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September 11, 2003

The Harderst Button to Button
Hamid Ahmadi  [info|posts]

There are a few negative stereotypes that have made the rounds over the years in our community of Iranian-Americans. "Iranians are always late," that's a famous one, usually followed by "adjust your watched to the IST, the Iranian Standard Time." "Iranians are vein," "Iranians are disloyal," etc. "Don't ever do business with another Iranian" is certainly popular.

Out of all these stereotypes I've always had the hardest time accepting the last one. The one about not working or doing business with any other Iranian. It's always been a source of confusion for me. This stereotype, of course, has no place back home. Who else is there to do business with if not Iranians in Iran? It's only when you move, and when you start mingling with countrymen in foreign countries that this stereotype applies itself.

To me this stereotype, like many, if not all stereotypes, was nothing but a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is until I started working with an Iranian myself.

I have this music instructor, who's teaching me a few Persian instruments and in return I am building and developing this website, his web presence. There is no cash involved. The only transaction is the transaction of time. I am supposed to put in an hour on his website for every hour that he puts in to teach me the Tanbour. This is how we agreed to proceed when we first met about a year ago, and this is how we operate today. But along the way there have been some serious issues, the sort of issues that stereotypes like to address, which could have ended the relationship.

For one thing the nature of the relationship was astonishingly vague. Americans and Iranians have different ways of asserting themselves in a business relationship. And it's always a confusion which model you and your Iranian client are going to choose. With my and my client, it started out as a professional relationship, or at least I think it did. But soon, as the acquaintance grew, the relationship became more of a friendship. I was really excited about his website. It was something that I created and it was something that I put in a lot of hours for. More hours than I got back. The other thing was my respect for him as an elder and my respect for him as a musician, which lowered the time transactions to a chaotic mess. The sand-clocks thrown against the wall.

It was all good though, at the time. As I said I was excited. For every hour that he put in, I put in 3. After a while he started asking me for all sorts of favors, like to put his chairs on ebay, or scan some book for him, or take some pictures at his concerts, and it was hard for me to say no. I considered him a friend and in Iran you don't say no to your friends. You don't ever say no to your family. You don't stand up to your parents or anyone older than you. It's all very non-confrontational and defensive. All disagreements are made very discreetly using subtle hints and sometimes even white lies.

So I pretty much did most of the things he asked me to and lied myself out of the rest. This, of course, was accompanied by me feeling used and unappreciated which led to me not honoring his time as much and being late for our sessions. The whole thing blew over after a while and we had an argument over the phone. He saw the relationship as a professional relationship and thought I liked doing favors for him and that I didn't mind. "How convenient!" I though and gave him a piece of my mind. For once I was straight and upfront with him about the hours outside of our original contract. And we worked it out somehow, and continue to work together.

Fortunately this little transaction worked itself out, in the end. But I can well understand why Iranians want to stay away from each other. There are different marriage models, father-son, sibling, neighbor models that are different in Iran from the ones that are often experienced here in America, or in any other foreign country for that matter. Whether it is a love relationship, a friendship, two neighbors, business partners, etc. it's critical to understand and to address the problem at the beginning of the relationship, if you too want to make it last.

Ali Mahani at September 11, 2003 04:28 PM [permalink]:

Dandyish, disloyal, disorganised, dishonest...

Spot on, pal!!

Add dim-witted, double-dealing, dull, deceitful, dowdy... and there you've got the perfect personification of a pure Persian.

Ali Mahani
Tehran, Sptember 11

Senior Grad at September 11, 2003 05:53 PM [permalink]:

Ali Mahani,

You're now giving me an impression that you are a self-loathing fellow Iranian, as well as a feeling that you have a thing for words starting with D. :-D

saoshyant at September 11, 2003 05:53 PM [permalink]:

A very interesting topic.

This is just an observation and a response:

Iranians are not alone as per the issue that Hamid has raised.

I have seen this in the Polish community in Toronto. They do buy things from each other. But they do not trust each other. Their sense of community is different. But I always thought because they are white Europeans, in the end they hope they will be identified with the larger majority white community and that is why one does not see business alliances or other activities by the Poles.

Nonetheless, one expects Iranians to be more united. Indeed, as per a previous posting they at least have to be concerned that they are not as many as the Arabs are, more so than they might be identified as Arabs. They are also not as many as the Indians are. And Indians appear to be very community oriented.

But again, I believe Iranians have a lot of unrealized capacity. It is the question of a spirit teamworking as well. Do Iranians have a spirit teamworking in which leadership does not mean that: ok well the leader should do everything and I don't care and/or I will create grouplets to advance my taste of doing community work as opposed to that of others.

I am not sure, and I might be wrong and if so I will stand corrected and appologize right now. Or, maybe it is because many Iranians for some reason find others purusing their own selfish and personal interest using the community as their own tool to prosper. The same that others did back home. This is just pure speculation on my part. I am putting it on the table for discussion.

It is also possible that Iranians who disclose that they are of a certain political stripe provoke angers in others and political agitation blocks community co-operation: Monarchists may detest religious ones, communists may detest both, Mujaheedeen Khalq ones may detest all others and all others may detest them. I do not know of course how much Iranians give weight to someone's political background, if they know of, when it comes to do community work or business.

I remember a friend from Tehran who used to tell me he used to take his car to an Armenian mechanic and not a Muslim one: because Armenians are not "d-o-z-d", but the Muslim Persian Mechanic could not be trusted. I do not know if he were lying or not. But if it is true, this kind of attitude of abuse has in fact also existed in back home. So why should one wonder?

But one thing I know for a fact, they gossip a lot as do many other Middle Eastern and Mediteranean cultures and that certainly never helps.

Senior Grad at September 11, 2003 05:59 PM [permalink]:


Thanks for a good article. I had also mentioned in one of my comments about how it is hard for us Iranians to differentiate between *personal* and *professional* relationships. We just mix 'em up. I am also a little surprised by the happy ending of your relationship with the maestro. I personally prefer not having to deal with Iranians who have not yet come to realize and respect the difference between two sorts of relationships.

Senior Grad at September 11, 2003 06:32 PM [permalink]:

Thanks for a thoughtful comment, saoshyant. :-)

I also happen to know of other nationalities living in America with similar traits, or perhaps other unpleasant non-American traits, but of course Iranians seem to be often the ones we are in close contact with. In our discussions (or gossips) we start many of our sentences with the word "Iranians are ..." or "Americans are ...". These represent for us, two opposing worlds, and as immigrants (temporary or else) we always find ourselves oscillating between these two poles, while we rarely are interested in what is happening in the lives of, say, immigrant Poles. (Poles, by the way, seem to be pretty sensitive to being confused with Russians, the same way that some Iranians overreact to being confused with Arabs, which is a topic related to another recent posting really, so I put it in parantheses!)

Some terms you have used, such as "sense of community", "community-oriented", and "spirit [of?] teamworking" may prove quite useful in understanding this phenomena better, but I think they are far from sufficient. We have to come up with new concepts (and names for them) in order to be able to capture this phenomenon more fully. At least that's how I feel about it. The latter term (spirit...), in particular, has become something of a worn-out cliche and does not add to our understanding of the Iranian social behavior.

You wrote: "Do Iranians have a spirit teamworking in which leadership does not mean that: ok well the leader should do everything and I don't care and/or I will create grouplets [an apt word] to advance my taste of doing community work as opposed to that of others. [...] Or, maybe it is because many Iranians for some reason find others purusing their own selfish and personal interest using the community as their own tool to prosper." It seems to me that you are in fact saying something similar to what I had insisted on but was not able to elaborate on in another series of comments below Hazhir's posting of August 31: Democracy: Having or Practicing.

I think the issue of political background and the lack of teamworking there is but an instance of a larger cultural phenomena and shouldn't be put on a par with that larger picture it is only a part of. I think lack of that spirit and the strong presence of the spirit of "zerangi" goes way beyond political affiliations.

As for the story of the honest Armenian businessman (or presumably a business from other religious minorities in Iran) vs the "muslim" businessman, I guess we all have heard such things, and I too have wondered how true such genearlizations can be and where they come from.

I have two explanations: First, anybody who does not belong to a religious minority in Iran is considered by default to be a muslim! So the chances are that so-called muslim mechanic is not really as muslim as his Armenian fellow mechanic is Armenian. This is one possibility. Secondly, in a country where religious minorities are still viewed by a large portion of society as NAJES (religiously impure), the poor Armenian mechanic (or shoemaker, or whatever) should work doubly as hard to be able to compete with his non-NAJES rivals.

Do these explanations make any sense to you?

saoshyant at September 11, 2003 09:23 PM [permalink]:
Senior Grad, thanks for the full response, I would like to ask a few more questions and comments so if anyone is going to be offended by the following I apologize in advance. Furthermore, since many things get lost in translation and conversation, I might have gotten things wrong and I would like to assure all of you that I understand that the Iran of 1992-4 that I saw is not the same Iran of today. There should be more solidarity today than what I saw then: 1) I definitely remember that Hooman, the Tehrani friend, used to say that 'I trust the "sag" (dog) Armani more than the muslim because when I take the car to him, he does not steal anything from it". But he had a certain hostility towards Afghans, who should be another minority, mostly muslims, as being paedophile and thief as well. What is definitely mind-boggling for me is that why should he consider the Afghan who speaks the same langauage, more or less, and is not "najes" so hostile. I asked him a question about this discrepancy and he said "Armenians are Iranians who became Christian, Afghans are Mongols/Turkemen who became Muslim, so Afghans are in effect just Persian speaking and cannot be identified as Iranian." 2) From the above, it strikes me that there is some type of racism or tribalism going on inside Iran as well. When I was in Isfahan many years go to visit the ruins of a Fire Temple, some people were expecting me to start worshiping the Temple. When I told them we never worshipped the Temples or the Fire, they thought I was less than truthful. But more suprising was that when I was about to go to Yazd, everybody told me stories about how bad Yazdis are, that they are fanatics (as opposed to Isfahanis?!!) or that they are stingy (!??)and that I have to make sure that I don't pay too much for food and cab (Yezdieh Pede-sookhteh was something that I kept hearing). I thought that is the tale of the two cities type of story. But when I went to Shiraz, I was horrified by the extent midle class Shirazi considered Isfahanis and Yazdis the root of all problems, almost all of them in Iran. In Tabriz I heard so many bad things about Yazdis and Isfahanis from Tabrizi friends that I just thought maybe that is why Iranians, unless they are related, are so fragmented. 3) These are all anecdotic evidence. If I tell you the number of Rashti and Turki jokes that I heard and the amount of indecency that existed there, I can tell you I have encountered few instances taht could be this similar in other countries that I have visited with respect to the kind of substance (obscene to be exact). (The only similar ones were the jokes that the Russians make about other ethnicities, they are very nasty as well). 4) When I went to the US I was informed of the Azerbaijani Congress and when I researched a bit more, of course I realized how humiliated some of those people felt. Although I did not share any of their narratives that Turks lived in Azerbaijan during the Sassanids or even earlier or that Parthians were Turkish or that Afrasiab was a Turk, I sympathized with their yearning for recognition. 5) The White English-speaking Canadians claim that when the Scotts, Irish and English, they stopped fighting with each other and started working towards building a new country. This narrative is a bit untrue to me, because I am aware how poorly English Canadians treated the Scotts and the Irish. But one thing is true they developed a Canadian mythology that in fact from 1867 onwards all of t ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
Ghazal at September 11, 2003 11:45 PM [permalink]:

I donít think we should stereotype Iranians about being dishonest or disloyal.
Just one example: Last few months I have had really bad experiences with some American mechanics in New Jersey.
One of them stole stuff from my car, another one forgot to put the oil cap back on when he changed the oil. So we made a trip without knowing that which messed up things in our car and when we complained they were so arrogant about it and after wasting so much of our time we decided to give up. I was so frustrated, I remembered when I lived alone in Tehran, there was such a nice mechanic I used to take my car to and I thought for myself if it is for that only reason I have to go back to Iran. I have so many of these examples among people I hade to deal with like my dentists or optometrists or landlords,Ö there have been some that I couldnít call anything but pure thieves but there have been nice ones as well just as there were in Iran. Usually the bigger and the fancier the companies are in US the more they are ready to rip you off.
People are people all over the world there are dishonest ones and thieves among all of them.

Ali Mahani at September 12, 2003 02:10 AM [permalink]:

Senior Grad-
Good guess. But, well, I said it just to add a bit of fun: come to think of it, other nations are hardly better, are they? Just read Ghazal's post.

Elnaz at September 12, 2003 03:58 AM [permalink]:

Apart from all these facts expressed in the comments, some of them quite universal not just Iranian , I just wanted to mention something that seems to me like a very common factor in "our" behavior - I'm not trying to over simplify the issue which has many different sides to it, I'm just thinking about one of the probable causes- and that's lack of self confidence which borders self loathing from time to time (or shoots to over-confidence when we are tired of feeling bad or have had a good day) -I think everybody can recall elements of our culture that consider it rude to express your self confidence ,in some social groups more than others but still, in my view, everybody is exposed to it sometime some way.I certainly don't want to get into stereotyping but I honestly believe that this is a common source of problem for Iranians abroad. and I think this is not only on a personal level but also on a community level as well. We don't like the group we are part of (In spite of defending it against "others"). On a national level, we don't like to be considered part of the regional communities(I admit that there are other reasons for this "Iranian racism", like the past problems and the simple fact that nobody wants to be seen with "losers" even if they are "losers" themselves). I certainly don't believe that it's a problem to be friends with who you're working for. ( for the students: don't you like it better when you can call your adviser by their first name or that they even invite you to their places?) The fact is that because of our lack of self confidence and the strict norms of proper behavior ("adab") in our culture , we bottle up lots of things which end up expolding after it has eaten us for a while, and made us sick and tired of dealing with any Iranian whatsoever (also notice that this encourages our self loathing feelings), even when the other person is not really trying to take any advantage of us.

Senior Grad at September 12, 2003 05:12 PM [permalink]:

I would re-phrase Elnaz's "lack of self-confidence" as "collective inferiority complex", at least in the context of Iranians living abroad. I myself haven't ever felt that way. Believe it or not, the glory of the American civilization never got to me. But I can tell from watching some of my Iranian friends' behavior that they are awed by America.

About the *individual* lack of self-confidence, it is not considered good manners in our culture (and apparently even some European cultures! See Beppe Severgnini's interesting book: "Ciao, America") to show off and brag about ourselves. In America, it's the opposite. If you are not exceptionally great, then you should brag about yourself as much as you can in your resume and your interviews if you want to land a job...