Iran shirt shopping

by Steve McGrath

I like to travel incognito. Not to say that I deliberately travel as someone else. Rather I enjoy dressing as close to what people are wearing in the country I am visiting. Iran was one of those places. After a couple of days of wandering around clearly a westerner. I decided to buy a new shirt. The dress type that people anywhere in the city would have on. I window shop for a little while enjoying the sunny dry warmth of mid day in Hamadan. Keeping a sharp eye to what people are wearing.

I love to slip between the cracks. I love to see how people live about their daily lives. My beard neatly kept for a traveler and a good tan. No one would ever suspect I was foreign unless I spoke. Iranians are so happy to meet travelers. You quickly attain celebrity status. It is great, yet it is overwhelming. Everyone is so nice all of the time it is impossible to get any freedom to do anything. It sounds strange and it is. You literally run for the hotel so you do not have to meet someone, visit something or answer friendly questions. It is exhausting. It sounds horrible saying it but it is true. Travelers are in demand. People want to extend warmth to foreigners. It is wonderful, yet the frequency of it can be overwhelming. For this reason, sometimes I like to be unknown.

With this in mind I walk into a store with a likable shirt displayed in the window. I greet the man in the shop, “Salaam Alikhuom”, he responds “Alikhoum Salaam”. He knows I am a foreigner by my accent and proceeds to ask me the traditional questions as he pours us tea. Where are you from? How old are you? How many children? and so on. The exchange is concluded with ” you are my brother welcome to Iran”. I ask about a couple of shirts, not mentioning the one I am interested in first, that is just poor bartering tactics. Eventually I point to it and ask “how much for that one” in my new Farsi. It is 30 Rials. A little less than $6 Can. Steep I am thinking. “No, thank you”. He says “how much?” I pause pondering and respond with 20 Rials and the debate begins. For thirty minutes our faces fluctuated tones of intense negotiation as we crunch out the price. I thought he was never going to budge off 27 Rials. I was happy to eventually get him down to 24.

Exchange completed I pull cash out of my pocket to pay the man. He puts his hand out palm facing me, signing the universal no. I am confused? “You do not pay, you are my brother, you are my guest” he says. What a fine gesture I think, I put the money down for him anyways. “No no no, you no pay. You are guest in Iran”. “Of course I am going to pay. Why would you barter with me for a half an hour only to give the shirt away?” He replies with “you are a good man” and mutters something out of the Koran in Farsi that I do not understand. The debating starts again, “take this money”, “No sir”, I am stunned “OK take 20 rials” I say. “No” he says, “You have to take something for this shirt” “OK 5” “No 15” “no not 15 that is too much 5 at most you are my brother…”. “OK take ten”, “OK ten”.

I hand him the ten Rials both of us smiling. Was he smiling because a foreigner bought a shirt in his shop or because of the ludicrous nature of the interaction? I will never know. I do know I am smiling because there is no way in a million years that could ever have happened in Canada. And I am one of the few people in the world who knows it.

  • Iran shirt shopping
  • by Steve McGrath
  • Published on September 1st, 2003

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