This is a story from 2006 when my parents, like any self-respecting Iranian parents, searched for a suitable wife for their son:

My aunt arranged a meeting with a beautiful young woman “so you two can meet and see if anything could be worked out” in regards to marriage.

I showed up at my aunt’s house with my mother. She shows up with her mom—an hour late. We speak for about 15 minutes privately as our mothers massaged each other’s egos nearby.

My mother had high hopes. “Can Ali call you?” my mother asked as the prospective bride said her goodbyes. She responded positively with a smile.

I called her cell number several times in the next couple of days. No one answered. My mother called my aunt—the RAW-bet here, the contact between the two families. A few days later the message comes back that the would-be bride is upset that she has not received a call from me!

It was a convoluted message, I was told, but essentially it was the other family’s way of saying all bets are off.

Iranian cinema heartthrob, Mahnaz Afshare. Iranian movie poster.
Not perfect? How dare you? Cinema heartthrob, Mahnaz Afshare. Source: movie poster.

It didn’t rhyme with the family’s other messages, though. My parents were perplexed and grilled me on the now-famous 15-minute conversation.

“Anything else?” my mother says, eyeing me like a hawk. “Try harder to remember.”

“I told you. We just talked about education and where we prefer to live. I talked about living abroad and how I made a lot of mistakes in my youth.”

“What? You told her you made mistakes?” My father bolted upward as if jolted by electricity.

“Yeah, what’s the big deal? I told her I made mistakes when I was a kid living on my own in a strange culture.”

“Ah, Ali joon, you never admit you made mistakes,” my mother said with such sadness, as if she had just watched the family’s good name carted off on a garbage truck.

“No, I told her that when I was a kid 30 years ago …”

“Doesn’t matter,” my father shot back. “In Iran, you just never ever say, ‘I made a mistake.’ Period. It’s just not done.

“You just discovered what turned her off. When they go home and start talking among themselves, they say, ‘imagine how horrible his mistakes were that he was forced to make a reference to them.’

“Then, being Iranian, they start giving it leaves and branches. ‘What in the world could he have done? Ah, that’s why he’s still not married! Ah, that’s why he’s back in Iran at all, otherwise why would he bother?’ Pretty soon they’re comparing you with …”

“This is pretty crazy, you know,” I say. “To me, it’s as sign of maturity to say, ‘I made mistakes and learned from them.’ Isn’t life about making …?”

“Ali,” my father says impatiently, “What did I tell you before? Forget about what you know. You are here now. Do as they do here. You have to adapt or you won’t get anywhere.”

This thing with not admitting mistakes has absolutely fascinated me. It explains so much.

Yes, people say with a smile, this is why the government officials could never admit mistakes. If they did, it would automatically mean they’re not fit to govern.

This is why so many perplexing things remain unchanged—things that make you scream, ‘Why? Why? Why?’

Like so many misleading highway signs; like the airport sign that sends traffic away from Tehran’s brand-new airport.

Could it be that the bad highway signs remain because changing them would be admitting screwing up the previous signs?

“People not only never admit wrongdoing, they are always looking for something to blame you for,” says a cousin, who, along with four colleagues, installs and repairs European manufactured laboratory equipment.

“They’re constantly watching you. Something might go wrong with something completely unrelated, and suddenly they say, ‘Ah, it was so and so’s fault all along’—even things that have nothing to do with you.

Then he said something I have never forgotten:

For me it’s better to keep doing something the wrong way than correct it. Because just changing, say, the [wrong] technique I’m repairing something, would be an admission of past mistakes. That’s evidence people could use against you later on.

“Obviously, it’s hard to work in this environment. The Europeans who come to visit us at work just don’t have the capacity to comprehend all the crap we have to deal with.”