In the mid-1970s, a group of Iranian Maoists got the chance to meet their hero. As China’s communist leader Mao Tse-tung greeted his guests at a Beijing banquet, he gave them a piece of advice: Don’t try to copy what we have done in China. The armed struggle led by the peasantry might not suit the Iran of the 1970s as it did the China of the 1940s. You must find your own way.
The young Iranian revolutionaries didn’t take heed, and insisted on a disastrous copy of the Chinese strategy. Years later, when asked about their refusal to follow Mao’s advice, one of them said: “We thought he was saying it as taarof and didn’t mean it literally!”
Taarof is an an elaborate, unwritten code of politeness that requires the speaker to, among other things, downplay his or her achievements. The code includes many other ways of saying something you don’t literally mean — and in turn assuming that an offer that has been made to you is not genuine.
Taarof’s most succinct definition might be the one offered by the British journalist Christopher de Bellaigue: “[it] is the opposite of calling a spade a spade”.
Imagine a group of friends going for dinner at a restaurant. It is customary in many societies for people to fight over paying the bill. Many might offer without literally meaning to do so, knowing that the offer won’t be accepted. So far, so good. But the Iranian practice goes far beyond this.
When the friends sit down, they’ll offer each other the better seat. When the food arrives, they’ll ask others if they want to have some (even if their true attitude to sharing food is actually close to that of Joey Tribbiani). After the haggling is done and the bill is somehow paid by someone, the friend who owns a car will offer to give a ride to the others, even if they live miles away. It doesn’t help that one of the most common expressions of taarof is “I don’t mean this as taarof, I really mean it”. Years after a friend gave you a ride that took an hour in Tehran’s infamous traffic, you might never know if she really meant it when she offered for the sixth time (contrary to some claims, there is no set code of a maximum of three times for an offer, as the most zealot Taarof practitioners might go way beyond that).
This alluring Persian custom has, by now, become known around the world. All Iran travel guides dedicate a page or two to explaining it. International media outlets run stories about it. During the nuclear negotiations between Iran and a group of six powerful countries, many asked if this old Persian practice would not fundamentally complicate the talks. Do Iranian diplomats really mean it when they offer something?
An extraordinarily difficult concept?
There are dozens of academic articles dedicated to taarof: Linguists see it as a style, unique to Persian; legal scholars have studied it as a custom that complicates verbal contracts; literature scholars have defined it as a tool skilfully used by Persian novelists; and sociologists have seen it as nothing less than a fundamental marker of identity for Iranians in the diaspora.
It might seem laughable to ordinary Iranians that what they practice without so much as an afterthought is the subject of so much intense interest. The linguist William O. Beeman, for example, dedicates many pages of his classic book Language, Status and Power in Iran to taarof, which he introduces as an “extraordinary difficult concept encompassing a broad complex of behaviors”.
When I talk to a young Tehrani called Niloofar about this via the messaging app Telegram, she sends tons of giggling emoticons: “Really? An extraordinary difficult concept?”
Niloofar, who is yet to travel abroad, thinks the outsider perspective on taarof might actually exaggerate its significance.
“I think you often actually know whether an offer is genuine or not but, depending on who you are talking to, you use words that might say something else,” she says. “When you get in a taxi and the driver pretends he doesn’t want to get paid, of course you know he doesn’t mean it.”
Much of taarof happens inside the language by utterance of phrases that are not to be taken literally. All languages have similar phrases but their abundance in Persian is part of what makes learning the language so amusing.
Shooshan, an Armenian student who had been learning Persian in Iran, recalled taarof as being “the most delicious and beautiful part” of the language.
Your average Iranian will probably tell someone that he wants to “sacrifice [his] life” for them every day of the week. When you go to someone’s house, they ask you to “walk on their eyes” while also reassuring the guests that the house “belongs to you”.
This is part of the broader indirectness of Persian language that has dogged many translators of Western scientific texts. It took many years for modern Persian to develop capacities for a direct, dry scientific language, as for centuries it had been mostly used for dream-like poetry. An aura of ambiguity, however, continues to be a fundamental characteristic of the language.
Playing your Cards Right
But isn’t taarof basically a form of deception and lying, an unpleasant tradition that we should shed?
People on both extremes of Iran’s cultural war have argued this. Some who think Iran should imitate Western directness have called for the abolition of taarof. There are also partisans of Islamism who denounce taarof as “irritating and sinful”.
Muslim proponents of taarof, however, sometimes point to a Koranic verse (Ahzab, 53) that asks believers to not bother the Prophet Mohammad by showing up at his house since he keeps serving them food out of politeness. The prophet, it seems, was quite a man of taarof himself.
Many foreigners also take to it.
“I heard of taarof in my Bachelor’s class,” Lara, a German student of Iranian Studies in Berlin, told IranWire. “And when I saw it in Iran, I thought it a sweet, beautiful thing.”
Verena Walther, who grew up in Wiesbaden, Germany, has always had many Iranian friends. She was around 17 when a friend’s mother told her about taarof.
“It explained so much about what my friends had told me all these years,” Verena said. “Now I know why my friends had always asked me if I want to try their food before we even ordered”.
Verena, who has a degree in Islamic Studies with a focus on Iran, talks of the usefulness of taarof . “It has actually given me an extra tool of communication with Iranians, especially strangers. Taarof expressions are like aces in a card game. You shouldn’t play your best cards too early lest the other person trumps you with an ever more polite expression.” She says that, “in a time of overt individualism and detachment from traditions,” it’s amazing that her German friends of Iranian descent have kept their taarof expressions.
Taarof and the Talks
But what of the claim that taarof might have complicated the nuclear negotiations?
“Cultural intricacies sure color the negotiating style of all diplomats,” one European negotiator who attended the talks told IranWire in a phone interview. “And the Iranians are no exception. But it would be too naive to over-determine their influence.”
He also spoke of the differences between Saeed Jalili, the chief negotiator under former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Mohammad Javad Zarif. “Unlike Jalili, who spoke in Persian and said a lot of irrelevant mumbo jumbo about early Islamic history, Zarif was extremely business-like and spoke the language of textbook diplomacy. Still, he’d often remind us of his ‘Iranian style of generosity’ and other concepts, trying to woo us.”
Public Radio International’s report on taarof and the talks made waves in Iran. When two TV broadcasters interviewed President Rouhani, hardliners accused them of not challenging him enough, and accused them of practicing taarof. One blogger appealed to negotiators to “drop all taarof.” A short film criticizing the negotiating team was entitled A Bunch of Taarof, and an anti-deal politician claimed that the EU’s invitation to Iran to the talks was “a political taarof” — sending translators working on the story into a frenzy. Iran’s political humorists also loved the idea that Zarif might have offered to reduce the use of enriched uranium as a mere gesture of taarof that the foreigners then rudely took at face value. These taarof jokes have a long history. When Khamenei was offered the position of supreme leader, despite being much less prominent than other candidates, did he rudely accept an offer that was actually meant as taarof?
As happens so often in Iran, ambiguity is used to point to something clear and profound.
I hope you like this commentary on taarof. It’s so worthless for such an esteemed reader like you, but I'm glad you read it.