In Saeed Assadi’s 2007 film Mehmân (The Guest), Caroline (American actress Caroline Peach), an American engaged to Hamed, an Iranian student in the United States, is unwilling to tie the knot until she visits Iran to see for herself the reality behind the media’s negative images of the country. She stays in Hâmed’s affluent family home, where, still distrustful of Iranians, she goes to sleep with her passport under her pillow. Misunderstanding an overheard conversation in Persian between Hâmed and his parents, she runs away early the following morning to take refuge in the Tehran hotel where her friend Julia is staying. The problem is that she doesn’t know the address and can’t remember the name correctly.
Enter poor but honest Majid, the taxi driver whose taxi Caroline boards. Initially he loses his temper when she urges him to drive on but is unable to tell him where. When he realizes that she is a foreign guest, his attitude completely changes: he buys her fruit juice but doesn’t let her pay for it, takes her to a traditional restaurant even though he can hardly afford it, and eventually, late at night, he sneaks her into his house secretly from his mother, while he settles to sleep in the taxi.
When Majid’s mother comes into his room and sees a nâmahram woman asleep in her son’s bed, she flies into a rage and chases Caroline out into the yard with her slipper. Majid, hearing his mother’s screams, rushes into the yard. Majid explains and the mother’s attitude changes instantly: she shakes Caroline’s hands and welcomes her in broken English.
Although the changes in attitude toward the foreign guest are somewhat exaggerated for comic effect, they nevertheless reflect reality. I have often experienced such changes of attitude in taxi drivers or shop assistants, who, although usually stern and unsmiling (default behavior toward out-group members), change completely when they realize they are talking with a foreigner. I believe this is a combination of two factors: Iranians’ innate sense of hospitality, which accords a guest privileged status, and a desire to show their nation’s best image, or “face,” to an outsider.