Reporter’s Notebook: Politeness and humble phrases

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"The Iranian custom of great hospitality is most
widespread, but it vitiates its good intentions once
the guest realizes that his host is producing phrases
not to feeling but to custom," writes Anthony
in his book, Blind White Fish in Persia.

Iranians have a deeply ingrained custom of formalized
politeness. Whatever the differences in style, tastes
and outlook between older and younger Iranians this
custom—ta’roof—remains undiminished by time and

When I applied for my press credentials at the government ministry,
we (my cousin, my translator and I) were told that we would need to
employ an agency that works with foreign journalists in order to
"deputize" my translator. We drove to the agency and after much
discussion, an agreement was reached. Anxious about the cost of the
agency’s services, I asked my cousin what they would charge me. He
said, "Oh, we didn’t discuss price." That will be negotiated afterward.
In America, directness and "cutting to the chase" are considered good
qualities—here such behavior is seen as rude.

Yes, I could have pressed my cousin to give me a figure he
thought was accurate and eventually he would have
quoted a sum. But he would do this just to be polite
and satisfy my concerns. It would not be the actual,
as yet to be determined, figure.

Iranians have countless phrases to humble themselves
and flatter their guests, friends and associates. The
phrases are as flowery as classic Iranian poetry and I really can’t think of an equivalent in our culture.

Here’s a quote from the editorial in today’s Iran News,
an English language Tehran newspaper:

"Currently out of a 365-day year, there are 144
non-working days in this country, composed of 104
weekend days, 15 days for the Persian New Year and 35
religious and national holidays. Economists believe
recurrent holidays disrupt productiveness and
efficiency, hurts the business sector and promotes
a lethargic culture. We are one of the wealthiest
countries in the world as far as God-given natural
resources. So why does half of Iran’s population
still live at or below the poverty level?"

Today in the park I watched one of the groundskeepers
use a pair of pruning shears as a wrench, a hammer and
a wire cutter.

Yesterday, driving on the insane freeway to north
Tehran there was an accident. A man lay on his back
on the narrow concrete median, one hand across his
chest. His motorcycle was on its side next to him.
Judging from the crowd that had gathered to look at
him and offer comfort, he’d been there for a while.
But there was no sign of medical help.

One more sight on the way to north Tehran: Standing
by the side of the road was a man in a long brown sack
cloth-like robe, held closed with a chorded rope.
His disheveled white beard came down to his waist. He
held a tall, worn walking stick. The passenger I was
with said he was a "darvash"—a Sufi dervish.

"I saw a rend seated on the frosty ground
with neither atheism nor Islam, and neither the world
nor religion.
Neither truth of God nor reality and neither Sharia
nor certainty.
Who in these two worlds would have the courage for
" -Omar Kayyam

Be salamat,


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