x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Tehran meets Rio: not as different as you might think

A few months ago, I travelled with a group of business partners to Tehran, a dynamic city of many millions of people that is alive all day and night. The group included many nationalities, including some Brazilians.

A few months ago, I travelled with a group of business partners to Tehran, a dynamic city of many millions of people that is alive all day and night. The group included many nationalities, including some Brazilians. Given the impossible traffic, it was hard to schedule more than three meetings a day. By way of entertainment and to break the ice, our host invited us to an exclusive spa at the top of Tehran's towering mountains. The spa was truly world class, with numerous indoor and outdoor pools, impeccable hygiene and, in true Iranian tradition, great food.

@body arnhem:Exclusive as it was, I could not shake my uneasiness at dining with eight half-naked men - the spa is for men only at night, and our table was set immediately after we donned towels and robes. As chance would have it, some members of the same group, including some Iranians, travelled to Brazil a few months later, so my Brazilian host and I set out to see to what extent our Iranian colleagues would depart from a puritanical sense of entertainment.

I had been independently assured that Tehran's residents know how to party. It is not easy to rein in the spirit of a city of about 15 million. In Rio de Janeiro, the first practical issue presented itself very quickly: food. Many in the group would only eat halal meat, so our host assured us that we could go to any restaurant we liked, as long as it offered seafood. Vegetarian restaurants would have been an option, except that every menu I looked at made it clear that a vegetarian dish in Brazil rarely means anything more than a salad and steamed greens on the side.

There were some in the group, myself included, who wanted to experience the local dishes of various meats and mixes. Would I offend the other guests, I wondered? I risked it, adding some elements to my meal in addition to the ubiquitous fish. I noticed some initial judgemental looks, but no one really cared. I wondered if anyone else would have liked to try. Was it the nervousness of being together that stopped anyone from openly jumping ship? What else would a person try? Seeing as I was not one of the key guests, I decided not to pursue my mischievous ways and respect the group's preference.

Drink was also an issue. Iranians are heavy tea consumers. Tea, or cha in Portuguese (chai in Arabic and Farsi), does not stand a chance against the dominion of coffee in Brazil. The group eventually had to buy tea bags and carry them around, since even the best hotels and restaurants had less than average tea, and it was never hot enough. Meetings were interesting too. Iranians are very communal in the way they talk, think, eat and conduct meetings. Even though the big boss has the final say, he gives a sense of respect to all members by inviting them to discuss issues openly.

To the unbending corporate culture of our Brazilian hosts, that must have seemed like the epitome of disorder. They were bombarded with unstructured questions by the entire group, always politely, but with no apparent deference to hierarchy. Of course, when you expect your presentation to take 10 minutes, and 40 minutes later you find yourself only halfway through, you naturally are anxious about your next engagement. The tenacity with which Brazilians hold to their schedule was only matched, quite comically, by the Iranians' forgiving sense of time.

In the end, the Brazilians proved gracious hosts. They not only accommodated but even anticipated all of their guests' requirements. The Iranians, of course, awed everyone with their rich culture and animated interaction. Outside the office, Brazilians are anything but formal. Dress codes are minimalist, and vivacious crowds and music are enough to intoxicate the senses. Whereas most hotels in Tehran are sombre with spartan furniture and boring food menus, our Rio hotel had all the luxuries. But like its counterparts in Tehran, it also did not offer any TV news channels.

As we left the offices to drive to the city, I could not help admiring the beautiful stretch of beach that so defines Rio. The adjacent road had restaurants and bars aplenty. The beach lives on regardless of business cycles, time of day, season or tourists' background, not unlike the roads winding up the peaks of Tehran. Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman