Obama Officials Should Understand Iranian Culture

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As the Bush administration winds down, Morning Edition talks with foreign analysts this week about how the U.S. looks from abroad as the Obama administration prepares to take over. Today: the view from Iran with author Hooman Majd. He tells Steve Inskeep that the Obama White House will need to understand the Iranian culture if it plans to hold diplomatic talks with Iran — or officials won't get very far.


This week we've been asking about the state of the world as we begin a new year, conversations we call The View From Abroad. And today we'll focus on a country with which the United States has had very little conversation. The next American president says that under the right circumstances, he is willing to talk with Iran.

So this morning, we'll ask an Iranian-American what it's like to talk with Iranians. His name is Hooman Majd, and he has close ties to some of Iran's leading politicians. He's in New York City, where he once served as an interpreter during a visit by Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He is also the author of a cheerful book on his native land called "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ."

You write about this concept called "ta'arof."

Mr. HOOMAN MAJD (Author, "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ"): Ta'arof, yes.

INSKEEP: What is it?

Mr. MAJD: Well, it's a form of social interaction which means that every Iranian, whenever they talk to another Iranian, or even to a foreigner, indulge in certain niceties that indicate certain things that if you're not aware of you will miss.

INSKEEP: Like what?

Mr. MAJD: Well, for example, when you go to buy something in a store and you want to pay, and the clerk will say, well, no, no, it's not worthy, what you're buying is not worthy of payment.

INSKEEP: You mean the clerk is self-deprecating about his own product?

Mr. MAJD: Exactly, exactly.

INSKEEP: You write about a taxi driver who actually got more money out of you by self-deprecation.

Mr. MAJD: Oh yeah, that's one of the ways you do it, you know, you end up at the destination, you say please - you know, how much is it? Oh no, it's not worthy. You say, oh, please - oh, no no, no, you're my guest. Please, don't even talk about money.

And then you say well, I really do want to pay you, you got cash in your hand at this point. And he says, I say well please tell me exactly how much it is. And he says 3,500 tomans, which is the equivalent of $4. Then my friend in the cab says, well, yesterday we took the same ride and it was 2,500 tomans.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAJD: But at that point, having told you it's unworthy, he kind of shrugs his shoulders, like well...

INSKEEP: And then you're stuck because you've been insisting on paying, and...

Mr. MAJD: You're stuck. Exactly, and with his shrug, you know, he's like, you're the one who insisted.

INSKEEP: You even find, forgive me for interrupting, go on.

Mr. MAJD: No, no, please, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: I'm not worthy of interrupting you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MAJD: Oh please, I'm not worthy of being on your show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: But you are, but you are.

Mr. MAJD: Oh, not at all. In fact, I'm going to leave right now.

INSKEEP: No-no-no, wait-wait-wait, stay, stay. You even write that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, has used this technique of ta'arof when talking about the Holocaust on the international stage.

Mr. MAJD: Well, that's an interpretation that interestingly enough an Iranian-Jewish friend of mine gave, saying that basically when Ahmadinejad says no, there cannot have been a Holocaust, what he's really saying in terms of ta'arof is I can't believe that you Europeans, who claim to be this great civilization, could have possibly killed six million people. That can't possibly be true, is it?

And of course, that forces the Europeans, particularly the Germans, to say no, no, no, we did, we absolutely did kill six million people. And furthermore, we could do it again. So that was kind of an interesting take on how that ta'arof could be a little sinister as well.

INSKEEP: Taking enjoyment in fact out of making people confess again and again that there is this terrible, terrible occurrence.

Mr. MAJD: Yes, and particularly at a time when Iran is being accused of being a country that is, you know, violates human rights, supports terrorism, you know, murders people, stuff like that. At that time, to have Europeans say whoa, whoa we did something far, far worse.

INSKEEP: So I suppose on a small level, and perhaps on a large level, this is something that Americans would have to think about as they prepare, if they prepare, to talk directly with Iran?

Mr. MAJD: Well, I believe so, yes. I believe that if Americans are talking to Iran, if you don't understand the culture, we won't get very far. I mean, a prime example is what President-elect Obama said about his policy towards Iran will be diplomacy, but carrots and sticks, you know, sweeter carrots, bigger sticks. You know, the reaction in Tehran was virulent.

It is incredibly insulting to an Iranian to talk about carrots and sticks. It doesn't mean that there can't be carrots and sticks, it means to talk about it puts them in a position of having to, if you're thinking about ta'arof, of having to respond that, you know, we're not children, we're not donkeys. It puts them in a very defensive position.

INSKEEP: Well, now, wait a minute. Because when you talk about Iranians feeling insulted, that leads to another concept that you write about a lot, and I believe the Persian word is "haq."

Mr. MAJD: Haq, yes.

INSKEEP: What is that?

Mr. MAJD: Haq is the concept of rights. Haq actually just means the right. And there's this very strong sense amongst all Iranians on any side of the political spectrum that their rights have to be respected as a nation, as a people, and of course individual rights. And there's a sense that what the West is demanding of Iran at this point in time, vis-a-vis the nuclear issue, is a denial of the rights of the nation.

INSKEEP: You're saying that when you start talking about haq - am I pronouncing it correctly?

Mr. MAJD: Yeah...

INSKEEP: That you can get a lot of political support in Iran, and it doesn't even matter whether the average Iranian thinks that Iran should be enriching uranium or have a nuclear weapon someday or anything.

Mr. MAJD: Yeah, it's gone beyond that now. Now it's gone to the very concept of the West, once again, trying to deny Iran its rights. And Iranians, they don't want to be treated in any manner that is different than, say, from the way that we would view French people, or view the nation of Great Britain.

It's like, why should there be a difference? Iran is a nation that's 2,500 years old. It's the only country in the region that's been a country for more than a hundred years. They demand respect for the rights of those people to be world citizens.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask if that Iranian concept of rights - and it does sound like pride is part of it, too...

Mr. MAJD: Pride is definitely a part of it, certainly, yes.

INSKEEP: And the American concept, Americans' pride, looking at the American history and things like the hostage crisis in 1979. Do you think that that concept in both countries is going to be too large a barrier to get over if these two nations do try to approach each other and reach some kind of accommodation?

Mr. MAJD: I don't think it is. I mean, there's a problem, obviously, for Americans with President Ahmadinejad because of the kind of rhetoric that he's employed, particularly with respect to both the Holocaust and Israel itself, and that's a problem. But I think one would find that if we are serious about talking to the Iranians, that rhetoric will be toned down dramatically.

Iran views relations with America as something that's inevitable, and necessary for it to become a truly developed nation. I think America realizes at this point that without some kind of discussion with Iran, some kind of negotiations to understand where our common interests are, that nothing has worked otherwise. And short of going to war with them, which is not something anybody seems to want anymore, that we need to talk. So if there's this desire, I think it can happen.

INSKEEP: Mr. Majd, would you explain one more bit of Persian that may provide an insight into Iran? And it's the phrase that you say people use almost universally in Iran if they're beginning to tell a story or a fable.

Mr. MAJD: Mmm hmm. Yeki bood, yeki nabood(ph), which means there was one, there wasn't one, which is - sounds like an oxymoron...

INSKEEP: Once upon a time, actually, never at all.

Mr. MAJD: Exactly. But it's sort of saying is this real, or is it not real? It becomes this kind of question about whether what you're about to say could be real or couldn't be real. And it goes very much into the Persian form of communication, which includes ta'arof. To me, it's always been a very interesting phrase to use, and it's employed all the time, and it kind of has that paradoxical nature that all of Iranian society and culture has.

INSKEEP: Hooman Majd is author of "The Ayatollah Begs to Differ." Thanks very much.

Mr. MAJD: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: We're getting a view from abroad this week as we prepare for a new year and a new administration. Our series concludes tomorrow with a conversation from the war-torn country of Columbia. You're listening to Morning Edition from NPR News.

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