One of my prize souvenirs from my two years in Iran as an English teacher during the 1960s is the brass samovar I found in a local bazaar. Like the beautiful carpet that adorns my study, samovars come in many shapes and sizes. Samovars may be pot-bellied like mine, or straight-sided, brass or nickel-plated, decorative antiques, or functional contemporary models. Samovars and their ever-present pots of tea are a major presence in Iranian daily life.
This is the time of year when Iranians celebrate the ancient festival of Now Ruz, a Zoroastrian tradition. Now Ruz marks the beginning of spring and the start of the Persian calendar. Families gather for picnics and family reunions throughout the country. I was privileged to attend a Now Ruz picnic as the guest of an Iranian agricultural engineer from Shiraz, his American wife, their two children, and many members of his extended family. Early one morning, we hauled carpets, folding chairs, a brass samovar, huge caldrons of rice and chicken as well as other food (enough to serve twenty people) across a river. We sat in his father’s orchard and enjoyed the warm spring air.
Tea was also served throughout the day in the teachers’ lounge at my school. I regularly drank tea or a soft drink in the private office of the president of our local bank with whom I exchanged language lessons. Sometimes, the postmaster invited me to the back of the PTT (post office, telegram and telegraph) for a cup of tea after I picked up my mail.
Rug merchants also had samovars in every shop. At times, I felt every Iranian businessman or government officer believed that socializing and hospitality superceded the official transaction. I suppose I was a slow learner because I often felt frustrated when fardah ya pasfardah …Inshallah (tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, God willing) seemed to rule the day. But as time went by, I figured out that it was always going to take an hour to cash my stipend check at the bank. Clearly, if the president were not available that morning, the tellers or clerks were already taking a tea break or chatting with other customers. And while breaks between class hours often stretched beyond the allotted five or ten minute period if one were engaged in a serious conversation with fellow teachers, I began to fit into a society that values communication. I also learned that any serious bartering about an important purchase doesn't take place until the two parties have first established a sense of mutual trust.
Contrast these memories with an incident that happened last fall. When our car’s engine blew out on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, it was clear we had to buy a replacement vehicle as soon as possible. My husband spent the better part of the next day checking out various makes and models on the Internet. Finally, he found one at a price we could afford. That evening, we drove a rental car over to the dealership. "We’d like to test drive that blue one,” we told the salesman. After a short test drive, we agreed on the purchase. Since it was a “website special,” the price was non-negotiable. When we followed him back inside the showroom, we noticed we were the only customers present that evening. We watched him complete the requisite paperwork. Only later did he seem interested in chatting with us. Actually, he mostly wanted to talk about himself. For the next two hours, we tried to figure out a way to end the one-sided conversation gracefully. We had already declined his offer of coffee because the hour was late and we were anxious to get home.
If the sales manager invests in a samovar, he might bring more customers into the showroom.
Jennifer B-C Seaver (RPCV Iran)