The campers had played dodge ball, sung along with the guitar and horsed around. Now it was time for a hot-blooded battle of ta'arof, the Iranian 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, cab drivers refuse to accept payment as passengers beg them to, hosts must offer pastries even if guests don't want them.

But at Camp Ayandeh, a leadership camp for Iranian-American teenagers, ta'arof is one of the 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, Virginia, was the idea of a group of Iranian Americans in their twenties who run an organisation called Iranian Alliances Across Borders (IAAB) that focusses 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.

Apolitically organised

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

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

Many of the 49 campers, ages 14 to 18, were born in the US; a few moved from Iran as children. Some speak Persian at home or live in large Iranian communities in such places as Potomac, Maryland or West Los Angeles. Some have a parent who is not Iranian and some speak little Persian.

After just a few days together at Hemlock Overlook Regional Park, the campers acted like lifelong friends, playing and talking in a patchwork of Persian 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 on the last day of camp, when parents would pick them up.

"But the Iranian flag is, like, controversial," one camper said.
"Why?" another asked.

"If you put the Sheer-o-khorsheed — the lion-and-sun symbol of the Iranian monarchs — they'll say the Shah is funding this group and if you put the Islamic Republic sign, they'll say the Islamic Republic is funding the group," said Mazyar Kahali, 17, of Cupertino, California.

The campers dropped the symbol and just wrote "Iran" on the flag. Even picking a logo for the camp brought up issues. "We were thinking of anar," said IAAB webmaster Amy Malek, using the Persian word for pomegranate. "But a lot of the images looked like bombs, so we were like, no."

Camp Ayandeh, whose name means "future", costs $595 for the week and is funded by a grant from Parsa, a California-based Iranian philanthropic foundation and donors. Discussions ranged from Persian names, body hair, dating to medical school.

Many found that what sets them apart from their non-Iranian friends is what bonds them with fellow campers. Such as growing up with parents who lived through a revolution or who ban dating until age 18.

"The only thing that I wish is that we'd had something like this growing up," said Danesh Mazloomdoost, 28, a counsellor who grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and lives in Baltimore.

Aida Sadr, 19, a counsellor, spoke of the awkward feeling of not knowing whether to kiss someone in greeting, like an Iranian, or shake hands, like an American. Her generation, she said, ended up "doing a mix of handshake and kiss".

Nassim Abdi, 29, a University of Maryland PhD student who is studying teenage girls in Iran, visited the camp and was struck by the carefree teenagers, compared to their counterparts back home.

Pure attachments

The campers and counsellors who have attended school in Iran said friendships there were deeper. "Here they have ten best friends and when one doesn't work out, they say, 'We grew apart'," said Mazyar, who moved from Iran five years ago. "But in Iran, you have a friend from when you're 5 and you still have them when you're 40."

Some teenagers begged to go to camp; a few were pushed by their parents. One boy "showed up wearing black with headphones on, he won't talk, he said, 'My mom sent me'," said Shirin Hakimzadeh, IAAB's co-executive director.

For campers from areas with few other Iranians it was hard to go home, Hakimzadeh said. "Some of the problems that they've gone through, the racism that they were facing ... It was like, 'Here is a group of strangers who have totally fallen in love with me for the week, who I'm totally comfortable with, who can pronounce my name,' and then to go back to where they're more isolated. It is heartbreaking."