Hospitality and etiquette. When I think of these words, my mind first goes to the old countries where I grew up, to memories of mothers pushing ever more cookies into my hands and evermore food onto my plate while I smiled shyly, knowing that in the end I would never deny the insistent offers. This push and pull is something I seek out, and this is why I love living in the Bay Area; I can find different forms, flavors and interpretations of hospitality and expected etiquette on any given day. Ta’arof, a Persian word that can be witnessed throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area, takes the subtle tension between hospitality and etiquette and elevates it to a heightened level. It is essentially a game and art of deference based on social status and circumstance. It can happen anywhere in life, but it very often manifests around food.
On a sunny late morning at Middle East Market on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, ten or so older Persian men gather to drink tea and share conversation, creating a soundscape of Farsi and softly clinking cups and saucers. Turkish delight and honeycomb gleam in the bright ambience of the newly refurbished cafe and store. Middle East Market was bought in 2015 by Hussein Razavi and his son, Amir. Amir Razavi is currently a philosophy major at Berkeley City College and his thoughtful way of connecting concepts illustrates that. I ask him how often he witnesses or takes part in ta’arof. “All day. Truly, it’s all day. We’re always ta’arofing. Sometimes it’s as simple as offering our customers tea three times before they accept, and sometimes two customers will fight over the bill and it can get quite heated,” he replies. “It’s Iranian, of course, but you can find ta’arof in most all cultures.” He’s right, although in America it’s often considered more feminine to say no to an offering of food or hospitality. Amir actually says “ta’arofing” which makes this point.
For Iranians, it’s simply a show that, in many ways, reflects the aureate nature of Farsi language. A common phrase of endearment is jeegaré man-ee, which literally translates to “I want to eat your liver.” In English that sounds jarring, but it’s used affectionately all the time in Iran and with many Persians. Persians eat saffron and rosewater and speak in flowery terms. It only seems right that they would make an art form of hospitality. For instance, if you must show your back to someone, after you apologize, they respond by saying “The flower has no front or back,” to which you reply, “The nightingale sits behind the flower.” In a crowded Persian restaurant, that kind of talk happens constantly.
I visit Maykadeh restaurant on Green Street in San Francisco on a Saturday night after 6 p.m. to see how else ta’arof might manifest in the Persian community of San Francisco. When I called make a reservation, the host talked to me as if he had all the time in the world, a feeling one almost never feels when calling a restaurant. One thing is clear: it would be difficult to pull off the traditional three refusals of anything you may be offered by your fellow diners. The meals are divine. Persian families and couples fill the seats around the white tablecloths to eat saffron rice and entrees like khoresht bademjan, whose lamb simply levitates in a bath of silken spices, dried lime, and saffron. Traditionally, there is a show of ta’arof when the last bit of tahdig, the perfectly crisped and crusted rice dish so prized in Iran, is on the plate. Someone will offer it to another, and it is only proper that it will be refused and offered a number of times before finally being accepted. At a table across the way, I’m not sure the party is ta’arofing about tahdig, but I like to imagine they are as their voices rise incrementally and finally dissolve in a round of laughs and final words.
In America, we tend to appreciate direct, efficient communication, so second-generation Persians are often held in the balance between traditional Persian customs practiced, perhaps, by older generations, and the nearly curt way of communicating practiced by most Americans in most cities. Back at Middle East Market, the way Hussein and Amir Razavi greet everyone with a handshake and an inquiry about family creates a palpable atmosphere of warmth and it’s clear that the majority of the customers are regulars. Some pick up drapes of lavash and others pop in for a quick homemade meal for lunch.
Hussein Razavi sits with me for a moment outside the cafe. “I was a cab driver for 20 years in Oakland and I learned to read people down to their bones. It’s very similar with ta’arof—we play this game so we can read each other.” I offer that maybe it’s a martial art of etiquette. He laughs “It can be like that, yes. But not so much about food. That’s usually just old habits and ways we show our respect, especially since Persian food takes so much time and care to make. In the end, it’s how we express the way we see you to your bones. We want to engage in life, not just a transaction.”