“Salam, Salam, Salam” the 6 of us chant to welcome 3 guests at a time into our “Turkish coffee den” made of linens spread out on grass beneath a canvas tent. I sit in the back manning the camp burner, where Turkish coffee simmers. Shiva, the host, sits on the ground adorned with a headpiece made of red Mardi Gras beads and Hello Kitty decals hanging low below her ears, one to the left and one to right of her chin. When asked about her headpiece, she explains that it’s an authentic headdress from Iran where she migrated from 15 years ago. Sina, Shiva’s brother sits beside her in a psychedelic printed Muumuu. As they arrive, Shiva asks the guests in Farsi if they would like Turkish coffee and knafeh, a Middle Eastern pastry.
Farsi is not commonly understood on the grounds of Pynk, an annual weekend long party with a Burning Man vibe that takes place in Vermont with 200 friends, old and new. At Pynk the 200 attendants wear handmade costumes that reflect their self-expression, cook and dine together under the stars, dance to house music, perform their talents and participate in the act of gift giving. Gifting, is a fundamental principle at Burning Man that Pynk participants partake in. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value. Gifts include anything from food and handmade crafts, to performances and workshops. The 6 of us gifted an interactive experience.
David, adorned with bunny ears, who doesn’t speak a lick of Farsi, pretends to translate Shiva’s words.
“She would like to know if you want coffee and knafeh”. As the guests are about to respond affirmatively, David, in his most serious tone, interrupts the guests to explain the Persian custom of Taroof. He explains, “If you say ‘yes’ right away, you rob the host of the opportunity to share with you what she went through to bring you coffee and dessert. Each time you say ‘no’ the host has a chance to share with you how generous she is. So say ‘no’ at least 3 times…seriously, you don’t want to upset the Persians”. Now armed with David’s instructions and brief cultural education, the guests counter their host’s offerings with a timid yet inquisitive, “no?” Shiva responds in Farsi while pushing a bronze plate of coffee toward them. David translates while pointing in the distance, “she says, she walked across the Sahara dessert to bring you this coffee.” Catching on now to the exaggerations of this participatory experience, the guests gesture “no” with their hands with smirks on their faces. Shiva insists, now with a more passionate tone. “She says she grounded the coffee with her bare fingers,” translates David. The guests again say ‘no’. Shiva replies with anger in her tone. Matching her tone, David translates, “she says, you shame her whole lineage if you don’t take the coffee!” And Sina, unexpectedly blurts out in English with a deep Persian accent “you spit on my father!” And with that, the guests drink the coffee and eat the knafeh while we all hold back our laughter.
Upon finishing their coffee, Lauren, adorned with a turban and 70’s robe, instructs the guests to flip over their coffee cups onto their saucers and wait 2 minutes before flipping them back over. Lauren tells the guests that she and Alex, who is wearing a giant blond Afro wig, will read their fortunes from the grains left at the bottom of the cup. Lauren tells the first guest in her silliest and most melodic imitation of a Farsi accent “you are pregnant…” “I’m not pregnant!” protests the guest. Lauren looks down at the grains of the coffee cup and completes her thought, “…with opportunity”. This improvised exchange of sharing coffee, knafeh, taroof, and preposterous fortunes continued for a few hours.
The Turkish coffee den is the execution of an idea I had 2 weeks prior to Pynk. A “you know what would be fun?” idea that came to fruition. Instead of stopping short at the idea, I asked my friends, Shiva, Sina, Lauren, Alex, and my fiancé David, to participate in the execution. I baked 250 pieces of knafeh the day before. It took leadership and commitment just like anything else I do.
Yet the goal is simply to gift people with an experience.
I’m a private chef that specializes in Middle Eastern cuisine. My Persian ancestry is deeply rooted in my being. I’m working on opening my first restaurant, which requires a lot of self-motivation and a commitment to something larger than my frustrations, insecurities, and many times, my knowhow. So eager to succeed, I analyze every detail with perfectionism. Taking the lead on a project that has no financial gain or any real consequence if not brought to fruition may seem like a waste of time. But when executed a profound happiness is shared by everyone involved. It’s a moment of letting go, of having minimal to no expectations and a reminder that life is more pleasurable when not taken so seriously. It is in that space that creativity is born. I communicated the vision and Shiva, Sina and I explained taroof to the others. Thinking I was the most passionate about the idea, I expected to play host, coffee maker, and fortuneteller at the coffee den. Instead I found myself silently preparing Turkish coffee in the background. From the back I watched my friends bring their own expression and humor to the experience, from absurd costuming to ridiculous improvisation. And the guests followed suit.
A few times a year I participate in something ridiculous and silly and/or grand, from cooking Persian food for 100s of artists at Burning Man, to creating a “compliment cloud” – 2 pieces of white fabric sewn together that 6 people crawl into and smother passerby’s with hugs and compliments. I generally lead in the ridiculousness. And just like work, there’s always a moment I’m frustrated and ask myself, “Why did I take this on? Why did I commit to this?”
The thought eventually passes and I’m grateful that it didn’t thwart creation. The sillier and grander the project, the more memorable the experience is for the participants; and this is the measure of success that inspires me. It encourages me, and everyone around me to share and execute ideas that could otherwise be fleeting, or dismissed as too grand, as too much work, as too ridiculous, or even worse, not worth it.
Granted, not everyone is part of a community that prioritizes fun and celebrates each others’ ideas without judgment. Yet, all it takes is one person to set an example. Before long it will become the norm.
Do something silly. Consider the details. Put all the care in the world into it and then relinquish control. Refrain from expectations and watch it take on a life of it’s own. It will surprise you. It will ignite creativity in everyone around you. You will feel light. You will be inspired.