The taxi ride through Tehran was short, but there was enough time to yield three surprises.
First, the driver who had stopped for me was female. I had just arrived in Iran, with an image of gender segregation and harshly enforced rules in my mind. It was not like that, at least not in the large cities I visited. Sure, Iran is no Sweden, but it ain’t no Saudi Arabia either.
Second, the driver kept taking on new passengers. Strangers had to sit on each other’s lap on the backseat, merrily mixing men and women. This was in broad daylight on a main avenue in the capital city.
Third, as we reached the intersection where I needed to get out and I asked how much it cost, the lady said: “Oh no, that’s okay! It was a privilege to drive you.”
I thanked her from the bottom of my heart, not so much for the saved expenses, but for sparing me the trouble to find the right bills, something which kept confusing me until my last day in Iran.
Later that evening, I met my Iranian friends. I say “friends”, but I hadn’t known them before I came to Iran. They sat next to me on the plane and were quizzing me about my travel plans. As it transpired that I had no plans to speak of (because of the international sanctions, you can’t make bank transfers or Paypal payments to Iran, hence I had booked no hotel), they invited me to stay at their house. They were very friendly and I have good instincts, so I said yes.
But back to that evening. I told them, a bit proud: “You won’t believe what happened today. I took a taxi and the lady was so nice, she didn’t ask for any money!”
My friends burst out in laughter, but only briefly, for when they saw my dumbfounded look, they quickly apologized for laughing.
“The driver was making taarof,” they said, preparing to make me acquainted with the most confusing concept in any human society. Seriously, taarof is even more confusing than romantic relationships.
“She was just being polite,” they explained.
“Yes, I also found her very polite,” I agreed.
“But, ehm,” my friends were struggling, as if about to break a state secret, “she didn’t mean it.”
“How do you know? You weren’t there.” I was offended.
“Because this is how taarof works. It’s a ritualized form of Persian politeness. You were supposed to make the offer to pay by yourself.”
“But I did,” I said proudly, thinking of myself as the ultimate connoisseur of all cultures.
“You need to insist.”
“But I wouldn’t have known how much it cost. That’s why I asked her.”
“You have to keep asking.” It was clear they felt sorry for the taxi driver and her financial loss.
I began to feel bad, too. “But what if she would have repeated that I don’t need to pay?”
“You need to offer money at least three times. And then, maybe you can begin to get a sense if it’s taarof or taarof nakon [apparently meaning no taarof]. But in a taxi or a restaurant, it’s always taarof. I mean, why should they give you something for free?”
Good point. But I still didn’t get it.
The next day, my friends wanted to show me and we took a taxi together. The driver was an elderly gentleman, who looked like the kind of person reading books in his car when he didn’t have passengers. Because they spoke Persian, the conversation was more complex this time, and they translated it for my benefit afterwards.
Friends: “Thank you, we get off here. How much is it?”
Driver: “Oh no, that’s okay. I had to go this direction anyway. It was no problem to take you.”
“You helped us a lot, we couldn’t have walked that far.”
“Don’t worry about it. With the car, it’s just a short drive, anyway.”
“But if we hadn’t been in the car, you could have taken other passengers, maybe going further.”
“Honest to God, I would not wish to have anyone else than you in my car. You have been a blessing for my day.”
“But maybe you want to buy a present for your sweet children?”
“Don’t you have children, too?”
There, the driver paused for a second, and one of my friends used the intermission to hand him a 100,000-rial note. That’s a bit more than two dollars.
I’ll make an intermission, too, and tell you the one thing you must avoid when going to Iran: Don’t refer to people as Arabs.
Because they are not! They are Persians. They speak Persian, not Arabic. The culture is Persian, not Arab. And if you don’t know the difference, just think of the (true) cliché of haggling in an Arab bazaar. Iran is the complete opposite. Taarof is reverse haggling, as you will see now, returning to our taxi cab.
The driver put the bill in his wallet and took out what I thought was the change, handing it back to my friend in the passenger seat.
Without looking at the bills, he pulled out one or two and handed the rest back to the driver.
The driver took one bill and handed the still substantial stack of money back to my friend.
This went back and forth a few more times, accompanied by the driver’s assurances that we had been the kindest people he ever met and my friend’s insistence that he buy some sweets for his children, who must surely be very adorable.
“I will tell my children about the beautiful people I have met today,” the driver finally said, with tears in his eyes, accepting something like a dollar.
I never took a taxi again in Tehran.
My friends kept explaining the rules of the game to me, and I kept failing. I ate fruits that street vendors handed me, I used internet cafés for free, I accepted invitations to tea and cake, and each time I should have politely refused. At least a few times.
Taarof applies in all sectors of society, even among friends. (When you are married, you can slowly give up the habit after about five years, but only when nobody else is watching.) When friends invite you to dinner, you are supposed to decline a few times to find out if it’s a serious invitation or just confusing politeness. You must not rush to accept a second serving, dessert or wine. And you don’t ask for directions to the bathroom, but you start by saying “You have a very beautiful house!” I really wonder how dating works in Iran.
As a German, trained in efficiency and directness, I am driven crazy by taarof. Far too late did I realize that people inviting a stranger on the plane into their house for a week might have been taarof, too. Persians find us Westerners a bit, ehm, unrefined.
Taarof also applies in serious situations. When people fall from the roof and break a leg, they call their doctor to ask how his children are doing. The doctor of course knows that this is taarof, so he asks what the problem is. “Oh, nothing really, I don’t want to bother you”, they will say, and this will go back and forth a few times until the bleeding patient will say: “You know, my foot is itching a bit and I was wondering if maybe, one day, when you have time, you could take a look at it?”
I saw a lot of people in Iran who had their legs amputated.
Come to think of it, maybe the one week I spent in Evin prison at the invitation of the Iranian Intelligence Service was taarof, too. I just should have declined a few more times.
- I was not joking about the amputations, sadly. The blue-yellow box next to the taxi (photographed in Shiraz) is a donation box for veterans of the 8-year war with Iraq. Similar to my donation box, if I may mention that in a way that Persians would definitely consider as unrefined as crude oil.
- But for that, you’ll get more stories from Iran.