The Persians, as we have just seen, display generosity and altruism to the stranger, and they usually take it seriously. When they do not think so seriously about it, there begins taʿârof, the ceremony of courtesy, which is just like the pseudo-vault of Isfahan’s Ali Qapu Shah’s Palace composed of empty terracotta elements in the illustrations of this post: even if it does not serve the purpose for which it was apparently created, it nevertheless makes bare reality beautiful, colorful and rich.
Taʿârof is when a stranger on the long distance bus invites you to his place for dinner, or when the taxi driver says that the ride was free, although none of them takes it seriously. If the beginner falls into the trap and accepts the offer, the story may have different consequences. It is possible that the person will politely serve you the dinner, and even offer you a bed, and you realize only much later, when you are more experienced that he really did not intend to do so. But it is also possible that he will immediately let you know your mistake. The first time I sat in a taxi in Tehran, I chatted in Persian with the driver, and when at the end I asked him how much it cost, he said, nothing at all. “What?” I asked in astonishment, and he realized: even if I speak Persian, I do not know the custom of courtesy, and he must quickly react, before I disappear without payment. “Oh, I was just playing taʿârof”, he said with a laugh.
If you want to know whether the particular offer was genuine or only taʿârof, it is best to reject it, which is also part of the taʿârof. If the person is serious about it, he will insist anyway until it is accepted. You can also ask whether he offered it bâ taʿârof yâ bedun-e taʿârof, out of courtesy or without it. On the internet you can find some educational films about the steps of taʿârof, like this piece of Learn Persian with Chai and Conversation, where the American boy learns at his own expense how to behave at the door, paying in a restaurant, or when he is offered food in a party.
Often it is clear that the offering is only taʿârof, but even so a person of culture observes the steps of courtesy that make life beautiful. The most common case is when a shopkeeper or a taxi driver rejects the payment, but you do not accept this, and insist on paying. This produces the following typical dialogue:
• Gheymat-e savâri chand e? how much was the ride?
• Ghabele nadâre, it does not cost anything.
• Kheili mamnunam, thank you very much. (After a breath of pause.) Befarmâyid, gheymat-râ beguyid, come on, tell me, how much it costs.
• Ghabele nadâre. Dah toman, it does not cost anything. Ten tomans.
Do not be surprised, when the amount eventually uttered is higher than what you expected. In this case, the scenario often switches to another type of dialogue, the haggling. I, however, if the amount is not too naughty, never start down this road. Partly to save time, partly because it is still ridiculously cheap, but not least to preserve that gentlemanlikeness which is the ultimate goal of taʿârof.
The taʿârof is an age-old attribute and game of Persian culture. Interestingly, its earliest recorded example does not come from this culture, but from their neighbors, the Hittites, a people distantly related to the Iranians:
• Abraham rose and spoke to the Hittites. “I am a foreigner and stranger among you. Sell me some property for a burial site here so I can bury my dead.”
• The Hittites replied to Abraham, “Sir, listen to us. You are a mighty prince among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our tombs. None of us will refuse you his tomb for burying your dead.”
• Then Abraham rose and bowed down before the people of the land, the Hittites. He said to them, “If you are willing to let me bury my dead, then listen to me and intercede with Ephron son of Zohar on my behalf, so he will sell me the cave of Machpelah, which belongs to him and is at the end of his field. Ask him to sell it to me for the full price as a burial site among you.”
• Ephron the Hittite was sitting among his people and he replied to Abraham: “No, my lord,” he said. “Listen to me; I give you the field, and I give you the cave that is in it. I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.”
• Again Abraham bowed down before the people of the land and he said to Ephron, “Listen to me, if you will. I will pay the price of the field. Accept it from me so I can bury my dead there.”
• Ephron answered Abraham, “Listen to me, my lord. A piece of land worth four hundred shekels, what is that between you and me? Bury your dead.”
• Abraham listened to Ephron, and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the measure current among the merchants.
The three-thousand-year-old dialogue follows the same steps as the one yesterday in Tehran. The Hittites of Canaan insist to give away the cave, but Abraham is willing to accept it only for money. And in the end, the Hittite Ephron seems to come off just as well as the taxi driver of Tehran: he made a sale at a good price of not only the cave, but also the plot, which he tied up with it, and which Abraham originally did not request.
In the long run, however, Abraham came off the best, for he accepted the tie-up, and did not embark on the haggling left open at the end of the taʿârof. On the one hand, he preserved his image as a gentleman for the Bible readers of many thousand years to come. And on the other hand, this is how he gained his first legal property in the future land of Israel.