In his piece “Talk Like an Iranian”, Christopher de Bellaigue shares his experience of applying for Iranian citizenship and his frustration with the process and Iranian “ambiguity”. As someone who comes from a similar culture in which indirectness is a vital part of what is considered respectful, polite behavior, I was baffled to see that something as innocent and graceful as someone’s understanding of common courtesy can be vilified and disparaged to such a high extent.
I’m frankly amazed at the ability of a Westerner to take such a well-intentioned gesture and present it as an act of wickedness. De Bellaigue talks about inconsistency and hypocrisy in Iranian society, calls the hostage crisis “overdone Ta’arof”, wrongly associates the concept of it with Sufism and the misunderstood practice of Taqiyya quoting “some” unnamed scholars and goes on to label Ta’arof — as in, holding the door open for someone — a “mischievous act [. . .] designed to wrong-foot [Westerners]”.
It’s a lose-lose situation, really. If the Iranians are straight-forward, they’re made out to be rude, demanding and irrational; it they are polite and courteous, they’re made out to be mischievous and two-faced. This is not to say that Iranians should be in any way expected to change their cultural norms just to conform and fit into a Western perception of what is right and convenient. Who is to say, after all, that being direct, straight-forward and to “prize efficiency, frankness, and informality” is always the correct and right way to go about things? It is merely an Orientalist idea that everything Western is proper and correct and that everything from the “Other” irrational, primitive and wrong.
This piece only furthers the alienation and disenfranchisement of Iranians by denigrating their culture and vilifying them for, well, holding the door open for guests. It is extremely dishonest to juxtapose this innocent cultural concept — which by the way is present in many cultures — with the Iranian hostage crisis and to suggest that taking hostages is somehow an extension Ta’arof. This is yet another piece, along with the movie Argo and many, many essays and articles that are appearing trying to express how “different”, “shady, “ambiguous”, “hypocritical” and “mischievous” Iranians supposedly are. All of this then turns into a backdrop against which Iranians as a whole are demonized and through which war-mongering rhetoric is only further fueled.
In light of all this, and considering how little understanding and appreciation de Bellaigue seems to have for even the simplest aspects of Iranian culture and mentality, can you truly blame Iran for not offering him citizenship?