A form of etiquette when yes means no

A form of etiquette when yes means no
This is the hidden Iran that lingers in memory and, hopefully, even as the republic rouses from its days of isolation, its great beauty will never fade.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

In every social interaction, from buying groceries to negotiating a nuclear deal, this highly valued behaviour dictates how people should treat each other.

"Befarmaeed," said Fatimeh with an imperative hand gesture that commanded me to eat more.

As I joined my impeccable Iranian hostess, her mother, two daughters and son for dinner, served on the floor over a perfectly imperfect Persian carpet, I felt ready to put my basic taarof skills into practice for the first time.

I desperately wanted some more of the mouth-watering sabzi polo mahi (a herbed rice dish served with fish) but, before saying yes, I knew I had to convincingly say a few noes.

I had never heard of taarof until I travelled in Iran.

This Persian word with Arabic roots defines the country's complex art of etiquette, in which the true meaning of what is said is not in the words, but somewhere beyond them.

It's a subtle dance of communication, where participants step back and forth over and over, never taking over the stage.

In the world of taarof, politeness holds the place of honour. In its name, people refuse when they want to accept, say what is not meant, express what is not felt, invite when it is not intended, replace bad news with false hope.

By doing so, they try to say what they "wished it were" - without ever admitting that it isn't.

Once I paid a Tehran taxi driver 250,000 rials for the ride, a fare we had previously agreed on after a hard-fought negotiation. Oddly, the money was refused.

"Ghabel nadare," he said smiling, indicating that he wouldn't accept it. Scratching my head, I insisted.

Again he protested. Giving up, I thanked him in Farsi and left the vehicle with a grin on my face. "All is well," I thought, incredulously.

"He was taarofing," my friend Reza later explained.

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