Sep 9, 2012

Ta’arof as a Denial in Iranian Social Life

Christopher de Bellaigue who is the author of the new book Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Tragic Anglo-American Coup has published an article on the Atlantic, explaining the complexity of ta’arof in Iran. Ta’arof is a borrowed word from Arabic which is simply used for introductions and meeting people.

In Farsi ta’arof is a form of polite behavior shown among Farsi speakers in Iran. It is a delightful and respectful interaction but at the same time it is a form denial and dishonesty. As Bellaigue explains ta’arof is
“symptomatic of a broader Iranian tendency to clothe every­thing in ambiguity—and to spend an inordinate amount of time doing so.”
Bellaigue, whose wife is Iranian, applied for Iranian citizenship eight years ago. Each time he went to the Department of Alien Affairs, he was welcomed warmly and offered tea and then asked to visit again. He says since ta’arof has an open ending, 8 years later, he is still waiting for his citizenship.

Ta’arof as much as it has a positive meaning in social interaction it has also some negative meanings. Basically, ta’arof can be used in a variety of ways, between a wife and a husband, father and son, brother with sisters and so on. It is so rooted in Iranian social life that it is hard to be removed. We Afghans always joke about Iranian ta’arof that how they waste time, instead of displaying their friendship and kindness they exaggerate to a point that ultimately is annoying.

Last week, after I read the Bellaigue’s piece on Iranian ta’arof I forwarded it to one of my friends at school. Since last year, she has tirelessly been working on her Farsi to travel to Iran with her Iranian friend but just recently her Iranian friends uninvited her. She wrote me back and said:

This article is a perfect explanation of how my friends first invited me to go to Iran next summer and then uninvited me. I thought my friends had been in this country enough decades to avoid this kind of thing but I was wrong. I just experienced ta’rof big time.
As Bellaigue says in his article that ta’arof is tricky and confusing. I am not in a position to judge whether Iranian should do their ta’arof outside Iran or not but it is certainly annoying and obnoxious to non-Iranians. Of course, most of Iranians are proud of ta’arof in their social interactions while there are many Iranians who abhor ta’arof. But ta’arof is still part of Iranian culture and identity. That’s how Iranian culture is distinct from cultures of other Farsi spoken countries like Afghanistan and Tajikistan. In these two countries where historically Farsi has deeper roots than Iran, ta’arof has no place in their cultures.

The purpose of writing this short piece is not to criticize Iranians because of their confusing traditional social behavior but to raise this question: to what extent do we know others and how can we avoid being ta’arofed by Iranian friends? Also should we expect them to be aware of our cultures and assimilate into an alien culture or should we learn their cultures accept them as they are?
The answers to these questions depend on individuals, time and location.


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