Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Who's the Most Hospitable of Them All?

Iranians are known for their hospitality. If you've ever been invited to an Iranian's house, I'm sure you know that a normal dinner for a normal size group can yield enough food to feed a small army for the next two weeks. Because God forbid you make just enough (not enough is out of the question)- aberut mireh, you lose face, (the concept of face is HUGE. If you know nothing else about Iranian culture, know these two- taarof and aberu. They will get you far). Anytime I visit home, my mom has made enough food for the month. Not only that, she starts taking requests and preparing menus at least 10 days in advance of my arrival. When I remind her that I'm only staying 5 days, I hear "Na maman jan, you have to eat. Whatever you don't eat, I will put in a tupperware for you, and you can take it." 

But hospitality goes beyond making food portions like you were a doomsday prepper. Not only do you lay out a feast, but the best goes to your guest. For Iranians, a guest is a gift from God, and even if you don't have much, you give the best of what you do have to your guest. My aunt once gave me a tip about food (what else?)- that if I'm ever craving kabob, but can't get to any, just make rice, put a slab of butter in it, and top it off with sumac and roasted tomatoes, and it will feel as though I'm having chelo kabob. Where did she come up with this? Well, when she was young, her mother had gotten kabobs for lunch, and my aunt was dancing with excitement. Then, in typical Iranian fashion, someone came to their house sar zadeh, unannounced/by surprise. But for Iranians, ghadam ru cheshmyour step on my eye! This means that we look forward to and/or are happy about your arrival, and you are such an honored guest that you may step on my eye as you make your entrance! My aunt's mom said that they had just ordered lunch and welcomed the guest to eat with them. Long story short, the best- the kabobs- went to the guest, and all my aunt got was a plate of rice and butter and a bad taste in her mouth. 

Maybe that's not a good example. Let's start again.

Spending the summer months in Iran growing up was so that not only would we learn about and understand our heritage more, but also so that we would snap out of our self-centered American identities and get a reality check. On one such trip, my dad took my siblings and I to a small village where he spent some time during his military service. His reason for taking us there was two-fold: First, it was sort of a reunion for him and a family he knew in those days, and he wanted us to meet. Second (and more importantly), it was a lesson in humility and appreciation. Not everyone has a comfy middle-class life in the cozy U.S., no, no! Some people don't have the everyday basics that we take for granted, say a refrigerator. The family laid out breakfast- a plate of ghee with sugar on top, bread for dipping and tea. Much like Kate Capshaw in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, I looked at this sofreh thinking this is what's for breakfast? Can I get some pancakes and eggs instead? (Don't judge- let's keep in mind that I was but a wee little tot, unlike Kate Capshaw). My dad, mortified at my behavior (much like Indiana Jones), told me to eat it! So I did. Later, he broke it down for me (my siblings were older and so much the wiser)- if I hadn't already noticed, the family didn't have much, but this was the best they had to offer, and they were giving it to us, their guests. What's the lesson to be learned? The guest is supreme king, and Iranian pride is a beast. Why else do you think Iran and the U.S. can't seem to find a way to talk to each other? Pride and arrogance do not mix.

One day, many (many) years later, we were coming back from my uncle's house, when my family and I came across a shepherd and his flock on a tiny strip of green in the middle of an otherwise vastly dry dirt area. There was a goat that was particularly striking, so we pulled over so I could get a shot. 

As I was taking the photos, the shepherd came closer and struck up a conversation with my dad. After a few minutes of conversing about the shepherd, his sheep, where they live, where we live, what we were doing there, etc, the shepherd invited us to his house for lunch. "Befarmaeed, please come, to our house for lunch. We would be happy to have you. I don't live too far from here, and my wife can make us something to eat." 

This was a taarof, albeit a sincere one. We really couldn't join him, so we politely declined, but the offer was pretty typical of Iranians. Meet a stranger (especially a traveler), invite them to your house to eat. No problem. And while I don't want to assume, I can imagine that this man probably didn't have much for himself or his family, yet he was inviting us. Had we accepted the invitation, I'm sure he and his wife would have been the most gracious of hosts. Iranians are very generous and hospitable like that. It's no wonder that the entire foundation of our culture is built upon the pillars of taarof- everything for your guest, always put the other person on top, NEVER lose your aberu

My dad still keeps in touch with the family he knew from before. As for the shepherd, I don't know. All I can say is that I hope his sheep have found greener pastures, and khoda negahdaresh, may God protect him.



  1. Beautiful! Thank you.

  2. Pontia, you explain things in a wonderful manner using stories. You're a great storyteller and teacher. Reading your blog is a joy.

    1. I don't know how to thank you. I literally have tears in my eyes. Thank you so much for reading and for your kind words. I greatly appreciate it.


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