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Etiquette in Iran, Islamic Period
Encyclopedia Iranica

The etiquette of serving and eating food, leave-taking, thanking and blessing the host, etc., practiced today by the more traditional classes of Persian society are predominantly the same as those described by European travelers to Persia during the Qajar period. If an invitation to dinner were either private or informal, the occasion would be typically the initiation (fah-e bāb) or reaffirmation (tajdīd-e ahd) of a friendship, but such invitations would be offered with insistence, sincerity, and humility among all classes of society. Though obliged to conform to these formulae of ceremonial politesse (tārof) in issuing invitations, the host usually would do so sincerely without affectation or hypocrisy, and would scrupulously observe the etiquette of invitation. In cases where it obviously would not be possible for the invitees to accept the invitation, etiquette would oblige the host as a display of friendship to insist that they attend anyway. Since the late Qajar period, the expression taārof-e Šāh Abd-al-Aīmī (an invitation from a resident of Šāh Abd-al-Aẓīm) has referred to an insincere invitation made solely for the purpose of appearing polite. A country dweller from the suburb of Šāh Abd-al-Aẓīm who visited the home of an acquaintance in the city of Tehran, wishing to observe the etiquette of reciprocal hospitality, would, at the time of leave-taking, invite his Tehrānī host to his home in Šāh Abd-al-Aẓīm whenever the Tehrānī should happen to be visiting the shrine of one of the descendants of the Imams there. This invitation was, however, perfunctory and if he saw the Tehrānī acquaintance in Šāh Abd-al-ʿAẓīm, he would feign not to recognize him. Of course, this insincerity stemmed from the poverty of country dwellers and their lack of facilities to entertain comparatively wealthy guests from the city, but the people of Tehran have made a pleasantry of it.

The famous tale of the city dweller told by Rūmī in his Manawī, illustrates the antiquity of such contrasts between the manners of the rustic and the urbanus. However, invitations issued in the cities according to the dictates of ceremonial politesse (taārof) were usually sincere, elaborate, and insistent, sometimes even extended to total strangers. The visit of Bahrām-e Gūr (q.v.) to the house of Lonbak-e Ābkaš related by Ferdowsī (Šāh-nāma) and some of the stories related in The Thousand and One Nights, though fictional, illustrate the actual norms of hospitality among the people in those days. For example, Ebn Baṭṭūta was invited to someone’s house in Isfahan for bread and yogurt, but was served instead a full spread of a variety of delicious foods (p. 191).


Exchange of Gifts

The exchange of gifts and the custom of sending fruit, food, or sweets to the home of a friend or neighbor recently returned from a journey have long been a feature of Persian etiquette, as attested by the behavior of some of the local residents near Qom toward the Arab immigrants newly-arrived in the area during the vicegerency of Ḥajjāj over Erāq. The recipient of a gift was expected to reciprocate in kind, at least since Safavid times, and the failure to do so commensurately was considered to be a slight to the person offering the gift. Some of the European visitors to Persia express their surprise or dismay when their failure or negligence to conform to this expectation of reciprocity in the exchange of gifts led to misunderstandings, as Della Valle recounts about his short stay in Hamadān (letter from Isfahan dated 17 March 1617).

Individuals were also expected to issue invitations to commemorate special occasions, such as public festivals, memorial meetings for the departed, weddings, circumcisions, return from a pilgrimage, birth of a child, purchase of a home, store (dokkān), or garden, etc. Invitations were usually extended to neighbors, colleagues, relatives, mollās, merchants, and possibly well-known people of the neighborhood, quarter, or city, with the extent of hospitality and formality of the gathering being determined by the social and financial status of the host, the status of the guests, and the importance of the occasion. Among the upper classes, such gatherings (and, for that matter, the social exchange of visits referred to above) were observed in accord with an even more intricate protocol and etiquette, the breach of which would usually be taken as an affront.


Wine-drinking and merriment in Iran

In private parties among friends, especially among the upper classes—such as high officials in government administration, military commanders, regional governors, princes, notables, and their families—who were not always strict about observing the religious law, it was often customary to drink wine. The Persian etiquette of wine-drinking, which extends back to antiquity, demanded moderation. Those who violated this provision would eventually be excluded from the circle of drinking companions. The Qābūs-nāma recommends that when partaking of wine (specifically nabī), one must always rise from drinking with room for yet two more glasses (Kay Kāvus, p. 48). A much later writer observed that in wine parties “drunkenness and boisterous conversation, overeating of condiments (noql), constant singing of songs and excess of laughter are the habits of the ill-bred and the behavior of the vulgar”. The descriptions of wine drinking parties found in the poetry of Rūdakī, Farroḵī, Manūčehrī, Ḵāqānī, and Ḥāfeẓ accord with the reports of later European travelers like Clavijo, Della Valle, Drouville, etc., who saw similar gatherings first hand. This etiquette doubtless reflects Sasanian drinking etiquette, to which has been amalgamated the practices of the caliphs and sultans in the earlier centuries of Islam, along with later accretions.


Greetings, apologies, circumlocutions and attenuating phrases

Embracing friends upon their return from a journey or when meeting them after a long hiatus is an expected sign of friendship. Upon meeting elderly or distinguished people, it was considered polite to lower one’s head (sar nehādan) to the chest as a sign of respect, and perhaps also to grasp the honored person’s hand with both hands (see above, moāfaa). This practice was also common with Sufi shaikhs. The ceremonial politesse governing conversation and the exchange of compliments, which can often lead to hyperbole, caused the partners to a conversation to pay careful attention to the other’s remarks, a practice much remarked upon by foreign travelers.

Taking care not to hurt or give offense to the person to whom one is speaking has been and still is considered a principle of etiquette; the failure to observe it is considered discourteous. For this reason, when the idea one wished to express might aggrieve the hearer, etiquette would demand the use of various circumlocutions and euphemisms. For example, the following expressions (or very similar to them), employed by speakers both in the past (e.g., Ḥāfeẓ) and today, are considered a mark of elegance and refinement in speech: dūr az jān-e šomā (“May it be far from you!,” used when mentioning the death or illness of someone); golāb be rūyetān (“may your face be perfumed with rosewater,” used when describing something filthy); časm-e bad dūr or časm-e došman kūr (“May the evil-eye be averted/may the enemy’s eye be blinded”) used when admiring or praising the qualities or possessions of someone because the act of praising them could rouse the jealousy or envy of others; rūz-e bad na-bīnīd (“may you never meet misfortune”; used when recounting someone’s troubles or hardship, this phrase arouses sympathy); omraš rā be šomā dād (“he/she gave his life to you”; a euphemism used to convey news of someone’s death); harče āk-e ūst, omr-e šomā bāšad (“May your life be plentiful as is his/her dust”; said when mentioning a departed person who had some connection with the speaker); be časm-e barādarī or āharī (“with the eye of a brother/sister”; said when remarking upon the beauty or virtues of an unrelated person of the opposite sex).

There are also a number of similar expressions commonly used in colloquial speech, some of which are also seen in the literary language: sobān Allāh (“God be praised”), mā šā Allāh (“What God intends!”), enšā Allāh (“God willing”), časm-e asūd be-tarakad (“may the jealous person’s eye burst”), časm-e bad-andīš bar kanda bād (“May the ill-intentioned eye be plucked out”), haft daryā/kūh/qorān dar mīān (“seven seas/mountains/korans separate this from that”). Similar expressions can be found in classical Persian literature, but are now obsolete, such as be nām(-e) īzad (“in the name of God”); tabārak Allāh (“God Bless”); āšā’l-majles (“God forbid it should happen to the present company”); lawaš Allāh (“may he never know fear”). A speaker uses these and similar formulas to avoid misunderstanding or to lighten the mood when discussing misfortune.

Various circumlocutions are also used to preserve the sanctity of the family and avoid mentioning the names, particularly of women members of the household, to those not privy to their company (nā-maram). For example, in public gatherings or in the presence of strangers, a husband refers euphemistically to his wife as wāleda-ye baččahā (the mother of the children) or ahl-e bayt/manzel/āna (the occupants of the house). A father will refer to his son as banda-zāda or olām-zāda (born of your servant) and to his daughter as abīya (the Arabic word for daughter). A child will refer to his father as wāled (lit. progenitor) or abawī (Arabic for “my father”) and to his mother as wāleda (lit. progenitrix) and his brother as aawī (Arabic for “my brother”).


Introduction of western manners in the 20th century Iran

The penetration of western etiquette and protocol into Persia beginning in the Qajar period met with resistance and even hostility from the common people (Lewis, p. 287), as in other Islamic countries. The descriptions of Western customs and mores given by the first Persian-speaking travelers to Europe (and also those of Egyptian and Ottoman emissaries and travelers to Europe) were seldom favorable, especially as far as the behavior, status, and modesty of women were concerned. The play Jafar-ān az Farang āmada (Jafar Khan has returned from Europe) written in 1300 Š./1921-22 by Alī Nowrūz (the pen-name of Ḥasan Moqaddam) criticized the excessive regard for things Europeans in Persia and was an illustration of the nationalist tendency to reject and resist the hegemony of Western culture; it is reminiscent of Arabīyon Tafarnaja (the Europeanization of an Arab) by the Egyptian writer Abd-Allāh Nadīm.

In spite of this, some Western habits and customs, which did not conflict with or threaten the national identity and mores of Persians, were gradually accepted in a positive light. Examples of the influence of Western etiquette in Persia include the simplification of bureaucratic language, the omission of elaborate titles and forms of address in correspondence, the need to observe schedules in official visits, the posting of the hours of business on the door of offices, and various changes in the dress of government bureaucrats, all of which were introduced by the grand vizier Mīrzā Ḥosayn Khan Sepahsālār during the reign of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah.

The adoption of certain aspects of Western etiquette by government offices and the court led to further adoption of other European customs that eventually engendered a strong popular reaction against the West, which was one of the factors contributing to the fall of the Pahlavi regime. Resistance to the spread of Western manners and customs became a focus of popular sentiment, in part because of the hostility of the Shiʿite clergy to non-Islamic practices, but primarily, it would appear, because of the belief or impression that Western practices had permeated Persia. This concept is now expressed in Persia by the phrase tahājom-e farhangī-ye arb, (the invasion of Western culture). However, this reaction to foreign customs is not unique in Persian history; living side by side with the Arab tribes in Persia after the Islamic conquest was a source of displeasure to the Persians.

Persian resistance to foreign ways can be found, for example, in the disgust expressed in the Middle Persian poem Matan-e šā Vahrām-e varzāvand (“The Arrival of the Mighty Shah Bahrām,” Jamasp-Asana) over the way Arabs ate bread and, similarly, in the general refusal of the Muslims of Khorasan and Transoxania to accept the Mongol yāsā. In the Qajar and Pahlavi periods, the murder of Griboedov in 1244/1829, the protest over the Tobacco Régie in 1309/1891-92, and the opposition of the population of Mašhad to Reżā Shah’s law requiring the use of the international brimmed hat, which resulted in security forces firing upon civilians at the Gowhar-æād mosque in 1314 are some precedents of this kind of reaction.

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