Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Untold Tales of Tahruf.

Iranian culture is governed by a complex, little-known social system of rulings and behaviours, known as Tahruf. I don’t have a literal translation for this particular concept; but if you can picture a state, balancing somewhere between politeness and faking it, (and leaning quite heavily to the right!), then you’ve got what tahruf is about! Arguably many (if not all!), fazes of polite conduct are riddled with insincerity, but somehow, tahruf takes it to a whole new level! The other problem is that there doesn’t appear to be a get-out for those newly inducted or who slip up on account of not knowing the lay of the land! If you fluff it, you are deemed disrespectful, without shame, beyond help! When I realised this, I became quiet, introverted, almost phobic about socialising in Iran and showing my in-laws up! As some one who likes to speak, to be heard, to engage others, the likelihood of me embarrassing my in-laws to the point of exile was always a very live possibility when I was around! And even if I had accidentally done just that, they were far too polite to tell me! And that is the biggest issue with tahruf, it manifests its self most of the time by people never saying what they mean! Let me give some examples; if a guest comes to your house for tea, you must ask him to stay for dinner. Even if your guest says “thank you, but I have another appointment and really need to leave shortly”, you must insist, violently pressing your guest to stay. The guest (for his part), must eventually give in with good grace and accept the dinner invite, even if it means that the rest of his day has been thrown in to disarray!
Another social example; if you have a group of guests visiting, you must quickly identify them in order of age, position and rank; serving tea to the eldest first, and working your way steadily down the line! This isn’t always easy to do if you haven’t been briefed on the family dynamics in advance! You might serve tea to a cousin first, rather than your mother’s sister (they are the same age, but mother’s closest relative would come first!), or, because Iranian women are so obsessed with body image and are almost always incredibly preened and beautiful! You actually can’t always pick out a mother from a daughter from a sister and so on! In your presence, people will laugh this off, but behind your back, they are thinking what a useless wife you are and how little you understand the intricacies of family life!
When we got married, we had to sit down with a book and write down who gave us what gift! I assumed this was so that we could send out appropriate thank you notes! But no; it was to make sure that we exceeded these gifts when their sons or daughters would marry in the future!
It took me some time to get my head around all of this. I initially didn’t think that tahruf was such a big deal, because even though I’d seen it in action, no one had specifically pointed it out to me! No one had taken me aside before my Niqah and said “Right tubelight! You are now an Iranian wife! There are certain things you must know and say and do! And God Help you if you get any of them wrong!”. If some one invited me to dinner, and expressed an interest in keeping in touch! I was all smiles and exchanging Email addresses! I didn’t read between the lines and see “OK, so you are my husband’s friend’s wife! I invited you here because it was the right thing to do, and I’m saying we should keep in touch because I want to be friendly, not because I actually mean it!”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that every one in Iran fakes it, far from it! but the problem is that tahruf governs so much in Iran that it becomes almost impossible for an outsider to determine what is genuine, and what is just playing along as it were. I discussed this with a German friend who has been living in Tehran for around 30 years now! She neither reassured me, nor snubbed me out:
“If you don’t understand tahruf Roshni, neither do I! Its been 30 years since I came here, and I don’t understand all of the Dos and Don’ts! Ironically, my daughter, who has been raised here, gets it more than I do; and I often refer to her before attending a party in case I make some awful unconscious gaff in the offing!”. This didn’t yield well for me! I imagined myself as a ridiculous blind bumbling idiot! Always being painfully slow on the uptake, and catching the drift light years after missing the boat! Clinging desperately to the lifeline of my children and only enhancing the generation chasm in the process!
Reza doesn’t talk about these things either! He laughs them off, assuring me that I’ll get it in time! Though, I don’t really know what it is I’m supposed to be getting! I neither know where to begin, or where it will end! You have to know what questions to ask, in order to seek out the right answers and act upon them! Here in lies another major problem with Tahruf; its not just that what is said lacks intent; rather, what remains unsaid, is what you should really be worrying about! As Muslims, we are advised to hold our tongues, to watch our speech, behaviour etc, however I have never interpreted this as a lisence to avoid dealing with that which needs to be resolved, regardless of how uncomfortable it may be. I also thought that distance played a part in this too; Reza and I don’t have that much real time in which to connect (all be it virtually), on our current schedules! And when we do get the chance, its easier just to enjoy each other’s proximity; rather than getting lost in subtexts regarding mortgages, visas and employment!
Lately however, as our distance remains fixed and we appear not even remotely closer to an immigration solution, I feel the need to take the proverbial by the horns and talk it out! “don’t ever question your husband about these things!” my Iranian friends advise. “If you do, he will think you are looking for a way out, that you are not committed to the relationship, so that he, in turn, will lose interest in you as well!”. This struck me as absurd; after all, if my husband approached me and wanted to talk about where we go from here, I’d respect the fact that he recognised how this situation was tearing us apart and seriously damaging our relationship, and how pivotal it was to bring it to a conclusion one way or another! But the panicked warnings of Iranians who understood good Persian Marriage conduct far better than I did, meant that I just skirted a path around it! Occasionally, I drop in to conversations with my husband: “do you think we should talk about where we go from here, I mean, are you worried about things?”, he smiles, and assures me that he isn’t worried, and says there is no need to talk about it; and if he believes I buy this, then we don’t know each other at all! But floating aimlessly down the river of the great unspoken appears to be perfectly acceptable in Iranian life! And so that is what I do! At night, as I try to steady my shattered nerves and focus on my night prayers, I find my mind straying in to what else might now be tainted by tahruf imposed silences: (you need to lose weight, you are not very attractive these days, I’m sick of waiting around for this visa, lets call it a day! Do you have to be so sad all the time? Why can’t your family get over themselves and just deal with us!). This morning, I returned home after a crippling 24 hour session on the film script. Sangeev and I had been putting it off; and now, the film council were demanding funding proposals; and we had to make the final edits! The day was long, exhausting and ‘all work! But it was less dramatic; not following the usual pitch battles for particular scenes and nuances that we usually joust over! “something is really wrong Roshni; you haven’t even argued with me!”, he commented, and as I tried to settle myself down, an uncontrollable fit of tears came over me. Try as I might, I was waling, howling like a baby; and that too in the presence of a work colleague! I bit hard on my bottom lip; almost drawing blood! And 3 large glasses of water later, the lump in my throat cleared enough for me to get the words out! I couldn’t explain what was wrong, neither to him nor to myself! I just bleated on about “life being really hard right now”. (see: tahruf really is taking over my life!). Then, somehow, we got in to discussions about relationships, and Arab American guy and the cycles of error we both seem to perpetually fall in to. “the problem is Roshni; you need to determine reality; all of the games we play, the words and deeds we fake, the aura we create around ourselves; can it hold out under pressure? Can you really be yourself with the other person? It really is that simple! If the cards all come tumbling down with the first gentle breeze, you know its not real!”. And maybe that’s my problem, in my battles to survive, whether illness, overseas living, violence, divorce, and now unemployment/marital distance, I’ve never given myself the time to analyse what is real and what isn’t! Karachi felt/feels real, so real that I still remember the smell of roasting corn from the window below my room, or the action required to clean cockroaches from the studio floor in the mornings! But this situation, this limbo doesn’t feel real; it just feels like a drug induced hays! Like a dream you have when you are only half awake, so that when you finally emerge from sleep, you cannot pinpoint the portion that existed in your minds eye, and the part in which you were fully functional!
I listened to Sangeev talk about reality, and started making a paper plane out of my last page of notes. The plane was beautiful! I still possessed the childhood skill for it! crafting each wing, each propeller, but then I got bored and started making nail prints on it, and crumpling the fragile frame, so that in the end, I simply had a ball, with wings! I opened the window and let it fly; seeing myself in that crushed piece of paper; a butterfly maybe, hanging fearfully beyond the smog of Tehran, Tahruf and uncertainty, praying only that the fog will clear so that I can see the land below for what it really is; good, bad and indifferent; and then maybe, when I see it, I will be able to move on at last!


  1. I've had just a tiny bit of experience with tahruf, too, and I can only imagine your concern, I would feel much the same. It has another consequence, too: sometimes you can be saying exactly what you mean and the person from the tahruf culture just doesn't believe you, and may even tell you so, which can be really frustrating when someone refuses to believe you when you say you feel "x" or that "y" happened to you. I've seen tahruf in Gulf Arab cultures, too. It's a little scary, because you start to second guess yourself and think that all that "Muslim generosity" or politeness was just tahruf and they were really actually put out when you didn't know how to refuse something or when to refuse, etc.

  2. Salaams; this actually really helped me sis as at least now I do know that I’m not the only one!
    That thing about people not believing you happened to me, too! When I had the dreaded sickness bug in Iran, I really wasn’t able to eat! Sugar water and tea and maybe dry bread were my limits! Any way, my father-in-law’s family come from the desert Province of Kerman, where food is a big deal! If you do not eat, they think you extremely rood and disrespectful! When I insisted that I was really very sick and couldn’t, they got upset with me; so I had to eat, and spend the following day being very ill; something I could have done without!
    I was discussing this with a Scottish friend, who didn’t really get it; she said that all polite culture is riddled with falsehoods; but Tahruf feels much more pronounced to me, as in the above post. While in Iran, a friend commented that when she was at school, her mother insisted that she always tell the teachers that her parents prayed at home, even though they did not. Displaying questions of iman, or doubts or any thing remotely close to it would be frowned upon, which feels even more odd to me given that it is a supposed Islamic country we are talking about, …, ah well; guess I’ve got a long way to go, and allot more to learn!

  3. Another aspect under this umbrella that I experienced is that when there was bad news, no one would tell you; they'd say, "We didn't want to worry you/upset you." Yet by keeping you in the dark or obviously hiding things from you it just makes it worse for you. And sometimes people would go out of their way to 'impress' someone when they really couldn't afford it, putting their family in a difficult situation, meanwhile barely acknowledging the birthday or anniversary or whatever of mom/wife/etc. It felt like image was more important than taking care of people close to you. That was the gulf Arab version I experienced, but of course, not everyone did stuff like that, it depended on the person....

  4. Oh!! I’d forgotten about that one! I should have included it in the post! This one sparked my first proper fight with my other half (mashallah we don’t fight but we really did over this!).
    Shortly after I got back to the UK, my mother-in-law was to have major heart surgery! It came as a massive shock to me and she appeared so well in Iran, I had no idea any thing was wrong! It turns out that she’d been given her diagnosis before I arrived, and had actually been advised to have the surgery as soon as possible! She not only delayed it because of the wedding, but she worked all through it and told every one that I must never know she was ill or any thing! I was so angry! I felt that at least my husband should have told me; I was part of that family, and if I knew, I would have made sure she didn’t work so much and would have done more to help, or insisted we have a smaller wedding! Any way I got over it and mashallah she was very well! But it got me very much off-guard; I went from feeling like I belonged in the family, to fretting over things I potentially did not know, and that might creep up on me some day!
    I remember too visiting an Iranian art and craft store with my in-laws and buying gifts to take home. Now, I absolutely love Iranian art; and really want a house full of it! but of course; in time! We had a limited budget and couldn’t have every thing right then! But it turned out, any time I said I liked something, my in-laws were secretly taking it away and wrapping it up for us! They were even going to buy us a massive Persian candle lamp, till I almost cried while pressing on them that there was no way I’d be permitted on the flight with such an outsized piece of ornament!
    I do know that some aspects of Tahruf may be well intended, some might wonder why I was complaining; they are my in-laws, they wanted to spoil us! But I too, knew they could not afford it; they had gone all out for us already and I hate inconveniencing any one! Moreover, I’ve lived alone for years and am used to paying my own way, or saving for things and only having them when I know I can afford to buy them. I come from a family where we say it like it is, no matter how brutal it sounds! So hiding the truth or trying to cushion the blow is totally foreign to me and I don’t know when I’ll ever get used to it, (if ever!)

  5. I'm with you sis. I like things to be up front so I know what I'm dealing with. I think it is just how you and I were raised, and if we had been raised in the other cultures maybe it would make more sense to us.

  6. This is a problem in Desi culture, as well. It is seriously just ridiculous. Be straight-forward and mean what you say. It drives me nuts. I grew up here in America; I don't understand the complexity of what people really mean in Pakistan and what they don't mean.

    When they're being fake and when they aren't. I don't understand why people can't be straightforward with each other. This pretty much allows everyone to assume about others and think negatively about their brothers/sisters, concoct stories and words that may not even exist. Exactly the OPPOSITE of what Islam teaches us.

  7. Salaams; that’s interesting, because I didn’t experience the same Tahruf issues when I lived in Pakistan! Sure there was plenty in politics and in the media, but I think that’s the case every where! Reading your comment, I wonder if I didn’t feel so conscious because in Pakistan, I could communicate! I knew the language and the slang and the swear words and all those hidden idioms that often create barriers for those new to the country; but somehow, Iran feels like a bit of a closed shop; on one side there is the language, then there are all the different political/religious juggling acts; and if you don’t fit in with one or other of them, you find yourself excluded from yet another quarter of society! I don’t think Pakistan is that closed, or governed so strictly by Tahruf, but that’s just my perspective; did you feel those same sentiments among desis in America, or only back home?

  8. wa alaykum as salam,

    I don't interact with many desis here in America...but I felt it a lot in Pakistan. It's just so complex because no one is straight-forward with you; to your face they will be nice, behind your back they talk crap. It's like, you're just better off staying quiet.

  9. Yeah I do know what you mean. I do think I was quite sheltered while in Pakistan though; strangely, I find desis here harder to deal with; and these days, I restrict myself to an extremely small shia quota of them; and that works for me!
    Of course; I don’t doubt for a second that folk in Karachi had plenty to say behind my back, but mashallah it never came back to me, and Insha Allah it cleaned my slate a bit as a result!


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