Playing Host

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I had the pleasure of dining with my guides Hamid and his friend Pejman at popular Iranian food joint Naab.

“So. An Iranian and a Chinese walk into a seafood restaurant…”

“We’re always generalized with the rest of the Middle East,” Hamid says, “so living in a foreign land we try and practice our culture and to show we’re different. The smallest things matter to us.”

Being gracious hosts is part of both our cultures, and even in perhaps the levels of how disingenuous it can be is almost similar. Ta’arof is a daily practice. It’s a set of routine cultural interactions based on modesty, over-the-top generosity, and out-of-the-way hospitality.

This portion of Iranian culture reminds me of my own family’s seafood dinner reunions where aunts and uncles clamor to pay for the bill, leaving 15 year old part-time waiters at a loss. Ta’arof is like that, multiplied by about 100 times.

In one example, Iranian hosts have to do everything to make sure that all the stops are pulled for their guests. This includes the being willing to entertain visitors who show up at unreasonable hours, always giving them more than enough fruit to last a week and reserving the best seats and rooms in the house for them.

But here’s the catch. In ta’arof, nothing should ever be accepted right off the bat. As the guest in this scenario, whether you really want that piece of apple offered by your Iranian friend, you decline. The person then will insist that you take what’s offered.

“No, thanks, I really am stuffed” “Oh but you simply must. Here, I’ll peel it for you.” “No, really…” Lather, rinse, and repeat until someone finally breaks.

Although, as Hamid explains, in regular circumstances, if you actually want something offered to you, you should indulge the person with this verbal ping pong for a bit and then concede graciously. But if you don’t want it, then good luck trying to out-ta’arof an unrelenting aunty…

And this stuff doesn’t just occur between friends and family. Transactions between shopkeepers and customers (or cab drivers and passengers) are not spared from ta’arof either. When asked how much the something costs, the shopkeeper would say that he is unworthy to accept your money, to which the customer ought to keep pressing on. After a while the shopkeeper will quote a price, and the funny bit happens when the quoted amount is far higher than it’s supposed to be.

The custom can appear rather hollow and disingenuous, but what makes it fascinating is that it is considered a legit form of demonstrating graciousness, and that one could be seen as very rude if you didn’t ta’arof along. Or one could just be taking advantage of the situation. Here’s an example on how ta’arof happens, including a translation of ta’arof in Farsi.

Hamid recounts a story of how his dad had gone to meet up with a friend of his, a footballer, and how this friend complimented his dad on a very nice Rolex watch. In accordance with the unspoken rules of ta’arof, his dad had offered his friend the watch…. You know what happens next.

Apparently this fellow didn’t play by the same rules and simply unfastened the Rolex, taking it. Obviously, Hamid and his family downright do not practice ta’arof with Malaysians, lest they get robbed in daylight.


There will be a clash of cultures, of course, if we imagine Persian and Malaysians living side by side. The below scenario may be possible in 50 years:

An Iranian and a Chinese walk into a seafood restaurant. They order fried siakap, squid, steamed prawns with noodles in soup and some kam heong crabs. They demolish their meal, and then wash it down with cups of tea and complimentary watermelon slices.

Along comes a kid in grease stained shirt. He’s here with the bill and turns to look at the Chinese guy, because he’s more likely to understand him. Both men eye each other surreptitiously.

The Iranian, quick as the wind, pulls out his wallet and offers to pay. “Cannot. I’ll pay. I’ll pay.” says the Chinese. The Iranian goes “No, *I* will pay. After all, you’ve taken me to see your hometown and I really appreciate it” “Cannot like that. Next time you can treat me to something else…


Audio: Why you should never give thumbs up to an Iranian, plus Hamid’s Farsi-Bahasa Malaysia misadventures | Duration: 2: 58

Kiri, kanan, bodoh… and, uhm.. kotek.


The three-part ‘Awesomesauce’ series begins 24 Aug (Weds)