Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Secret Languages: How to tell when "Yes" means "No"

If you are an Iranian citizen who wants to go to syria, you need to go to the nearest Iranian Embassy, which then gives you an official letter saying in effect : "so and so is our citizen, please give her a visa". It is a formality, of course, which was most likely set up to allow both the Syrian and Iranian governments the ability to track their nationals who enter their borders from a third country.

So we went to the Iranian embassy, which with its high walls, pleasant garden, and the always-on TV in the background, makes you feel like you are entering someone's home. Once when I was there the ambassador's very cute little girl was even watching cartoons and intermittengly calling out to her baba to update him on what was unfolding on the screen.

But whatever illusions you may have of a cozy house are stripped away as soon as you need to get anything done. The embassy staff, to their credit, have never been short of polite and helpful. But they are clearly bureacratic and, well, a bit lazy.

So when we gave them our paperwork and requested the letter to the Syrian embassy asking them to grant me a visa, they agreed and told us: "we can have it ready today, if you want, but you can also come back tomorrow morning and pick it up".

In Iranian-talk, what this meant without doubt was: come back tomorrow.

But raed, who doesn't know the unspoken messages behind such exchanges, thought the man meant exactly what he said, so raed responded: "ok, then we'll take it today".

awkward pause among the iranians, including myself, as the man repeated what he said, waiting for me to translate it again for raed.

"so raed, um, he says that he can have it ready today if we want, but we can also come tomorrow to get it."

"ok", repeats raed, "we will take it today", but this time he said it louder thinking that maybe the problem was that they hadn't heard him the first time.

awkward pause.

repeat of the scene again: what the man says, my translation, and raed's response, this time followed by an attempt by raed and the man to directly communicate without my translation, where a mix of english and arabic words were exchanged, but neither understood a single word the other uttered.

finally, the man gives up with a sigh, disappears behind a door for 10 minutes, and comes back with the letter.

So, thanks to raed, we got what we needed, a day ahead of schedule. i think raed should take his time in learning the nuances of Iranian social interactions, not-knowing seems to have its perks.