With Iran in the news, it’s worth reviewing a central feature of Persian culture: “Zerangi.”
From the New York Times:
The Real Supermarkets of Orange County
NOV. 19, 2010
By FIROOZEH DUMAS
In August, to be closer to my aging parents, my husband and I moved from Northern California to Orange County. My family settled there more than 30 years ago, not long after coming to the United States from Iran. I was 12, and the culture shock was pretty severe. There were moms in tennis skirts, dads in pastels, good-looking blond boys who surfed and good-looking blond girls who were born to wear bikinis. We were the only dark-haired people they’d ever met who didn’t speak Spanish. When I left for college, I told myself that I’d never live in such a homogeneous place again. Today the beaches are still beautiful and surfers still ride the waves, but the blonds are in the minority.
The closest market to our new house is a chaotic Persian supermarket usually filled with Chinese and Hispanic customers as well as people from just about every country associated with terrorists, floods and dictators. It’s the kind of place you might call “charming” until the third time the lady in front of you stops next to the pomegranates, jujubes or prickly pears, blocking the aisle with her cart to greet her friend with a kiss on each cheek and five minutes of pleasantries.
… When we first came to America in 1972, my father was amazed at the way Americans waited in line at Disneyland. No complaints, no cutting. In Iran, we have zerangi, a concept that loosely means “cleverness.” Zerangi can be both ethical and unethical. Coming to America and starting a successful business? That’s zerangi. Finding a way to avoid paying taxes? Also zerangi.
That was my jury duty in 2006: two Iranian brothers-in-law started a used car business, with the less quick-witted one playing legal front man for his zerangi in-law who had been banned for life from the used car business. The ideas man had a great idea for getting rich: Collect the full sales tax but only send half of it to Sacramento. Eventually, state auditors noticed this transparent ruse, so he vanished back to Iran, which doesn’t have an extradition deal with the U.S..
(Hey, David Brooks, if you are reading this, tell Obama to tell Kerry to make that a priority in the nuke negotiations: full extradition of all Iranians. Iran will send us back all the Iranian crooks who ripped off Americans for us to imprison and America will send Iran back all the Iranian crooks who ripped off Iranians for them to imprison. There will be tumbleweeds blowing in the streets of Beverly Hills.)
Persian work ethics
Beh pir, beh peyghambar, we are lazy
by dAyi Hamid
September 30, 1999
… Zerangi complex
Most Iranians have the zerangi complex. I don’t have the slightest idea where it comes from but you often hear “maa khodemun yeh paa qaaltaaqim”, “maa ghurbaaqaro rang mikonim jaa-ye foleks mifrushim”, “uni keh bekhaad sar-e maaro kolaah bezaareh hanuz be donyaa nayumadeh”, etc. I’m sure you know what I mean. Not everybody expresses it the same way but most of us have this thing about being zerang. And it affects the way we work.
We’d like to work less than others and earn more at the same time. We think it’s not necessary to work, rather we just need a good idea and we’ll be rich over night. Those who work are stupid; they don’t have the brains to become rich just like that. I’m the king of the world. I could make millions in a day, but this government, the Americans, Israel, and my mom don’t let me, so I’m doing a bit of mosaaferkeshi until luck knocks on my door.
by Taymaz Garadjalou
“Zerangi” in Persian can be loosely translated as “cleverness” and to be “zerang” is to be “clever”. Most, if not all the time in Iranian culture and society, a zerang person is seen in a positive light for he or she is intelligent, resourceful and independent/autonomous and is thus what most Iranians strive to be. To be a zerang person can be applied in many situations, both positive and sinister. For example, a person who knows how the American legal system works and is able to work it to his or her advantage is zerang. A person who is resourceful in business and has made something of himself/herself is zerang. However, a person who is able to cleverly cheat his taxes and screw the system and government is also zerang. It does not stop here; a person who is able to wittingly cheat people, companies, businesses, governments of money is zerang and an idol for many Iranians.
In this essay, I wish to focus on the darker side of the culture of zerangi in Iranian society. The reason why I am writing this is because this one aspect of our culture is probably the most destructive phenomenon that our country and society is facing today. It would be quite silly to say that this phenomenon is restricted only to Iran and Iranians, but on the contrary many other cultures and countries share this problem; however, this does not give us a license to ignore the dangers of this trend.
As I initially remarked, zerangi is generally seen in a positive light regardless of it being a good or evil act. Obviously not every single zergan act will be seen in a positive light, but most of it, at least internally or implicitly, is admired by us. …
Sadly enough, Iranian culture, at least in the past 50 or so years, has become the exact opposite [of Japan’s culture]. I remember one time where one of the Iranians here was not only able to cheat the Canadian tax-system, but also cheat his company’s money. Instead of being condemned, various Iranians rushed to be his friend and to learn his clever tactics. He was admired and glorified as zerang and all the women tried to get their husbands to be friends with this Mr. X. I would see wives putting their husbands down and saying “boro az oon X yaad begir, mibini che ghadr zerange?” (Go and learn from Mr. X, can’t you see how clever he is?). One might immediately say that this is the fault of the mullahcracy of Iran, however most of these people have been out of Iran since the early 70s and have not returned to Iran ever since, therefore the problem is much deeper as you will see.
Another trend that is part and parcel the culture of zerangi is the absence of personal-accountability. It is a given that none of the higher echelons of the IRI are held accountable, however I can say that a great bulk of Iranians do not hold themselves as personally accountable either. It is never our fault, it is always “others”. The Mullahs blame Amrikaaa and a bunch of Jews over a 100 miles away, the Marxollahis will blame the Shahollahis, and the Shahollahis will blame the Hezbollahis and Mullahs, but none will hold themselves accountable. …
This type of talk is wide-spread in Iran and it is dangerous as I will argue. The basic idea is that all of our problems are sourced in Islam and Mullahs. 1400 years ago, we were all cultured, tall, blond, blue-eyed and spoke something similar to German until the Arabs came and screwed us, made us short, dark and hairy. After this, mullahs were created and everything that point on messed up.
… The problem is not that a Mullah becomes a thief, but it’s the exact opposite; it is a thief who becomes a Mullah. We Iranians, although outwardly criticize corruption, internally glorify it and wish to master it. When we attack Rafsanjani for being a thief and corrupt, we may outwardly oppose him by saying it is wrong, but internally we are jealous of him, we admire him and wish we could take his place. Whenever there is an opportunity to make easy money through corruption we all rush to it. At one point, it was to do it with the British, at another, it was to do it with the Russians and at another, it was to become a Mullah.
My point is this: during the Shah’s time, we blamed all of Iran’s problems and corruption on the Shah. We thought that after the revolution and kicking out the Shah as well as having Mullahs come to power, everything would be ok and all our problems would be solved. The problems however did not change and got worse and now we fantasize about kicking out the Mullahs and bringing the Shah’s son back, or just bringing another order that doesn’t involve turbans. However, the underlying issue is that we do not hold ourselves accountable, we bribe and take bribes, cheat others and the government of money and when we are successful at it our society calls us zerang.