"In Iran, everything is for free"
Tehran (Iran), March 23rd 2014 

We often ask other travelers who travel through Iran: "What do you like most about this country?". "People are very friendly; they give you everything, so everything is for free!” is often the answer . It is true that Iranians are very hospitable and they normally go out of their way to meet and help foreign guests. Yet there is a small social minefield which you should take into account and that can be tricky, especially in the beginning of your stay: Ta'arof .

Ta'arof is a formalized system of "good manners" and the Iranian society is peppered with this system. It often happens that you want to buy some things in a store and you will hear at the checkout counter: "ghabeli nadir". This means "It's nothing, you don't have to pay", but still you are expected to pay. The shop owner puts himself in a vulnerable position and the client will -in accordance with good manners- never misuse this vulnerability. Everyone is aware of his position and behaves accordingly. It is not only applicable in shops, taxis, restaurants or hotels, but also when people offer you food. Ta'arof gives people the opportunity to offer you a meal ( because they think they should, or because they would like to give it if they could afford it), but they can save face if the person whom they are offering it will decline the offer several times. It gives people the ability to maintain their dignity, because they can offer something to others while they can't really afford this.

Without claiming that we have all the answers, there are a few rules of thumb that we use to dismantle the minefield of ta'arof. First of all, we persist in paying our bills at shops, restaurants, hotels and taxis until the money is accepted. In other words, if you go somewhere for a product or service from which the other person earns his living from, we thank them for the offer, but keep on offering the money until it is accepted. Obviously there are always exceptions to this rule. Especially in towns and villages where one rarely sees travelers, we sometimes find out that it is impossible to pay for small items. We have once printed some pictures to print to thank a host family for an enjoyable evening, but the owner of the photo shop was almost stamping his feet because we persisted to pay. That leaves us with no other choice than humbly accepting this kindness. Also, when buying a pair of stickers for on our roof box, it was impossible pay.

When people invite you to sleep at their house or to come over for dinner, it is often more difficult to assess whether it is ta'arof. Often these invitations are heartfelt, but you only know for sure if you decline the offer a few times. Once people persist after the third time, it is clearly not ta'arof and then you would be crazy if you did not accept the offer. Iranians are in our opinion the best hosts and hostesses that you can imagine. They are warm, friendly and sociable people who like to give visitors an insight into the way they live. For them, a visit of a foreign traveler is a way to find out about how we live in our home country, and to hear how westerners think about Iran. Moreover, in peoples homes you will eat the most delicious food, Iran has to offer. A meal or sleepover at an Iranian family is an experience you will never forget. When going to somebodies home, it is highly appreciated when you bring a small gift; something from your home country or a nice box of sweets is always a big hit.

In less visited areas of Iran, you will probably also meet people who will offer you all kinds of presents. Again, you should decline the gift several times and eventually you will see by the response of the giver whether or not it is ta'arof. For small products it is often not the case, but refusing it several times is always polite. For example, we were once at a gas station in a Kurdish village to buy twenty litres of gasoline, when an off-road enthusiast with a comparable Toyota Land Cruiser pulled up. After having admired each other's car we were invited to come to his house. This appeared not to be ta'arof, but since we had to travel a great distance that day we could not accept his invitation. "Then I want to pay your gasoline" he said firmly. It should be noted that the prices of gasoline are very different from the prices in Europe (for 20 liters in Iran we normally pay around EUR 3,20 and if a local still has some fuel ration left, it will cost him around EUR 1) , but still we feel there is no need that our new friend pays for our fuel. After politely rejecting the offer a few times, he no longer insists, and walks away for a short while. A few minutes later our fuel is paid. Whenever we come across this kind of thing, it's overwhelming. Iranians are really wonderful people .

The moral of this story is that not everything is for free in Iran. Regularly, you get an offer that appears to be ta'arof and it is up to the traveler to act responsibly to it. This formalized form of good manners is part of Iranian culture, because people are considered to others. The friendliness and politeness of its people, makes traveling in Iran a joy. In addition, you will be invited regularly by people who really want you to visit their home. In this case it is not so important that it is "for free", but rather that the experience is priceless.

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