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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
The friendliest people in the world 16.X.2008 11:36
Among people who have travelled through the Middle East, and especially through Iran, it's a commonplace that the local people are some of the friendliest they've ever met. It's not hard to see why this is the case - nowhere have I been greeted so frequently or so sincerely, with experiences ranging from full, sincere conversations to a simple 'Welcome to Jordan!' In Iran, this was especially evident, the most striking example being Esfahan, where no one would suffer us to sit on the lawns without offering tea and a blanket, or, one time, hash and daylight food during Ramadan! Before travelling to places like Iran and Syria - state sponsors of terrorism both - you have to deal with a lot of prejudice from friends and family, who pretty seem to think walking down a Tehrani or Damascene street is akin to stepping into a minefield, which could not be further from the truth, and people like my mother, with her paranoia, almost suck the fun out of the whole journey. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that travellers who have been to these parts are succumbing to an over-generalisation too: that the friendly attitudes displayed to them are representative of the people's characters. I don't think this is true.

There are two factors at work that inform is opinion. The first is that many Westerners equate openness with friendliness, but this isn't always true - Iranians (I'll talk about Iran, since that was my longest experience) are just as open with their negative opinions, like the bile of the man who told me Hafez' tomb was closed because 'the fucking head of the fucking Parliament decided to show up for a visit tonight.' These just don't come up so often in minutes-long conversations. The second factor is the assumption (an extremely human one that we all make) that the way someone acts towards you is the way he acts in general, and I think this is where the misunderstanding arises. In my opinion, it's not that Iranians are more (or less) friendly than people in the West - it's that the guest-host relationship is a special and important one in their culture, and one which carries responsibilites that few people ignore. In the West, where this relationship is essentially non-existent, we consider all behaviour as general behaviour towards strangers, and that's where we misread Iranians' characters.

Basically, while good people and bad people obviously exist in all cultures, the cultures themselves have different codes of behaviour that govern relations with in-group and out-group members. It's the paradox of the SS officer who's a loving husband and father, or of people in the American South - they're the friendliest people in the world if they identify with you, but try being black or gay or driving a foreign car and it all goes out the window; anyone who's seen the American road trip episode of Top Gear will know this is true. In Iran, the situation is reversed; foreigners, i.e. people from the furthest out-group, are treated with respect and favours, a culture that has arisen all along the Silk Road of ancient international trade; responsibilities towards the closest in-group, the family or clan, are also very strong. But it is in the way Iranians treat one another that the other kind of character comes out; our guide in Esfahan, Reza, was spectacularly nice to us, but shockingly rude to the shopkeepers and caretakers from whom we needed to buy things. This is because, as Iranian strangers, they are neither guests nor brothers, but beings to be treated with apathy or even scorn, and to only be communicated with insofar as you need something from them. Obviously, this isn't true of everyone - some people are nice to everyone, some people are rude to everyone, and openness with strangers of any nationality is more common as a rule - but it is a general cultural tendency.

In the West, the situation is rather reversed; family ties are much weaker, as they sense that they are ties of emotion rather than responsibility - you love your parents, but you wouldn't say it's their _duty_ to give you money for your lifestyle; I'm re-reading Jane Eyre at the moment, from a past culture where the reverse is assumed. On the other hand, in the West we have tremendous responsibilities to out-group members, people with whom we have no relationship of any kind. This is why, as a Canadian, I have trouble getting served - I stand by meekly waiting for a restaurant owner to give me a sign he's ready to serve me rather than insist I be served as most Middle Easterners do. Similarly, there's almost no notion of personal space, and it's common to ask bus drivers to let you off where it's easiest for you, rather than asking the question 'where does the bus go?' in the West - a request for the Greyhound to drop you off 'at the turn-off for Woodstock' would be seen, even if granted, as odd. Similarly, while many backpackers have complained that Toronto is rather cold (in any sense), and meeting people on the street is next to impossible (true), this is because they are being treated with the exact same respect we have for Canadian strangers, and one which is based on non-interference; the locals don't feel any additional responsibilities as hosts, as the Iranians generally do.

This Western behaviour is often described as cold or unfeeling, whereas the Mediterraneans are always 'warm', 'open', and 'passionate.' While true, I don't think this necessarily means they are better or friendlier people; they simply have different ideas of which groups need certain behaviour. Moreover, not all out-groups are well treated in Iran - the blacks we saw come from Dubai to Qeshm island were treated with a rudeness we never saw at restaurants (though no worse than they would in Poland), while out-groups with Iran, such as gays or Baha'is, receive the special contempt reserved for 'traitors' within one's borders that has hounded the Jewish diaspora for centuries. I think anyone who tells you that Iranians are the friendliest people in the world, and contrasts them favourably with North Americans or Europeans, is succumbing to the same kind of generalisation that the people who fear all Arabs do.

Damascus, Syria Sy

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