Polite Persians

I recently watched the documentary of the late Anthony Bourdain’s visit to Iran that we posted on this page earlier this month and I had to chuckle about his confusion of the politeness of the people in Iran and their unbelievable kindness to strangers. Anyone who has ever had Persian friends or neighbours or family knows this: Persians are amongst the friendliest people in the world! It is more than just being polite and kind, complete strangers will welcome you into their home and go above and beyond any hospitality you have ever experienced in your life. So many westerners are completely awestruck and baffled by this and no matter in which country you meet Iranians, their behaviour is always the same, it’s universally Persian. I thought about this and my own experience of marrying into a Persian family and it struck me that this is why the Persian culture has survived for thousands of years. Persians will literally go out of their way to accommodate or help you in any way shape or form. Instead of giving you directions somewhere, they will leave everything to take you there themselves. A offer of having tea will often become a dinner invitation. They will offer your their bed and sleep on the floor, all just to make sure that you as their guest (which almost certainly means "new friend") is fully content.

If you ever get invited to an Iranian home you will be overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people and their shear happiness to host you. You can be sure that you will be treated like royalty for the entire night! A huge part of the evening will be dedicated to Persian cuisine that is their pride and joy. Iranians did not have a restaurant culture until recently, so all their dishes are home made with a lot of love. All Iranians know how to cook the same favourite dishes, and they are many and varied, so no matter where you meet them in the world you will be treated to these dishes cooked at home in the same way for centuries, with recipes passed down from one generation to the next. Every dish is cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients and most dishes take 6 hours or so to cook, some even up to 24 hours and a few very special ones can take up to a week. It does not end with cooking every dish, the dishing up and decorating of each is very special as well. Great attention to detail is given to each dish and the garnishing of it with beautiful and special ingredients, almost certainly dished up in exquisite handmade Iranian dishware. One of the most important components is of course the Persian rice cooked to absolute perfection in a rice cooker and the cherry on top is the crispy layer at the bottom (called tadik) that is the pride and joy of every Persian cook. You will be forgiven for thinking that you have stepped into an elaborate medieval banquet when you enter the Iranian dining rooms, the sheer variety and volume of the dishes can be overwhelming! But the more food there is, the greater their happiness to host you.

Indulging in the main course is not the end or beginning of your night with Persians. When you arrive the starters are as many as the main course. Seasonal fruits of all kinds and fresh herbal salads are a must at any Persian party, as is the yoghurt flavoured with different ingredients, some with cucumber and garlic, others with peppers and garlic and so the varieties continue. There is lots of singing and dancing before the main course and most definitely an Iranian instrument (like their drums “daf”) will be played to classic and modern Persian songs. Iranians are happy to have friends and family over and the rejoicing with song and dance is almost as important as the feasting on the main course. You will be pulled onto the “dance floor” and taught to strut your Persian dance moves and if you succeed your hosts will reward your efforts with loud praise and applause!

After the main course, it is time for the ever important Persian tea and of course deserts. Because of the volume of food of the main course, the deserts are not as many or varied and if you are lucky you will be served Iranian cookies and sweets that are often made with rose water, saffron and pistachio nuts, if these are available in the specific country. You are most certainly going to be treated to baklava. The serving of the tea is very important. It must be just the right colour served in a clear cup (most of the time beautifully decorated ones from Iran) and enjoyed with a small bite of something sweet, often a sugar cube or sugar crystal from Iran. You can be sure that there will be enough sweet things to indulge in if you still have a little hungry spot after the mains, which I seriously doubt! One thing is for sure, it will be an experience that you will never forget (for the right reasons!) and it will be one of the occasions that you will feel very special!

But their hospitality does not just revolve around food and dance. Persian politeness is known the world over. They do not like harshness of any kind and certainly not unkind words or behaviour. Their treatment of you will always be with the greatest of respect no matter under which circumstances. “For Iranians, kind words are always important. Maybe it is because our Persian spirit carries a lot of poetry in it. Our most important thinkers are poets, most of them very ancient, and a language full of kindness and praise is still today present in our readings.” explained Iranian artist Fereshteh Najafi in a BBC interview about "The Persian art of etiquette". The ugliness of mankind is something that Persians have tried to soften through all the centuries with their beautiful artforms. Bringing a kind element and beauty to the cold starkness of reality is probably the greatest Persian art of all!

No matter what the media says, once you meet Iranians you soon realize that many things portrait in the media about them simply aren’t true. Often in the west we have preconceived ideas about the Middle Eastern countries and people, simply because their cultures are so vastly different from ours, they are the unknown frontier to us. Yet majority of these countries are the oldest in the world with civilizations stretching back millennia. Persia should be thanked for so many inventions that we still use today and yet, history often does not reflect this fact. A great example of Persian hospitality is that of Cyrus the Great who established the first great Persian Empire in the 6th century BC. As a new powerful force the Persians had to defend their borders or yield to other kingdoms and that led to the expansion of the Persian Empire that would eventually encompass 40% of the world’s population. The Persians however did not expect all their new territories to become Persian, rather they allowed each region to rule itself and the people to worship their own deities and this led to the writing of the first human rights charter. This charter is recorded in the UN building and it is still aspired to today. It is a brilliant indication of how welcoming Persians are to others and why Cyrus the Great is still viewed as the messiah of the Hebrews and the greatest king Persia ever had.

The Persians themselves have been invaded so many times throughout their history by so many vastly different forces, that it is truly incredible that their culture and identity is still so strong today. Maybe that is exactly the reason why. Being subjected to so many different new leaders and cultures most likely makes you cherish and hold onto your own. The ingenious method of the Persians to charm their invaders to such an extent that the invaders often became preservers of the Persian culture themselves, is simply admirable and the reason we can still enjoy this rich culture. Being a major power on the Silk Road and inviting so many foreigners into their borders naturally added to the Persians’ hospitability. This is a nation of merchants and negotiators, middle men and scholars, entertainers and storytellers, craftsmen and artists who were often employed in other Empires as advisors in court because of their knowledge and neutrality.

From afar the culture may appear very conservative, but it is the desire to maintain the Persian identity that makes them so protective of it. And thank goodness for that! Because of their pride in their history we can enjoy their unbelievable hospitality! Perhaps it is having learned over time that kindness can win over any hostility and eating delicious food together can warm the coldest heart that created this beautiful and powerful hospitable culture. It is something they practice daily even with other Iranians and it is, sadly, something that we in the west will never see or know until we meet a Persian.

Photograph: (Credit: Julihana Valle)