Courtesy Around the Campfire

Participants at Camp Ayandeh gather around the fire to sing Persian songs and roast marshmallows. Other activities included dodge ball and Kurdish dancing.
Participants at Camp Ayandeh gather around the fire to sing Persian songs and roast marshmallows. Other activities included dodge ball and Kurdish dancing. (Photos By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2007

The campers had played dodge ball, sung along with the guitar, horsed around. Now it was time for a hot-blooded battle of ta'arof, the Persian art of hyper politeness.

Ta'arof, which involves both parties insisting they are not worthy of the other, is in constant play in Iranian society -- people refuse to walk through a door first, cabdrivers refuse to accept payment as passengers beg them to, hosts must offer pastries even if guests don't want them, and guests must say they don't want them even if they do. But at Camp Ayandeh, a leadership camp for Iranian American teenagers, ta'arof is one of several games and workshops that address growing up between two often-conflicting cultures.

The camp, which began last summer in Massachusetts and was held this year in Fairfax County, was the idea of a group of Iranian Americans in their 20s who run an organization called Iranian Alliances Across Borders that focuses on the Iranian diaspora. Almost 30 years after the Islamic revolution, many young Iranian Americans have grown up in a place that for their parents is a foreign land. And Iran is sometimes a foreign land to them.

In the ta'arof contest, contestants stood face to face and passionately argued -- over a dinner check, a digital camera or a car, with participants insisting on paying, or bestowing the item on the other person, belittling themselves all the while.

"I am a grain of salt in the ocean," said Ameen Soleimani, 15, of Rockville, holding out keys to a 2002 Mitsubishi.

"The ocean?" said Roshan Alemi, 17, of McLean. "I'm not even in the ocean."

"I would love to be your tire as you drove this," Ameen insisted, pushing the keys forward as other campers hooted.

Ta'arof can be hard to translate, and campers said they are careful not to do it around their American friends.

"If an Iranian friend says, 'Oh dude, that's a nice shirt,' I'll say, 'You want it?' and they'll say no. But with my American friends, if I said, 'Do you want it?' they'd be like, 'Yeahhh!' " Ameen said. "I don't do it around American friends, because then I'll lose all my stuff and my parents would be like, 'Why do you only have two shirts? Where'd your computer go?' "

Many of the 49 campers, ages 14 to 18, were born in the United States; a few moved from Iran as children. Some speak Farsi at home or live in large Iranian communities in such places as Potomac or west Los Angeles. Some have a parent who is not Iranian, and some speak little Farsi or come from towns where few people know about their culture.

After just a few days together at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park, the campers acted like lifelong friends, playing and talking in a patchwork of Farsi and English that only those from both worlds would understand.

Inevitably, politics came up. One group decided to draw an American flag and an Iranian one to display today, the last day of camp, when parents would pick them up.

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