Originally Published in Pink Pangea
The other day mom took me to a salon for eyebrow shaping and facial threading. This will be my second visit to my birth country since I left 22 years ago. In Iran it is customary to do threading for facial hair. In the past I have had my legs done that way too but that was in middle school, ages ago. They must use wax by now.
To walk in to a public place, well pseudo public since no men are allowed, where women could remove their scarves and be themselves was refreshing. I became all eyes and ears to absorb the interactions of these talkative, beautiful Middle Eastern women.
To my surprise we walked in without an appointment and still were taken care of quite quickly. Once the owner saw mom, she walked towards her and kissed her on both cheeks, offering an upbeat flirtatious attitude. Mom introduced us, then nodded and smiled at one of the women in a short white coat and pointed me to her station. She was the esthetician who would shape my eyebrows.
I said hello and sat in her chair. She had a familiar feel to her. A woman in her early fifties she reminded me of an older nanny–the type who could calm you down when you were scared. She looked at me and said: “I pray that my hands bring you good luck sweetheart. Now make a wish, say a prayer and let’s begin.” That’s the charm of this country. So taken by her act I actually started making wishes.
In another station a woman was having hair extensions done. I watched four women working on her simultaneously. It was stories, laughs, and work all at the same time until I heard my lady say: “Ok honey. All done. Your face looks so radiant.”
“Thank you. How much do I owe you?”
“Ghaabel nadareh.” She responded meaning, “it is worthless” or “don’t worry about it.” I know it’s a dance of words. I know I have to keep asking until she finally verbalizes the price.
Iran is the land of artful politeness. I am not saying people are always polite but there are some underlying rules and formality for conversation and social exchange.
Used to the ease of the American style, I was content with being called by my first name but they insisted on calling me Dr. or Ms. Doctor.
Most of the people who are older expect to be called by their last name preceded by Mr., Mrs., or Dr., unless they tell you otherwise. When a group reaches a door and this can be the elevator door, they all stand around out of respect pleading with each other each asking the other to please go ahead until the most senior person goes first followed by the next oldest, etc. Women first, then men.
In this country of haggling, when you go to pay anyone whether in a cab, a store or a restaurant the first thing they tell you is: Ghaabel nadareh. “Don’t worry about it.” Ladies please do worry about paying your bill even if you hear this phrase. Say thank you and continue to ask for the price. Once you have a number to work with then you can start haggling.
In a gathering at someone’s house when new guests arrive or people are getting ready to leave everybody stands up in respect. Similar to the Italians they keep offering you food, filling up your plate even after you say you are full.
Persian culture is a culture of community. Two girlfriends may lock arms. Two men may kiss each other’s cheeks in greeting or dance with one another. People bump into you without saying sorry. I would watch out for men who might use that as an excuse though.
Let me mention an important issue here my dear ladies: the Iranian government has strict rules about men and women interacting with one another in public places. When I visited one of the hospitals here and wanted to hold a patient’s hand, a colleague told me: “Do not touch anyone who is not of your gender.”
A culture of closeness also means that family encompasses more than mom, dad and children. It includes grandparents, aunts, and uncles. They embrace you with open arms, blanket you with their love but then want to be integrated in your life. So they ask about your personal life, income, love affairs, debts, etc, and offer unsolicited advice regardless of their expertise. I am an oral surgeon and on several occasions I have received medical advice from relatives who have no medical background. It’s out of love, I realize, and with the best of intentions. When a loved one suffers each family member wants to offer his or her experience to relieve the pain.
Now I am in no way suggesting that you share your personal information with others but don’t be surprised at the questions.
Of course the rules of politeness are much more lenient for those who come from other countries. Iranians adore foreigners. They find white skin, blond hair and blue eyes exotic. So ladies with fair skin you will probably get a lot of attention, lots of stares, and maybe even whistles and remarks. Furthermore, just for being from another country, we all get a lot of questions to satisfy the people’s curiosity about life out there.
One place where all the politeness goes away is in traffic, but that’s for another day. Until then Happy Travels.