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Wherever I went, people fussed over me and made sure that all my needs were met. But they can get so caught up trying to please, or seeming to, and declining offers, or seeming to, that true intentions are hidden. There's a lot of mind reading and lighthearted, meaningless dialogue while the two parties go back and forth with entreaties and refusals until the truth reveals itself.

Being smooth and seeming sincere while hiding your true feelings—artful pretending—is considered the height of taarof and an enormous social asset. "You never show your intention or your real identity," said a former Iranian political prisoner now living in France. "You're making sure you're not exposing yourself to danger, because throughout our history there has been a lot of danger there."

Geography as Destiny

Indeed, the long course of Iranian history is satu­rated with wars, invasions, and martyrs, including the teenage boys during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s who carried plastic keys to heaven while clearing minefields by walking bravely across them. The underlying reason for all the drama is: location. If you draw lines from the Mediterranean to Beijing or Beijing to Cairo or Paris to Delhi, they all pass through Iran, which straddles a region where East meets West. Over 26 centuries, a blending of the hemispheres has been going on here—trade, cultural interchange, friction—with Iran smack in the middle.

Meanwhile, because of its wealth and strategic location, the country was also overrun by one invader after another, and the Persian Empire was established, lost, and reestablished a number of times—by the Achaemenids, the Parthians, and the Sassanids—before finally going under. Invaders have included the Turks, Genghis Khan and the Mongols, and, most significantly, Arabian tribesmen. Fired with the zeal of a new religion, Islam, they humbled the ancient Persian Empire for good in the seventh century and ushered in a period of Muslim greatness that was distinctly Persian. The Arab expansion is regarded as one of the most dramatic movements of any people in history. Persia was in its inexorable path, and, ever since, Iranians have been finding ways to keep safe their identity as distinct from the rest of the Muslim and Arab world. "Iran is very big and very ancient," said Youssef Madjidzadeh, a leading Iranian archaeologist, "and it's not easy to change the hearts and identity of the people because of this."

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