There have always been some aspects of Iranian culture that stood out to me and struck me as colorful and bânamak (funny, cute). And my time in Tehran has simply added more to that list of things. These are some of the wonderful quirks and mannerisms that I find most amusing but that are just, well, part of Iranian culture.
They ask what year you were born in
Iranians will never ask you how old you are. Instead, they ask motevaled chand hasti? (What year you were born?) Likewise, they won’t reveal their age, but rather the year they were born: Man shast-o hasti-am (I’m a ’68-er). (The year being 1368, which corresponds to 1989.) And on the chance that the person does actually say their age, the other will automatically say the year:
“Oh so you’re a 68-er!” (They may even continue: “So you are about the same age as my sister. She’s a 67-er.”) It’s hardly a wonder that Iranians are so damn good at math. Years of practice adding and subtracting ages and years. I think the logic is that it sounds better to say the year than the actual age.
Ketchup is the condiment of choice for pizza and spaghetti
A sincere apology to Italians for butchering your cuisine with ketchup. When Anthony Bourdain was around to shoot “Parts Unknown”, he was surprised that Iranians top their pizza with ketchup, but luckily, he didn’t seem too put off by it. And while we’re at it, Iranians make spaghetti (mâcâroni in Persian) as they do rice- by steaming it after cooking. But beforehand, they lay down slices of potato to make potato tadig. I actually think potato tadig is one area where we may have actually made a contribution to the dish.
They order soft drinks by color
Sefid? Zard? Meshki/Siyâh? (White? Yellow? Black?) Iranians order soft drinks by color. Sefid (white) is of the Sprite variety, zard (yellow) is something like Fanta, and meshki or siyâh (black) is of the Coke/Pepsi variety.
They measure things in vajab
Don’t have a tape measure handy? No worries because you can just measure Iranian style: with a vajab. Take your hand and spread it out. The distance between your thumb and pinky is one vajab. Now, place your pinky on the end of the thing you want to measure, with your thumb landing wherever it does. Then bring pinky to thumb (that’s one vajab) and move your thumb over to get the second vajab. If at any point the distance doesn’t measure an entire vajab, see how many fingers it is. Like 3 vajab and 2 fingers. What can I say? Iranians are very resourceful.
Those of you with Iranian friends know this one (although I don’t think it’s exclusive to Iranians). Iranians don’t snap. They beshkan, the command form of the verb shekastan (to break). Why would you just rub your thumb and middle finger together when that’s neither fun nor flashy. Even George Clooney’s down with it!
The way they count money is mind-boggling
There’s no better way to explain how Iranians count money than with an illustration. I’ve tried many-a-time to count money this way, but it’s impossible. I don’t know how they do it so fast. In fact, it stands out to me so much that I brought it up in class one day. My students told me they had never noticed before and then proceeded to try to teach me how to do it. The day I learn to count money this way is the day I know I’ve been in Iran far too long.
Everything happens either on odd days or even days
At my old job in the US, we once contracted someone to come in and help us with a project. He just happened to be Iranian. When my supervisor asked him for his availability, he responded that he was available only on even days and Fridays because he had another commitment on odd days. My supervisor called me in. “Pontia, do you know what he means by ‘odd days and even days’?” I did not. As I walked back to my office, the only logical explanation hit me- days of the week in Persian have numbers. I had never heard Iranians say the days this way in the US, but in Iran, everything is done either on ruzhâye zowj (even days- Saturday, Monday, Wednesday) or ruzhâye fard (odd days- Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday). Any class you want to register for, any opening, any availability- odd days and even days.
The car honks have meaning
You may speak Persian, but are you fluent in the language of Iranian car honks? Because it’s language in its own right. Take notice next time. Each honk carries a different meaning. A honk:
- when you need to get someone’s attention: excuse me!
- when you see someone you know: Salaam!
- when you drive away from someone you know: Bye!
- when you ask someone for directions: Thank you!
- when someone thanks you with a honk: You’re welcome!
- when the car behind you honks when the traffic light is about to turn green: get ready
- the car behind you honks because you waited an entire second before driving after the light turned green: Go, you jerk!
- as a car passes another car (and gives the driver an evil glare): You fool! I can’t believe they gave you a license.
- as a car tailgates and flashes its lights: Get the hell out of the way!
- as a pedestrian is about to cross the street: I’m not stopping, so you better.
- when another car is pulling into their lane: Just making sure you see me.
- a honk from a taxi or another car when you are walking or waiting on the side of the street: Do you need a lift?
Once I heard a car honk, and the guy on the street waved and spat out Salaam az mâs! (Hello from me!) like a knee-jerk reaction. Clearly, he was an expert in this language.
They throw water behind travelers
When someone is traveling, Iranians prepare a tray on which there are a Koran and a clear glass of water. Someone holds up the Koran and the traveler kisses it or touches it to their eyes three times and then passes under it. It’s a sort of protection for safe travels. As they walk out the door, the other person throws the water from the glass behind them. Water needs to be flowing for it to be pure and clean. It becomes putrid if it remains stagnant. Therefore, throwing the water behind the person is symbolic of flowing water, that this person may go safely on their travels, achieve everything they desire and return safely (and soon).
They add cucumbers to the fruit bowl
Fruit is the ultimate go-to snack in Iran and always offered to guests. I remember as a kid, it was practically a ritual to have a huge bowl of fruit as a mid-morning snack. And sticking out from between the peaches, grapes, and cherries were none other than… cucumbers. Which is why there’s always a salt shaker next to the bowl. But technically, cucumbers are a fruit, so I guess it’s not that crazy after all.
Parents call their children ‘mom’ and ‘dad’
It’s normal for children to call their parents “mom” and “dad,” but in Iran, parents also call their kids “mom” and “dad.” My mom always called me maman jân, and my dad calls me baba jân. When I call, I say, “Hey baba,” to which my dad replies, “Hey baba jân.” But it doesn’t stop there. My amoo (paternal uncle) calls me amoo, and my khâleh (maternal aunt) calls me khâleh, and so forth and so on we go.
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