Socialising in Iran
Visiting Iranian friends or a family, it is customary to take flowers, sweetmeats or chocolates etc and, if possible, wrap them. To show you are more important than any gift, your host will probably place it unopened to one side but the gesture has been really appreciated.
As in visiting any Muslim household, foreign ladies should expect to be closeted with the women, although they may be treated as 'honorary men' for the visit. Similarly, foreign men might not see the ladies of the household during their stay.
For any appointment, arrive on time but with little expectation that others will do the same; often business appointments or meetings will be cancelled with little or no notice.
Be prepared for small talk at the beginning of any exchange, as the health of every member of your family is enquired after. Returning this courtesy will be greatly appreciated. Also be prepared for questions considered personal in the West, such as your salary, marital status, why you don't have children and so on. This is quite normal. Steer away from politics or religion unless your Iranian host broaches the subject first.
If you wish to compliment someone on a child, a new baby, a new possession, etc, it will really be appreciated if you precede or supplement your compliment with the phrase mashallah, which asks for Allah's blessing, so thwarting evil.
Prepare to drink a lot of tea during your stay in Iran. Whether you are in a chaykhana (tea house), carpet shop, someone's home, an office, a tent - actually almost anywhere - chances are there will be a kettle steaming away nearby. According to the rules of Iranian hospitality a host is honour bound to offer a guest at least one cup of tea before considering any sort of business, and the guest is expected to drink it.
Tea is drunk black and is usually served with chunks of sugar. It is customary to dip the sugar into the tea and place it between the front teeth before sucking the brew through it.
Like Turkey, Iran was a nation of coffee drinkers until tea was introduced by British traders in the XIX century. These days traditional Iranian ghahve (coffee), served strong, sweet, black and booby-trapped with a sediment of grounds, is hard to find.
During Ramadan, most eateries close from dawn until dusk. Because travellers don't have to fast, hotel and bus terminal restaurants stay open, albeit behind heavy blinds. Eating, drinking or smoking in public is bad form during Ramadan.
Alcohol is strictly forbidden to Iranian Muslims. There is, of course, a black market - operated by greengrocers - and you will occasionally hear 'whiskey' whispered as you go by.
There are several brands of maosh-shair ('Islamic beer') proudly declaring '0.0% alcohol'. Russian-made Baltika tastes most like beer, while Delster comes in several fruit 'flavours' and is popular because it doesn't try too hard to taste like beer. The lemon version is pleasantly refreshing. Iranian vines were ripped up after the 1979 revolution or now produce raisins. Today there are no legal wineries.
What do you think about Iran?
Iranians know that many foreigners have a negative impression of their country. And they don't like it. Iranians like to think of themselves as equals to Europeans, and don't like being treated as second-rate or being regarded as somehow fanatical when they travel abroad.
While travelling in Iran, one question you will be asked hundreds of times - 'What is your idea about Iran?' Please remember it's a genuine question and you are expected to give a genuine answer. Quite often it leads to further conversation, particularly among young people who speak (and want to practise) English. These conversations are a great way to get a little further inside the Iranian way of thinking, and way of life, and for Iranians to better understand your way of life.