Misunderstanding Iran

For the last few days my wife and I attended the semi-annual meeting of the International Society for Iranian Studies. It was held in Montreal this time. Several panels were devoted to Iranian foreign policy. At one of them, scholars outlined Iran’s strategic isolation and the limited choices available to it.

The fourth panelist then launched into a comparison of what she called contextual cultures and textual cultures. I found myself thinking about the textualism of Justice Scalia and the contextualism of his more liberal colleagues. But this speaker’s point was that Iran was a contextual country in which it was the listener’s job to figure out the speaker’s meaning from surrounding circumstances. By contrast, she said, America was a textualist country, where, quoting an old saying, we “say what we mean and mean what we say.” Given that contrast, it was no wonder that we find the Iranians inscrutable and untrustworthy.

At this point, Juan Cole, an expert on Iran from the University of Michigan, spoke up. Many are the peoples who have found us inscrutable and untrustworthy. He gave as an example our repeated failure to honor treaties with the Indians. Failures of comprehension are undeniable, sometimes intentional and sometimes accidental. But it’s much more complex than a comparison between transparent and opaque cultures.

In my mind was the Iranian system of manners, which they call taarof, in which you could not accept a gift unless you were asked three times and had turned it down twice. Failure to observe that rule could be embarrassing. A friend admired a fine Persian carpet. His host offered it to him. Our friend was somewhat flustered and found the carpet delivered to him a day or so later. Of course his host knew what to do – he came to our friend’s place and admired the carpet still rolled up in a corner. Oh please take it, take it back, yes three times. Problem solved. Luckily, when our group of Peace Corps volunteers was invited to visit the Prime Minister’s home, though I admired his carpet, instead of offering it to me, he got down on the floor and gave me my first lesson in the quality of Persian carpets.

What remained with me was how much easier it is to understand taarof than the American system in which we tell how to respond from the tone of voice, and yes, the context. Try explaining to a foreigner how we decide whether an offer is sincere. Actually, I spend a good deal of time trying to teach my students to notice all the subtle signals of meaning and intention that people send out without thinking about it. Could it be that we are also a contextualist culture, inscrutable to others. Oh my Lord, wouldn’t that be the darndest thing.

American and Iranian interests conflict on some issues and mesh on others. And yes, theirs is a sufficiently different culture that we, both, misunderstand each other. But a little knowledge would go a lot further than a lot of stereotypes.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Monday, August 11, 2014.


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