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Discovering Iran

As we travel through Iran, I find myself recognizing quirks I'd thought were unique to my in-laws. Their preference for using tissues instead of napkins at the dinner table. (Turns out every restaurant in Iran sets out boxes of them.) Their habit of sheathing leftovers in plastic wrap pulled tighter than a drum. And, especially, the curious etiquette of ta'arof.

To understand Iranians, it is essential to comprehend ta'arof, which mandates self-effacement in social interactions. Stepping aside at a doorway to let your companion through first is ta'arof. Declining an offer of tea is ta'arof, even if the host, per custom, repeats the offer three times. (A fourth try means the offer is probably genuine, and it's okay to accept.) In Iran, even taxi drivers and shopkeepers practice ta'arof, to the bewilderment of foreign visitors. At a newsstand I try to buy some gum. "Paying is not worthy of you," the cashier says, pushing my money away. "But I insist," I say. "Please, agha, no charge," he replies. This goes on for a full minute—there are customers waiting—before he takes any money. Sometimes ta'arof reaches absurd heights, as when, after dinner at a restaurant in Tehran, our waiter presents the bill. My father-in-law reaches for his wallet, whereupon the waiter launches into florid protest: "Your money is too good for me!...On my eyes, I am your humble servant!"

Manners are everything in Iran. Attending a dinner party, you can't show up with just a dainty box of pastries; you have to bring a whole kilo of pastries—even if the dinner is for only four people. Anything else would look cheap. At restaurants, if you ask for lemon for your tea, the waiter won't dish out a few slices; he'll bring an entire bushel. Visit someone's apartment at four in the afternoon and you'll be greeted by a massive Dutch still life of fruit, nuts, and candies—and you'd damn well better eat some. Back in Tehran, Leila and I stagger among countless parties, dinners, and "casual" family get-togethers. (Never trust an Iranian who promises a "casual" get-together; you'll still be fêted like a king.) By our second week, we have consumed more tea, baklava, kebabs, and rice than seems sensible, and been offered five times that.

To the disappointment of many visitors, much of Iranian life lies hidden behind closed doors. The reasons for this are partly pragmatic—the regime has essentially forced socializing into the home—but also cultural. For all their effusiveness, Iranians are a very private people. This was true long before Khomeini. There's a phrase in Farsi that describes this schism between public and private life: posht-e pardeh, or "behind the curtain."

Step inside one of north Tehran's concrete housing towers, ride the elevator up 12 floors, and open an apartment door: behind the curtain lies a whole other Iran. Guests are welcomed by the aroma of freshly cut flowers, heaping bowls of pomegranates, whiskey and vodka smuggled in from Turkey, and black-market caviar just a day out of the Caspian. A flurry of cheek kissing begins. The women remove their scarves and overcoats to unveil low-cut blouses, high-cut skirts, and impeccably coiffed hairdos. Soon the apartment fills with swirling Persian dance rhythms. The sofas are pushed aside and guests take to the parlor floor and sway to the sultry music—yes, arms raised, fingertips stirring the air, just as it was at our wedding, just as all Iranians did back when dancing was allowed.

As the music grows louder, I'm pulled onto the floor, and suddenly it dawns on me: I am in Iran. This is where my wife grew up. This is where our children will someday visit their grandparents. And from this spot, as I dance across the candlelit parlor, Iran feels strangely like home.

For all the undeniable challenges, many returned émigrés have carved out an agreeable life in Iran, albeit largely posht-e pardeh. Being surrounded by Farsi-speaking friends and family helps: the majority enjoy far richer social lives here than they had in Europe or America. At one party I meet Mehrdad, a Tehran native who grew up in Wisconsin. Six years ago he returned to Tehran, where he now has a consulting business, a broad circle of friends, and an apartment with a roof deck and a Weber grill. Mehrdad is especially excited because he has just hooked up an illegal satellite-radio dish. So he can get news from Voice of America?No, Mehrdad wants to tune in to A Prairie Home Companion live from St. Paul. "Man, I love Garrison Keillor," he says. "There are two things I miss about America—Lake Wobegon stories and Brewers games." A sports fanatic, Mehrdad plays shortstop for a pickup hardball club in Tehran, mostly made up of fellow returnees. Official name: The Imam Khomeini Memorial Baseball Team.

Mehrdad seems remarkably happy in Tehran and has no regrets about moving back home. "Of course, it can be stressful and frustrating," he admits. "But at the end of the day you can still come home to NPR, a bottle of Maker's Mark, and a barbecue with your friends. Little victories, but you do what you can, you know?" A baseball league, top-shelf whiskey, a pirated DVD of Ocean's Twelve, mascaraed girls in miniskirts, Everybody Loves Raymond via satellite from Dubai...those "little victories" can make a half-life somehow feel whole.

But what of the real things?What of President Khatami's reform efforts, the student protests, the upcoming election?I gently press for answers, yet most Tehranis I talk to—especially the young—are curiously disengaged from politics. Those who do speak openly express disenchantment with the stalled reform movement and hold a cynical view of Khatami. They voted for reform in 1997 and 2001, and will likely do so again this year, but they no longer believe much will come of it. Instead, many have turned inward. Everyone I meet is on a self-improvement kick. One architect is reading Jung and embarking on night journeys; a banker friend is learning Reiki. A female lawyer studies feng shui, and her sister takes courses in homeopathy. Yoga and meditation classes are all the rage. The logic is clear: If you can't change your reality, at least you can change your outlook.

During our visit, the state-sponsored papers are full of articles about the government's latest campaign against blasphemy. The crackdown has led to the detainment of several Iranian journalists accused of "disturbing the public mind and insulting sanctities." The arrests are acknowledged and even celebrated in the official media. Meanwhile, dozens of domestic Web sites are being shut down, and more overseas sites have been blocked. (Try to log on to the New York Times home page from Iran and you'll get nothing but a message in Farsi saying STOP!) Still, the regime's efforts are tantamount to sweeping a beach. After 25 years, many Iranians have learned to negotiate the vast gray zone between "unauthorized" and "unlawful."

Consider the scene at Jaam-e-Jam. I've been curious to see how the younger half lives, so one night we accompany Leila's cousin Reza—and his new leather jacket—to his favorite haunt, the Jaam-e-Jam mall. Upstairs is a food court proffering pizza and burritos. This, it turns out, is north Tehran's hottest nightspot, drawing huge crowds of 13- to 30-year-olds to socialize in one of the few public spaces available to them.

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