Kidnapped in Khupaye

27 09 2010

Ta’arof is tricky. How many times is it polite to say no before you are sure that the offer is genuine? Ta’arof is a system that a)allows a person to be polite and offer you something e.g. a meal and b) to be allowed to back out of it without losing face if they can’t actually afford it. For example – when in a restaurant and you go to pay, the owner may shake their head and indicate that it is free. This is not the point that you whoop hooray and bolt for the door; this is where ta’arof begins. Your role is to keep insisting until they relent and tell you the price; only if you have insisted a number of times and they have refused to tell you, a number of times, can you be sure that it really is for free… you hope.  This is very complicated for us. We are painful in our need to ‘not cause offence’, bum shrivelling in our reluctance to ‘be a bother’, and heavy handed in our ta’arof.

‘Please come and eat with us’ Ali motions; his wife Razieh beaming broadly from under her chador eagerly nods her encouragement. ‘Thank you, but we have only stopped for water and must be on our way’ Liz gestures back. Both of us begin the obligatory ritual of bobbing and cooing our ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’.  ‘Please please’ they insist, ‘Hot!’ he puffs and fans himself into a mock faint with comic exaggeration.  In the middle of the Iranian desert, in the small, brown, nondescript village of Khupaye, we have found the jolly Iranian giant.  A broad faced man, unfazed by our joint communication ‘lack’, with an unrelenting buoyancy that would make a St Bernard puppy seem positively lack lustre, is Ali, and he is insistent.  But we are equally insistent in our refusal (isn’t this what we are supposed to do?)  Ali seems to back off.  But this is a cunning ploy to regroup – he returns literally seconds later with a small child gripped to his great chest, being shadowed by another, easily miss-able in the great wash of Ali’s wake.  He thrusts the reluctant smallness forward, said smallness falters only briefly in the face of our absurd foreignness before remembering his job and we are duly presented with lunch.  Ali has brought lunch out to us.  We flounder, are we supposed to say no to this as well?!!!  This is complicated. We reach for it. But no! It is snatched back… ‘Where will you eat this lunch?’ Ali grins slyly ‘our house is only here, come come!’  Then the whole family appears, a swirl of black chador, and great tidal smiles pull us in. We have been captured!

Iranian houses are big and bare.  The floors of the main communal space are carpeted with large Iranian rugs; bolsters and cushions line the walls.  ‘Relax, relax’ Ali motions, he fusses us down and makes much of Catherine’s mismatched socks.  Who would have thought that a much maligned personal habit could act as such a perfect cross cultural ice breaker!  Razieh joins us, without chador or head scarf she appears every bit the practical ‘mom’, with jeans and workaday t-shirt, she pulls baby Mohammed in and feeds him.  Between women there is no need for reserve or restriction. To Ali we are honorary men, to Razieh we are simply women.  It is a marked transformation that is swept up in the rush to try and learn about each other’s lives. Between our scant Farsi phrases and their non-existent English we managed to pad out a surprisingly great deal about each other’s lives.  The magic letter helps.  Once our limits have been reached Ali calls upon Uncle Mohammed.  Who arrives so quickly we suspect he may live on the porch!

Uncle Mohammed bring his daughter who retreats to the kitchen with Ali’s elder daughter (they fuss about from room to room, shyly catching our gaze as they pass and returning our smiles – but never stopping and never joining in). The new arrivals prompt a costume change in Razieh. It seems that she has a spare chador or manteau and scarf in every room, so that changes in social etiquette can be seamlessly catered for. And thus she folds back into the fabric of the room.

Lunch is ready. The women lay out a mat on the floor for us to gather around – by “us” I mean the “boys”.  The women do not join us. ‘What wonderful food’ we mime, ‘what is it?’ – the meal was unleavened bread, tomatoes, and deliciously soft patties of some sort.  Uncle Mohammed tries to mime the animal in pattie-question but, despite 10 out of 10 for effort, and bar it clearly not being chicken, his illustration lacked the clarity needed to aid identification – it was, we concluded,  a lumbering something.  ‘Great!’ we smiled.  At that point his daughter scurried past on yet another unidentifiable a-to-b mission and slipped a quiet ‘camel’ into our ears. ‘Camel!’ we exclaim ‘Yes! yes!’ Uncle Mohammed puffing in delight at the apparent crispness of his charade.  Two mysteries revealed.  Camel burgers for lunch and an uncalled upon daughter who clearly spoke more English than anyone else in the room.

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4 responses

27 09 2010
jane

Love this! Are you getting a lot of feedback with the magic letter? Hope you’re both keeping well xx

27 09 2010
oneproject

HEllo!!! haev you popped!!? yes with magic letter – but film capture is complicated here….

27 09 2010
nicola

Cool story. Sounds like it’s going alright there, then after all the debates…mind you, you should probably steer clear of using words like ‘kidnapped’ in your post titles if you want to avoid giving us the heeby jeebies 😉
Where are you headed for next, by the way?

27 09 2010
oneproject

we’ll go where they will have us… maybe Pakistan (visa wrangling to be faced) or down to Dubai…….. i think we have given up trying to plan… 🙂

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