawab fell in British captivity.

    So apparently the Ta’arof manners are no match for the hard nosed Anglo-Saxon directness. 🙂

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  2. It exists in Serbian culture, too. It is very strange to westerners (English/Suisse) who accurately split restaurant bills (even couples) while watching Serbs who are ready almost to physically fight who will pay the total bill. Especially, men do not allow women to pay for drinks. There is also a cult of guests and hospitality. One anecdotal story from old times says how Turks took some Serbs prisoners and started torturing and killing them one by one. Turkish pasha asked an old man who was waiting to be killed if he feels the biggest fear in his life. No, said the old man, the biggest fear I felt long time ago when some unexpected guests popped in my house and I didn’t have anything to offer them, even no mouldy bread. The story says that pasha released him to freely walk away.

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      1. In the Asian Media, there was mentioned the name of Serbian warrior rank – Geti. Zacharie Mayani(Les Hyksos et le monde de la Bible, Payot, Paris, 1956) says: “Gatas – the Iranian people, which had a language close to Vedic that one who understood one of them was understanding the other “. At Diodor is the information that Queen Semira logged on with the army on Mount Bagistan, which is modern Behistan. He says that the mountain was called because it was dedicated to the God (Bog – stan). There was also a city named Bagistan, southeast of Ekbatan. Although Ekbatan was the capital of the Media, the most beautiful city was Nisa, which was well known by its horses throughout the whole Asia.

        The name of the town of Nisa was changed to Raga (the name for old horse in Serbian), then Seleuk I gives this city the name of Europo, according to his birthplace city with the same name near Vardar. This is now modern Tehran. The younger brother of the first king of Macedonia, Perdike I Karanovic, whose name was Europ, ruled about 700. p.n.e. in the middle part of river Vardar (Povardarje). Its principality was called Europe. By this principality, Europe got its name.

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          1. From your wedding film I can see that you are taller than me (and you have a nicer smile, too) not mentioning that your accent is closer to queen’s (and Meghan’s) than mine.

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