The Persian banknote

If you catch a taxi in Tehran, and before you sit down in it, you ask the obligatory question: chand mishe, how much it will cost, there is a good chance that the driver will say nothing, instead showing the banknote whose value he wants to receive at the end of the ride. Indeed, speaking, as we know from The Little Prince, is a source of misunderstanding, especially in Tehran. Because if he said an amount, he would say it in toman, which is one zero less than the amount printed on the banknote in rial. Thus, in the discussion following the ride, both parties would feel cheated: the tourist, because the driver requests ten times the amount agreed in the beginning, and the driver, because the tourist wants to give only one tenth of the amount agreed.

The toman as a currency was introduced in Iran by the Ilkhans, the descendants of Genghis Khan, the Mongol rulers of Persia. This is indicated by the Mongol origin of its name, which means “ten thousand”. So many soldiers constituted one basic unit of the army of the Mongol and Turkic peoples, and so many dinars made up one golden toman, the royal thaler of the Ilkhans. The silver currency of exchange between the two was the rial, of which eight made one toman until 1825. In that year the Qajar rulers introduced the qiran as a silver currency of exchange instead of the rial. The name of the latter thus was available, and it was later used by Shah Reza Pahlavi, when in 1932, with the introduction of the decimal system, he also reformed the monetary system, choosing the name rial for its basic unit.

The 500-rial banknotes of the two Pahlavi shahs, father and son, from an antique shop in the bazaar of Isfahan

Collective memory, however, is more conservative than we think, and it has retained the idea that the rial is actually a money of exchange needing a superior unit. Therefore, the Persians still count in tomans, in this officially non-existent financial unit, which is ten times the value of the rial, thus they call, for example, a one-hundred-thousand-rial bill, ten-thousand tomans.

To make counting even more complicated, after 1979, the Islamic revolution, huge inflation swept over the country, primarily due to the billions of dollars of capital rescued from Iran. Prices jumped many thousands-fold, several zeros appeared on the banknotes, and they have not yet disappeared even today. However, the common language cuts the zeros off the end of the amounts expressed in tomans. Therefore, if something in the bazaar costs, say, ten tomans (for example, a half pound of nice pistachios), it means ten thousand “real” tomans, and they expect a one-hundred-thousand-rial bill in return. The toman amounts free of excess zeros are sometimes called khomeinis (that is, the above bag of pistachios would be ten khomeinis), but this is not widespread.

And if it were not already complicated enough, they also make all the banknotes more or less identical. They appear in various pale colors, each has to the right the portrait of Imam Khomeini, and above in the middle a number with lots of zeros. Let us look at the seven little differences. The examples were stylishly photographed on the bed covers of my various hotels in Iran.

The banknotes of five thousand and fifty thousand rials (five hundred and five thousand tomans) are both orange in color. Check the reverse. The smaller has a medieval Persian ceramic pot, this is about twelve and a half eurocents, that is, a big bottle of mineral water. The bigger, which is 1.25 euro, shows a blank map of Iran, and, accordingly, this is what a taxi ride generally costs from anywhere to anywhere (also because for the taxi driver it is the easiest to simply show five fingers).

The banknotes of ten thousand and one hundred thousand rials (one thousand and ten thousand tomans) come in shades of green. The smaller has Mountain Damavand on its reverse, this is twenty-five eurocents, and it is worth two cups of tea in a teahouse, or a round-trip ticket on the subway. The bigger has the English translation of a beautiful poem by Saʿadi and the tomb of Saʿadi in Shiraz, and, accordingly, you can buy for it a nice CD of Persian classical music, or an entrance ticket to one of the much-hyped monuments.

The twenty-thousand rials (two thousand tomans) bill is the most reliable, because it has no big brother. Its color is blue, and its back shows the main square of Isfahan, with the two masterpieces built by Shah Abbas the Great, the Imam Mosque and the Ali Qapu Palace. The value is 50 eurocents, that is, a big cup of yogurt, or the recommended donation in a mosque or to a beggar.

In 2008 it was suggested that four zeros should be cut off the rial bills, to make them manageable amounts. According to Persian custom, however, the result was a further complicaton of the system. The reform has not taken place, but they issued two so-called “traveler’s checks” in the value of 500 thousand and 1 million rials (50 thousand and 100 thousand tomans), which are practically used as banknotes. The number printed on these is, however, simply 50 and 100, so you can only guess how they are called, because as a toman, they should have three zeros, as a rial, four. On your entry to Iran, you first encounter these unnamed banknotes, because at the first money exchange they place these in your hand.

The banknote of fifty ???-s (five hundred thousand rials, fifty thousand tomans) is 12.5 euro, the price of a good dinner for one person in a good place. This comes in two versions, I have just seen the new one for the first time.

The bill of hundred ???-s (one million rials, one hundred tomans) is worth 25 euro. This is such a big amount, that I cannot remember anything that you can buy for it.

Sometimes, as the fortune money found on the earth, you get some coins as well, for example when they give back from a banknote in a grocery store. They come in one and two thousand rials value (one hundred and two hundred tomans), with several different reverse designs. I usually put them aside as fortune coins, if only not to weight down my pocket. Just this morning, as I set out for the preparation of our next year’s tour in Kurdistan, I got a brand new shining two thousand rials coin, with a hitherto unknown design on the back. I consider to be encouragement.

4 comentarios:

catherine darley dijo...

Yes, it's the most difficult part of a travel in Iran : understanding how much you have to pay…
I have an awful memory about a small incident implying a tip (it happened during one of my very first days there) — I still feel ashamed about it.
I had my rials in hand and asked the Iranian friend who was with me how much I was supposed to give to a man who had been our guide for two hours. She told me a strangely low figure (I tried to convert in euros and it was really nothing), so I insisted and repeated the sum and, yes, she said, that's it. Neither the words "rial" nor "toman" were pronounced and I didn't know yet of the difference.
Then I took the banknote from my purse and I noticed her stare — but of course, t'aarof, Persian rule of civility, forbids to oppose one's host and she said nothing, she took it and went to the guide.
A few minutes later she was back with a strange smile (and the banknote) and told me that he had refused it firmly. She even venture to tell me that he was angry (I suppose he was deeply humiliated). So we left, my face burning with shame. I understood the t'aarof part of it (I had certainly made a mistake but she wouldn't tell me anything) but I couldn't see where stood the problem (the lady spoke fluent French so the misunderstanding wasn't linked to language). I think I needed one more week at least (and some other minor incidents) to acquire a full understanding of Iranian currency (if not a full mastering of it).

Studiolum dijo...

A sad story. And yes, this often happens until one learns the difference between toman and rial, and the occasions when the one or the other is meant. And also after that.

Giacomo dijo...

Doesn't knocking four zeroes off the travelers' checks make them denominated in bazaar units of account or khomeinis?

Studiolum dijo...

It seems not. People continues to add hezâr, ʻthousand’ to the numbers of 50 or 100. So, instead of pushing the former use of “thousand tomans” towards bazaar units or khomeinis, they are mentally provided with invisible zeros.