My husband, seated on the edge of his chair watching a head-swiveling hockey game, was eating ice cream when he heard a knock. With a teaspoon of strawberry Breyer’s in his mouth, Ira swung open the front door. Unexpectedly, there stood my Iranian mother, wrapped in her black Persian lamb coat. She had taken a one hour train ride all the way from Queens to surprise us with a visit.
Glaring at ice creamed lips and a spoon clenched between his teeth, her face paled.
“I go…I go home,” she stammered, bitterly.
“No, no Mom,” I pleaded, reaching for her coat. “Please, come in. It’s so good to see you.”
“I no vhant. You no vhant me!”
Blinded by rage, her top lip curled and stiffly stayed that way. Within a split second she did an about face and at full throttle rushed into the elevator.
“What did I do?” Ira asked.
Language failed. Words weren’t sufficient; they couldn’t explain Iranian taarof. You have to come from this legacy to fully understand.
“Not your fault,” I answered, finger-shooting myself in the head. My stomach sickly sunk. Saying you opened the door savoring your own food, gratifying your own hunger wouldn’t explain her pain. Mom felt punched in the gut. All she could hear was “Get out. We don’t want you.” Caught between two cultures, I should have dashed for the door, slammed my back against it, and insisted Ira spit or swallow.
Even though I’m American, Mom’s humiliation, her beet-red face, became mine. It took two whole months before she’d answer my phone calls, and even then, in a bruised tone.
My thoughts drifted back to childhood as I recalled my own introduction to taarof.
It was a 1950s Saturday afternoon in Kew Gardens, Queens, when throngs of Iranians, busily kissing cheeks, streamed into our home. The living room split in half. Short bald men in dark suits sat huddled, sipping scalding chai through sugar cubes while their henna-haired wives lounged on couches at the other far end. Layers of Persian carpets in edible shades of salmon, peach, and cinnamon warmed the polished parquet floors.
Our record player frantically spun as songs of jilted star-crossed lovers, wailing in Farsi, streamed out of twin speakers. My eight-year-old ears stayed glued to the lyrics, imagining Mom and Pop’s distant homeland littered with broken hearts. A peep-hole into Iran.
Mom handed me two crystal bowls, one containing roasted chickpeas and the other packed with Persian pistachios. Shy, I stood before the first of fifteen women seated on our plastic-covered couches and offered both bowls. (My mother insisted I develop a thick hide. I didn’t know how.)
“No, tanks,” Mrs. Ghellioun said, as her gold bangles jingled, waving me away. Feeling like a sparrow of a person, I stood there useless, then slinked over to our next seated guest who looked like a Persian peacock with burgundy hair, draped in turquoise and butterscotch brocade.
Mom hawkishly watched, then swooped down between us. Her Chanel No.5 flooded the air.
“Estaire, she taarof veet you.”
With a sonic boom she broadcasted in Farsi: “Don’t taarof with Estaire. She was born and raised in Am-ree-kah and doesn’t understand Iranian taarof.”
Mom’s wily wink was my cue to start all over again. The knot in my stomach hardened. I returned to Mrs. Gellioun and stretched out my bowls as I studied her mannish eyebrows and whiskered chin. With dread, I wondered if I’d someday grow up looking just like her.
“No, tanks,” she coyly smiled, showcasing a solid gold front tooth—a buck tooth, I might add.
Mom’s eyebrow signaled insistence.
I stared at my doubled-over bobby socks and stuttered, “Kha-hesh mee-kon-nam,” urging her to take.
“Ghor-banat beram,” literally meaning, I would sacrifice myself for you. “Tank-you. I no vhant, da-ar-leeng,” she trilled.
Conjuring up Mom and her teachings, I gave it a third go.
Clenching two bowls, I croaked, “Kha-hesh mee-kon-nam.’’
Mrs. Ghellioun belted an arm around my waist, grabbed a fistful of chickpeas, tossed them onto her long tongue and chewed with an open mouth. Mom’s eyes widened, radiating approval. With relief, I learned I had the chops, my skin had thickened. I then scuttled from guest to guest, making sure I persisted, dismissing each and every “No, tanks.”
In the privacy of our citrus-scented kitchen filled with trays of cut cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple, strawberries, Mom coached in Farsi. “You must be Por-Rou (have gall). I’m giving you halvah, walnut cakes, rice cookies, and fresh fruit to pass. Just remember, in our tongue ‘No’ means ‘Yes.’ They are all taarofing.”
“But, Ma, if I’m in Mrs. Shimshone’s home and she offers me a cookie, can’t I take one? Do I have to taarof?”
Her explanation made no sense. Something about it being uncivilized to enter a home with an outstretched hand. She told me, food isn’t a footrace, you haven’t come to eat. You want to show you’re full, content, and have plenty back home. I’m taught to accept a cookie after three offers, and only then may I take. The taking must always be preceded by: “Dastonah-na-mee-khom kootah b’koneham” (I don’t want to shorten your hand). Which means since you’ve gone to such trouble to prepare this food, I must not insult you by declining.
“Mom, what if I say no thank you twice, and Mrs. Shimshone walks away? What if she doesn’t give me a third chance to say yes?”
She answered in Farsi. “Estaire, then you don’t get to eat the cookie. You’re a somebody, a well-fed somebody, from a well-stocked home. You’re no street urchin.”
During my teens, gold teeth, stubbled chins and taarof were all one and the same—bizarre. This over-curlicued back and forth, saying no when meaning yes, felt downright fraudulent. Don’t acknowledge thirst, hunger, or any other human need. Pretend, pretend you don’t have needs. Don’t be real. Lie.
I’m taught not to dart into a room but instead wait for others to enter first. Not to sit down—make sure others sit first. Never sit at the head of a table since that’s a place of honor for one’s elder. Never eat first—make sure guests take the first bite. And never extend one’s legs in the presence of others. Yet, I noticed amongst my American friends none of this applied, especially the stretching out of one’s limbs.
Nevertheless, I grow up practicing serial insistence and at a fast clip I, too, learn to taarof. On top of my game, I pass up every Persian delicacy, including those that make my mouth water, always claiming I’m full.
Taarof is not confined to a spoonful of rice, a slice of Persian melon, or steaming glass of chai. It’s much more far-reaching, dutifully depositing and readily receiving respect. An aunt of mine once explained, “Offering and declining is a Persian waltz. Each partner dancing in step. It has little to do with food. It’s an opportunity to honor your guest, your host, each elevating the other.” American-born, I cannot relate.
I’m left with only one thought: words are untrustworthy. What’s said and what’s meant are diametric opposites, having nothing to do with one another.
Twenty years later, my American husband and I are seated around my mother’s dining table. He respectfully declines a second serving of Ghormeh Sabzi—a Persian stew. Mom, with a broad smile, ignores his response and shovels three more heaping spoonfuls onto his plate. Ira turns to me and whispers, “What just happened?”
“She’s addressing your taarofs. She’s certain your ‘no’ means ‘yes.’ Ira, just remember, hers always do.”
His forehead creased in confusion, causing me to once again reflect on taarof and its meta-meanings. Self-restraint, staving off greed, postponing wants… in order to appear unwanting. I haven’t come to eat your food. I’ve come to be with you, lies behind every “no tanks.”
Ira turns to me and asks, “Don’t you feel taarof is laden with deceit? Aren’t they successfully lying? This must carry over into their interpersonal relationships. No?”
These were once my very own thoughts, but an inner change had taken place, long before that afternoon with my mother and my husband and the strawberry ice cream.
Ira—second-generation American, a descendant of Poles and Russians—believes in the act of taking what’s offered and calls it “refreshingly honest.” I—the daughter of Mashhadi Iranians, steeped and salted in taarof—firmly rush to its defense: “Perhaps honesty isn’t the ultimate goal. Perhaps self-regulation is. Taarof is a Persian girdle, strapping in guts. It tames the inner beast, forcing pounding pulses to wait, keeping selves in check.” Even I am stunned by the pitch of my voice.
Ira takes it all in stride. Unfazed, surrounded by foreign words and alien exchanges, he’s amused by the novelty of it all.
Now, as an adult with a home and family of my own, taarof has germinated. It and I have forged an alliance. A sealed box of Swiss chocolates is unwrapped in front of a guest. The first slice of peach pie is cut for the other. And I certainly never chew or swallow first. The overriding message: I give you the best of what I have. I’ve saved it all for you—my welcomed guest.
ESTHER AMINI‘s stories have been published in Elle Magazine, Tablet, Lilith, Inscape Literary, The Jewish Week and Barnard Magazine. Five of her pieces are being performed in Los Angeles by The Jewish Women’s Theatre. Two were recently staged in Manhattan in a show entitled, “Saffron and Rosewater.” Ms. Amini was awarded the Aspen Words 2016 Emerging Writer Fellowship. She lives in Manhattan and is presently completing a memoir about growing up in the USA as an Iranian-American.