29 september 2017 – Tehran, Iran

Going too far

“Come with us, we will be your guide. We can show you the city.”

The petite but intelligent looking girl with round glasses and black hijab suggested to me as I held my cup of complimentary tea at a the Haj Ali Darvish coffee shop near the entrance of Tehran’s Grand Bazaar.

The Grand Bazaar’s shops were mostly closed but it’s arched lanes were filled with many black-clad people strolling about. I learned an hour earlier that today was Tatsua, the ninth day of Muharram. Tatsua was special because it was the day Imam Husayn, grandson of the prophet, and his army were encircled near Karbala some 1350 years ago. Tomorrow would be Ashura, the culmination of the most holy week of the year in Iran. It was also the reason that everyone in the city was clad in shades of black: a ritual mourning.

“No thank you.” I told the girl. “I can find my own way.”

I felt weird to refuse her because I would have enjoyed a local showing me around the city on the first day of my trip. On the other hand I felt proud to be culturally aware. Because many Iranians offer you things out of a politeness, a custom they call Taarof.


Tarof or Taʿârof (Persian: تعارف‎) is a Persian word which refers to an Iranian form of civility emphasizing both deference and social rank. For example, an absolutely desired object/person/offer may seemingly be refused while deep inside is demanded and wished. Similarly, someone may offer something they really don’t want to do or lose.

The travel guide warned me about this custom and even one of my friends had given me advice on this issue. ‘If a taxi driver says you don’t have to pay him, don’t believe him and insist on paying, he is merely being polite’ she had warned me.

“Really, come with us. We would like to show you around the city.” the girl repeated her question.

“No, thank you, I don’t need any help.” I refused her offer for a second time while smiling.

The trick with Taarof is that you refuse often enough so that the person who made the offer to retract the offer without seeming to be impolite. There is no strict rule how often someone should offer something before you can believe them, but three times was a good rule of thumb. So I looked eagerly at the girl and waited if she would make a third offer.

“We would really like to show you the city. We can take some photo’s together.” the girl offered a third time while showing her obviously expensive Canon Eos 70 to me.

Internally I screamed ‘yes, a real offer!’ I acceoted her offer and soon the five of us were walking into the city. Our group consisted of a quiet artistic-looking guy with long hair tied up into a knot, a fragile looking girl that seemed to be the artistic guy’s girlfriend or sister and a girl that looked slightly older than the rest with beautiful eyes and face. The girl who adressed me introduced herself as Yeganeh and explained that they were students and they were heading into the city to watch the religious activities and try to take some photo’s.

We were barely a few minutes out of the Grand Bazaar as a discussion started among my student guides. Soon they were all huddled over their phones together, shaking their heads and talking in hushed worried tones. I wondered what had happened asked Yeganeh what was wrong.

“I’m sorry, but we cannot go.” she told me with a serious expression on her face.

I was taken aback. What was going on? Was it something I said? Did I misinterpret anything? My former confidence at my Taarof-knowledge disappeared completely. Should I accept it and just leave?

“Why can’t we go?” I asked timidly instead.

“We cannot go. It is too far.” Yeganeh pointed at one of their phones. They had their maps app open. With some difficulty I managed to make out the distance. It was roughly 2km between our location and where they wanted to go to.

“That is not too far. It is only 2km.” I told Yeganeh.

But she shook her head as soon as I said it. “No, it is too far to walk. We cannot go.” She repeated.

The others kind of stood around me and nodded as she said this. My feelings were really being pulled in two directions now. On the hand hand I felt like ‘ok, let’s get out of here, this is obviously going to be awkward’ and on the other hand I was like ‘2km is not too far, what are they talking about?’.

“I can walk that distance, I often walk more than that back home.” I told them before really

“But you have a big backpack and it is getting hot with the sun. It is too far.” Yeganeh said as she pointed first towards me and then looked at the blue sky.

“No, I’m really ok. This backpack is not heavy for me. I think it is not too far.” I said almost responding automatically even though I still felt awkward about the discussion.

“Ok, let’s go then.” Yeganeh said matter-of-factly and almost as one the group of four students put away their phones and started walking again.

I quickly followed and caught up with Yeganeh. She turned to me and smiled. “You know why we told you it was too far?” I shook my head. I had no idea. “We said it because you might think it was too far, but you may be too polite too tell us. That is why we said it for you.”

What?! My mind was reeling as I to process her response. Here I was, thinking I had a decent grasp on the custom Taarof, but it turned out that I didn’t. Ouch, was all I could think. This makes it really complicated. How do these people do stuff together? I would need to double-back on every question, offer and remark. This would be a challenging trip indeed.

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