Breaking bread, delivering dreams: The art of hospitality in Iran
Maryam Ala Amjadi
On Line: 29 January 2012 16:31
Nothing can bring together people from different walks of life like a dream and make them march on one road and ahead, above all directions. The horizons of hope are as cosmic as our dreams and what makes the past fall more gracefully into the arms of the present and the present chase the swift footsteps of the future more meaningfully is our ability to grow and evolve between each momentous gap of regrets and dreams, between the “gone” and the “will”, the breeze and the storm. Dreaming is one's most intimate right and just as everything, even nothing happens in time and space, dreams too need a place to manifest, to happen, grow and evolve. Whether in the outmost corners of our minds or in a reclusive room of our own, what is that place called but home?
Home, as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard says, is the place where one can dream sheltered from the shadow of fate and calmed from the chaos of everyday life. We can bolt the doors and close the windows and say “no” to the world outside as we open the eyes within us in the safety of our very own domain. And the times, when we do open the doors of compassion and look out of the windows of expectation, our resounding "yes" is heard and everything, from the threshold to the walls, brims with the color of invitation, the sound of summoning.
When we invite someone to our home-whether we know it or not- we are in a way summoning them to the sphere of our dreams, asking them to step in and steep in our world for some time. When one is a guest in another's home, one gets to see and touch the everyday objects of the other, it is as though one can enter the psyche of the inhabitants of the house because these objects store a great deal of memories, sometimes even more than what human beings are capable of: the cracks on the ceiling which were probably there long before us and the holes in the walls which have stared at things longer than any human eye. What is amazing is that when you come to think of it, sliding doors in a fifty percent sales supermarket have probably opened and closed themselves to more humans that we can ever do in a lifetime. Yes, inviting someone to our khalvat (Persian word for solitude, the sphere of one's intimacy), pulling aside the curtains of isolation, exposing the secret of the corners, showing our dreams to the others takes a lot of courage.
The Persian word for guest is "mehman" or "mihman" which stems from the verb "maandan" (literally meaning, to stay). Perhaps from this paradoxical perspective, one could say the memories of the guest who stays for a short time outstay his presence. The guest leaves at one point in time, but his impact and contribution in altering the space around us last longer. And to feel how strong the absence of human contact after an intense presence actually is, it is enough to stare at the benches of an empty classroom right after the school bell or the cluttered chairs and tables once the rustle of party dresses have left the room.
From a cultural religious outlook, a guest for Iranians is the “habib” (Arabic word for loved one) of God. He brings barkat (Arabic word for growth and prosperity) with him into the house. Iranians believe that a guest brings with him/her a share of fate's flow, bread and bliss, daylight and dreams. Guests that bring good news or good events occur after their arrival are known to have a sabok (literally meaning, light) and blessed paa ghadam (literally, footsteps, meaning with the arrival of that person good fortune also arrives into the house) and they ward off evil from the house.
c_330_235_16777215_0___images_stories_jan02_30_08_selfservice.jpgIf Iranians are known for the excellence of their hospitality the world over, it is not as surprising as they have a long practice and history of guest culture. Ancient Iranian calendars marked numerous festivals and meaningful occasions of merriment in which Iranians had the opportunity to play the good host and the blessed guest. Persian New Year (Norouz), which according to historical evidences has been celebrated for over 3000 years, is one such instance. In fact, guest culture is so entrenched in Iranian lifestyle that "mehmanbaazi" (playing guests) is a common childhood game, particularly among young girls.
It is axiomatic that there are no winners or losers in the game of hospitality, for in life everything and everyone has a turn.
And such is the way in the willful house of the world
Once on the saddle and once under the load of the old
Ferdowsi, the author of Shahnameh, the national epic of Iran (940-1020)
The host will soon play the guest and the guest will know what it means to be the host.
Do a good deed and throw it in the Dejleh river
And the lord will reward you in the desert
Saadi, Persian poet (1184-1291)
The guest is gratefully fed a share of the other's memories and the host is pleasured in making possible and unraveling that share. After all, what we call home is just a house to the others. But when they share our memories and create even more within a mutual space, breathe the same air, break the same bread and join hands in gratitude, there is a possibility that a dream may be delivered, that that space may become home to them as well. This, I believe, is the last step in the ladder of intimacy.
Yes, this is what we humans are. We come to the "house" of the world as guests, we wish and strive to make it our "home" and start playing hosts and then we dream, we dream to become its masters one day, to tame the persistence of the past, accept the evanescence of the present and stop the hesitance of the future with one extended dreamful hand.
Etiquettes of Persian Hospitality
Iranians are famous for the magnitude of their hospitality and warmth, even to strangers and people they meet for the first time. Historical accounts of Persian etiquettes of welcoming guests can be found stupendously in the accounts of European travelers, like the French jeweler, Charles Chardin of the 17th century, who describes Iranians as "the most wheedling people in the world, with the most engaging manners" who never fail to perform "appropriate gestures of politeness".
When Iranians want to show their height of hospitality and their desire to host, they may say sentences like "The door of our house is always open to you/all" or "Your footsteps on our eyes" (meaning, your visit is worthwhile for us), words of decorum which can almost be taken at face value.
When you are invited to an Iranian home for lunch or dinner, you will sense the affection and attention of the hosts perhaps much before you even step into the house. Sometimes, the host meets guests halfway, particularly if it is the first time or if there are any troubles in finding the way.
In Iranian culture, it is important that the house is spick and span and it should look like one is expecting guests. It is also customary for guests to take some gift as simple as a bouquet of flowers or a box of sweets with them and though the host should not expect anything, one would not go empty handed.
When the guests enter, the elders are called in and they are cheerfully welcomed by them. "You have brought bliss" and "You have troubled your steps" (a phrase for thanking the guests for making the effort to meet the host) are common sentences of greeting.
Iranians love to pamper their guests and shower them with abundance whether it is with food, attention, affection or words. When the guests are seated, great care is taken that they are comfortable. You may hear the host asking you "Are you comfy?" more times during the course of your visit. Cushions and pillows are brought in so the guests can relax and rest their backs. The best places are usually reserved for the elders and if they are not already taken, others insist they sit at the head of the house, table or sofreh (Persian tablecloth material spread on the floor or table). The host and the guests then spend a good amount of time in exchanging niceties, asking about family, health, work and their wellbeing.
Serving tea, fruit juice or sherbet (seasonal) and fruits before the meal is customary. As for the meal, it is a colorful display of main dishes of Persian cuisine along with yogurt, salad and variety of pickles on the side. Generous helpings of food fill the plates as Iranians love to spoil their guests lavishly and unlike the past where the main goal was to get together over much simpler meals, hours are spent on preparing delicacies. The best pieces and items are offered to the guests and they are indulged to eat as much as they can. At the end of the meal, the guests say thank you and express their enjoyment to which the host says "noosh-e jaan" (literally, may it be delicious on your soul) which is somewhat similar to "bon appetite". The guests, usually women, offer to assist the host in setting or clearing the table or doing the dishes, which is more than often dismissed politely by host who wants their guest to be at ease. After the meal, the guests recline with the host over desserts, another round of tea, sweets, and fruits and occasionally Ajil (Persian mixture of nuts and raisins) are served.
When the guests are about to leave, sometimes the host packs some of the edibles for them or at least offers to do so. It is also a sign of good manners to see the guests to the door and accompany them to their vehicle or part of the way.
Instances of hospitality in Persian literature
The Persian word for guest is "mehman" (or mihman). When traced to its Avestan root, the literal meaning of the word is synonymous with the verb "maandan" (staying). In Middle Persian, however, the word conveyed a sense of satisfaction and happiness. On the other hand, language scholars today propose that perhaps the word is a combination of "mah" (literally meaning, great or big) and "maan" (imperative form of the verb, stay) which connotes this message: Stay great! Be comfortable! Be satisfied! Think of my house as your own!
Perhaps it was such an outlook that contributed to words and phrases of decorum that last to this day. "Lotf kardi" (literally, you did kindness, you are kind to come to my house) "Safaa avardi" (you bring lightness and happiness with you) and "Step on my head/eyes" (a metaphorical way of conveying the significance of a beloved guest's arrival) are a few instances.
Lest the house is humble and dark
I shall place you on my enlightened eyes
Saadi, Persian poet of 11th and 12 century
In Persian culture, a guest is someone who brings with them light and bliss into the house:
With the graceful looks of the guest, my house is all light
My house is a lantern, the guest a candle and I am the butterfly in sight
Abolghasem Halat, Iranian poet and satirist (1919-1992)
The guest, particularly an unexpected one, is of course, a godsend and therefore should be treated with outmost respect.
Know him as a gift from thy lord
When a guest suddenly shows at your door
Sanai, Persian Sufi poet of the 12th century
It is true that one always has to play the good host and that invited or uninvited guests should be treated in the same manner, however, the guest should also take care not go anywhere unannounced, unless it is inevitable. Although guests may leave when they please, the common belief is that guests are "aziz" (literally, dear or precious) for the first three days.
The guest on the first day is gold, on the second day silver and on the third day, copper.
Many combinations are formed with the word mehman. "mehmansara" or "mehman khaaneh" (guesthouse), Mehmandaar (literally, keeper of the guest, also flight attendant), mehman doosti (love for guests) and mehman Pazir (literally, acceptance of guests, also attributed to a place) are a few examples.
The visitors of the world's guesthouse
Are hosted by your common love and kindness
Vahshi Bafqi, Persian poet of the Safavid era
The Persian word for host/hostess, on the other hand, is "Mizbaan" which some dictionary editors have defined to be a combination of miz (table) and baan (keeper), assuming that it means the one who possesses and offers the table. But in truth, this word stems from the avestan word, "Mizadpaan" and "Mayazad" which was actually an edible like bread, meat or fruit placed on spreads during religious feasts and it went on to evolve into "gathering" in terms of meaning. Therefore Mizadpaan or Mizban as we see it today was someone who supervised food and food offerings during religious ceremonies.
One of the many social faces of Iranian hospitality is Ta'arof (literally meaning, getting to know each other) which are actually instances of verbal and nonverbal decorum. While some people consider them to circumlocutions, others propose that they offer illustrations of euphemism and metaphors that beautify our self-expression and make social situations easier. Ta'arof is very much ingrained in everyday Iranian culture and Iranians follow certain mannerism when it comes to socializing.
For instance, when the host asks the guest if they would like tea or any other edible, the guest usually declines the first offer as a sign of respect, with the intention of not wanting to bother and trouble the host. The rejection is of course out of mere courtesy and cannot be taken at face value and tea is offered one more time and served. The same is in case of second and third helpings during mealtimes. The host who wants to pamper and shower the guest with abundance will insist on serving you more and more food, until you somehow convince them that you possibly cannot have more. For example, when they want to invite someone to their home for the first time, they may say "We have a little hermit of a hut and we welcome you with all that we have" or "Do come to our house, we will have a bite of bread and cheese or some yogurt together, what counts is the company". Of course, these are just instances of humbleness and politeness and you can be certain that you are in for much more than a simple meal when you visit an Iranian home.
Similarly, when guests express their gratitude after the invitation, the host replies with sentences like "You are welcome. is your own house." Or "I hope we host even greater gatherings for you next time." Also, if it is noticed that the guest is not eating much or not eating at all, the host will offer the dish saying "Please have. It has no salt" which is a concise way of saying, having this food will not put you under any obligation. You are my guest, be comfortable. Bread and salt are greatly revered in Iranian culture, as "eating bread and salt" with someone is tantamount to bonding with them.
1-Greeting guests cheerfully is part of Iranian hospitality. The women folk usually hug and kiss each other on the cheek. The men, on the other hand, either hug or shake hands.
2-Iranians host gatherings on special occasions such as weddings, purchase of a new house, a shop or other property, birthdays, before and/or after religious pilgrimages or normal travelling and for the simple purpose of enjoying each other's company.
3-Iranians make sure not to go "empty handed" when invited over.
4-In Iranian homes, as customary, guests also remove their shoes unless the host does otherwise. They are usually offered sandals or slippers to wear inside the house.
5-The tea, fruits, meals are first offered to the elders as a sign of respect.
6- The holy month of Ramadan is known as the period when Muslims are "guests of the Lord", also Hajj is at times referred to as "going to the gathering of God."
7-Accounts of guest-host mannerisms and etiquettes are elaborated across didactic works of Persian literature, notably the Qabus Nameh of the 14th century.
8-Iranians use spoon and forks while eating; knives are typically used only on the breakfast table. But if a guest is comfortable eating in a different way, the host will do their best to make the stay as convenient as possible.
Iranian woman hosts Queen of Norway
Mina Adampour is a young Iranian woman who invited queen of Norway and her daughter-in-law for tea to her house.
The invitation took place in response to the tea time campaign organized by the Norwegian Centre against Racism in Norway. The main goal of the campaign which was founded after the 2011 Norway attacks is to enable Norwegians to meet Muslims and get a broader perspective of them than they can through the media.
Mina Adampour who lives in Oslo posted a message on her twitter wall saying, because invitation to tea and cultural exposure were now popular, she would like to invite Queen Sonja and Crown Princess Mette-Mari for tea to her home.
Mina who had written the sentence half wittingly was surprised to get a call from the queen's office and an acceptance of her invitation.
Her mother, Afsaneh Adampour along with her children and grandchildren received the queen and princess one afternoon with the taste of Persian hospitality during which Iranian tea and Persian sweets were served.
After the visit, Crown Princess Mette-Marit reported by twitter: We talked about the importance of showing openness to other's beliefs and understanding that no one is morally superior to others, regardless of belief.http://www.tehrantimes.com/life-style/94909-breaking-bread-delivering-dreams-the-art-of-hospitality-in-iran-