Many years ago, I had a friend who particularly came to see me since she was experiencing anxiety and low mood due to some intrusive guests.
Her main grievance was her lack of tolerance with some guests that was staying in her place for about three weeks. My friend stated that she was tired of not having any privacy or own space. She sounded extremely stressed out and upset. It seemed to her that these guests would never leave, as time was running slow, slower than ever.
I asked her what she meant by these guests never leaving. How long did they come for initially? My next question was how come she could not ask them to stay in a hotel. She challenged my nonsense question by reminding me of our Iranian Taroof business.
At that moment, I knew exactly what she meant.
Now my friend was in a situation where she in addition to the everyday stress for work, studies, and challenges of life, she had to tackle with an extra tension. I could see that she was unable to carry on, a reason for her to seek out.
I knew this woman since a long time. She moved to Canada about ten years ago. In her past ten years she lived here, she had may set of guests. These guests could be her parents, in-laws, siblings, cousins, friends from Iran, and sometimes a relative who was visiting this town. Once family and friends stopped coming, they would refer someone else who was visiting this town to go and say hi to my dear friend. This saying hi meant much more than just a word. We Iranian know what this means, it means that she had to put some extra time and effort to invite this person, she needed to consider accommodating him or her, may need be the case, and she had to offer the person some taste of our Iranian hospitality to the best of her ability.
She actually remembered one lady she knew from high school who had called her many years ago saying that her brother and a whole family was in town and that would be nice to have them visit my friend. Culturally this visit would only be a reason for a relative to a friend become friend to you. This is a very complicated concept that we Iranian are well accustomed to. Friend to parents of in-laws can be easily friends of your siblings for instance. Although there is no formula for this type of expanding on social relationships, still, there are few key concepts here. If we think someone has a status, has a specialty, or has a character, we like all other people around us to get to know that friend.
Anyhow, about this family being in town: One day led to another and my friend totally forgot to call this new arrived family. After a couple of month she had this call again from this lady accusing my friend of being disrespectful and irresponsible. After that incident my friend never heard back from that lady which for her became a pleasant way of getting rid of one more trouble.
So now, all these guests who were coming to visit her, they came either as part of their vacation or a transit to other visits in the State. This time my friend had a couple who visiting her or better to say, staying at her place. I thought of her running a bed and breakfast, at least she could earn some money for her hospitality. She continued to briefly express herself, how much she felt exhausted of all these visitors who come to abuse her resources while being on vacation.
I asked her to elaborate on her feelings. This is a typical problem we all have. Really, we Iranian, sometimes, have no limits for how much of our resources are ours and how much we want to share it with others. Now my friend explained further that now she is tired of all this coming home after work, making food for her guests, while planning her next work day.
At this point, she managed to identify a big issue, that there is a lot she can not speak with her husband about. My friend is a successful professional who is respected in her work place and known for her creative ideas. She suffered from the fact that she could not get rid of the unwanted guests. She also was in pain as she felt she was not being respected by these intrusive guests. The day before she came to see me, she had managed to sit down and write a letter to her husband in order to express her overwhelming emotions about this particular problem.
She started to tell me the story in more detail. I just remember her saying:
It is about three weeks now we have quests in our home. This is not the first time, not the second time, and maybe the tenth time we have people who come to stay with us more than a week. I know that it is our culture to show our hospitality and be guest-friendly, however, now I am sick and tired of being a doormat to others. I am not able to talk with my husband right now as we have to wait for these people to leave. I hope to have a serious talk with my husband and make sure that we are clear about our goals for future events. It is devastating to wait for this talk since we we have to first get our home back. I know that we should be able to communicate better. I am extremely sad, stressed out, unhappy, frustrated, and angry for many reasons. I feel my home is invaded, I feel my privacy and my life is exploited and exhausted, I feel we are being used by people whom we do not have much in common with. It is my understanding that people who go for vacation they go to stay in hotels, they rent a car for sightseeing, and they go out to adventures. Now we are doing multiple works, we are a hotel where people do not need to pay, we provide for free rides around the city, we take people to parks on our free times, and we offer them best food for free again. What is it about our culture that makes us this stupid? I am really tired of this. Now for this recent guest episode, this couple said they will be here for a short time, yet now it is three weeks. I wish I was brave enough to say that I could reserve a hotel for them and I could tell them that I do not have time for guests at this point of time. I wish I was courageous enough to say that I can not take you in my home as I am busy with my own life. There are many things I wish I had said, yet, now, I promise you, next time, if they come I will leave from that door. Oh, no, I will tell them straight into their face that I can not be their host. I can not find any reason to let people reside in my home besides living with this Taroof business. Caring about our resources and our life, I think we should be able to say no to others who use our home as a hotel. For past couple of weeks, although I have pretended to the most, yet, inside me is hurting and aching. I have slept many nights with tears and cried to the middle of nights just because I do not understand why I have to be in service for these people.
Now my friend was telling me that we are unable to tell people know how our privacy, our time, and our life are important. So we should be in charge next time and tell people about our limitations. I really questioned her ability of being expressive next time, although now she was giving me the indication that she had made her mind clear about her own rules. My friend has not even shared her feelings with her husband who had no idea how much she feel invaded. After listening to my friend we sat down and talked about many things. I was happy that she had come to a conclusion and she was able to articulate herself. This was after all the most tolerant person I knew. After she left, I started instantly thinking of how we Iranian define the idea of niceness in our complex and contextual culture? Why do we need to be nice at all and to whom?
I came to think of how the stigma and fear of becoming disgraced is already discrediting our true self. The connotation of being guest-friendly comes from the time where people came from rural areas to the cities to seek work, to seek medical care that was not available in their home town, or for other attractions of a big city like Tehran.
We Iranian are aware of families who lived in big cities and they always had a group of people visiting them from other places. Now that migration is a factor here, our Iranian families, not only visit cities in Iran, they also use their resources to check on relatives who reside outside of Iran. This is a good plan, they visit their loved ones, which is a very positive activity, and also they have their vacation almost paid. Not to mention that some families who come to visit, once they are returning, they have to take home souvenirs. The question about who should pay for all those souvenirs brings in another chapter of the Iranian way of thinking. We will not go there.
I know of an older lady, age 82; she recalls how her mother always made food for least 20 people. This is one of her most repetitive memories as she keeps repeating herself every five minutes.
Now, my question is how we still today, in the 21 century carry on with same traditions that had another contextual meaning.
I guess we Iranian always need to proof ourselves being good, acceptable, friendly, generous, and kind. This is how we would feel superior and in control. This feeling comes along with the sensitivity and adaptability to time and space. If we agree that the style of life has changed, we could question ourselves how in the world we still continue same old behaviours.
About our hospitality: our cognitive blueprint is to show we are capable and reliable. In our Persian culture, it is something about being man enough, to feed many people, to be generous, to pay for others, and to not complain about anything. The hidden aspect of this concept is to be a good, obedient, and gentle person, who at times has no self-defined identity.
Why this is a case in our lives? Why we Iranian (in general) follow this pattern?
There is much more to this discussion.
I believe that once we Iranian are unable to talk about our own boundaries, we defeat ourselves. Our socially construed discourse of hospitality lies in between the layers of internalized oppression, inter-dependability, subjugation, and conformity.
We should be able to have a choice, to use our hospitality as part of our care and love for being with others, not as an obligation.
How we Iranian know ourselves as kind, generous, and guest -lovers has to do with our ancient culture. Our sense of hospitality is certainly well-known and recognized culturally. We have always been proud of our level of hospitality and we undeniably try to be in provision for our quests when they arrive at our doors.
From early childhood, we Iranian hear our parents offering a lot of our resources to our guests. Who are these people anyway? In our ancient Persian culture we say guests are associates to god (Rahmate Khoda) and you treat them with the best of your ability.
In fact we Iranian learn implicitly how to treat others and how to let others treat us. Our parents were always offering best food to the quests and we children could be served food separately so we were not supposed to mess up in front of our guests. Again, there is no general united way of defining our Iranian guest culture.
Many of us, we always had our guest room locked; because children were blamed to make that holy room a clutter if they were allowed to spend time there. In our guest rooms we had our nicest Persian rugs, best china, furniture of good quality and we served our best food in there. I still sense the air in that tidy room where furniture could speak to one another. Everything was in order ready for strangers to come in and enjoy. This is the story of millions of our homes; many of us remember those extra rooms and extra items kept years after years for the use of others. And how did we do, our everyday life we spend time in our living room and we used our casual plates or much cheaper china sets. Our food was less fancy in our everyday life and our habits much informal compare to when we had quests.
We are raised with this schema, this mental filter that we should be nice to others; strangers. With today’s terminology, we used to be a pleaser, to please everyone, but ourselves. This being polite could mean acting nice, or pretending to be nice, just because pleasing others would help us to keep a face, to keep our facade, whatever it was.
Sometimes we really enjoy having people around us and we do this by choice, we are a collectively raised culture, where individuality does not mean much. Many times we have no idea about how life is like when no we are not having people over. Please note that we Iranian similar to every other group of people have different habits, rituals, and styles of life. Again, we are making general statements while we are open for all the possibilities of exceptions and different ideas around how we Iranian are.
I guess many of us share many memories of the time when our parents used to lodge people who came from other cities either to visit or to come for various events. Our mothers used to have a room full of specially designed mattresses, blankets, comforters, pillows, and bed sheets. These guests-sleeping-tools , how we call it Raktekhab, was usually made of nice satin, embroidery cottons, or even silk sheets, in any case, all the best quality that our parents could afford.
If we do a check in to most Iranian homes we carry on that tradition, yet maybe we shift our way of thinking one way or another. Still today, when we have guests, we show our best of best, all from food to entertainment. Remember this is a beautiful tradition to be kind and generous to our guests. However, problem arises when we do not have any boundaries. This seems to have a certain pattern that many of us share using it consciously or just following it by hearth. This pattern has many hidden aspects, being nice to others but not to ourselves, to offer others the best of us, while we go for less in our private time.
There is nothing wrong with being generous, you give and you receive, this is the law of life. We live a happier life once we are able to share our homes, wealth, strengths, and hopes.
However, if we try to analyze this notion of our hospitality more in-depth, we can realize that our guest culture has more to do with lack of definition for personal choice, private life, and individuality. We do not always have to be nice, we can say no, and it is time to consider respecting our own private space. We need to spend time alone to learn about the things we lack. With pretending and denying ourselves, we are stuck where we are.
It is time to learn more about who we really want to be.