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An American in Tehran

18 Dec 2008 01:543 Comments
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Welcome to Mehrabad.
By MICHELLE MAY in Tehran

As I sat squashed, dehydrated, and inhaling stale air on Air France flight 554, I worried that I had bit off more than I could chew. Possibly because I had been traveling for 30 hours now, but maybe it was something else. I had been to many places as of late, but never to a country that appeared as exotic, closed and unknown as Iran. Luckily I was sitting next to a nice burly 50-something mustached Iranian man upon whom I could release some of my anxiety by asking nervous questions, such as: "How is my hejab?" "Believable?" "Will I pass the immigration test?"

As he gulped down his last beer of freedom, he nodded, urging me to appear as clean-cut as possible in front of the immigration officers. As I had heard before, this is the most difficult test in Iran -- if you pass the airport immigration standards, you can stay. If you fail, you are as good as on the next flight back home. Taking out my nose stud would be a start, he suggested. As I twisted my nose stud out, he politely looked away and posed a question: "Why would you want to go to Iran, when you could have Paris!???"

A typical question. Insert whatever country other than Iran, and I have heard it before. "Why on earth would you want to go to Burkina Faso? Is there a beach there?" or "You have to bring your own food to Ethiopia, right?" Most people don't get it. I was too nervous about my arrival to Tehran to get into a philosophical debate, so I instead shifted back to practical matters: My passport. It is clearly written that I was born in the United States; was this going to be a problem? Although my passport is Irish, I had heard of others, U.S. citizens with dual nationality, who were humiliated, called traitors and sent home on the next plane, never getting to experience the entrancing unknown that is Iran.

To distract myself from all the "what ifs" I wound a colorful turquoise scarf over my head. I thought I better get comfortable with this because this is how life will be while I am in Iran. I had planned to practice wearing the headscarf in order to wear it with classic elegance, fitting in like a local, but instead, here I was: 30 minutes to landing with my hair popping out of the scarf, neck being choked by wrapping it too many times, lipstick clearly smudged. I made one last trip to the bathroom to get myself in check. The colorful turquoise, hot pink, and gold striped headscarf was in stark contrast to the black one-pieces that other once-scantily-clad female passengers now donned. Luckily, in my insecurities I remembered that I did pack a solid navy blue "back-up" scarf in my carry on, just in case. An added bonus was that the back-up scarf was long enough that I could use it to also cover up all the decorative turquoise beading detail on the Indian shirt I was wearing. Clearly, what was I thinking when I thought of such an ensemble. Although long enough to cover my bottom, I now realized it was wildly inappropriate with its relatively speaking "plunging neckline" which revealed my clavicle bones.

Off the plane, down the air-gate steps into the dark night, and through the glass doors into blinding fluorescent light, we arrived at the airport immigration. Once it was my turn to go through immigration I was "buzzed" through a stable-like gate up to a young male immigration officer. Little did he know, my choice of his line was calculated. I thought he would be easier on me than someone twice my age. I imagined he must watch illegal MTV or have a favorite European football team; somehow making some strange association between them and me, hence letting me pass immigration swiftly and trouble free. Those thoughts were quickly dashed when he immediately questioned my visa: "What is this?" he said, pointing to two parts of the visa which rain-drops had gotten on back in Germany when I was careless and worry-free. I answered him factually, with hand motions: "Rain."

Without making any eye contact he told me to go to a different office to get a stamp to approve the rain marks. I was scared, but obedient, doing whatever it was going to take to get in. From behind a dull, dirty glass window with a vase of dusty fake flowers in it, I interrupted a bearded man watching a chador-covered lady reading from some papers on a TV news program. Pictures of Imam Khomeini were behind him, looking down at me suspiciously, like a grumpy grandpa. The rain marks on my visa were enough to capture his interest from the government-sponsored news. He sat up, switching from mild to militant: "Who does that?!" he shouted. "Sir, who does what?" I asked, wide eyed and virginal. "Who stands outside in the rain with their visa?" "I do, sir." His eyes bugged out: "That's not," he paused, "normal!!" At home I would never put up with this. I would take off on a tangent about what's wrong with not being normal, and how I thank God I am not "normal," because normal people are a bit scary. But here at the Tehran Mehrabad International airport at 11PM on a Sunday, I instead offered a very believable yet scared: "I'm sorry!" knowing that I needed to play the game. Submit & let him dominate. Once I am out of here I can do what I want, I thought. He shouted back at me "Don't tell me you're sorry!! Tell him you're sorry!!!" pointing back to the young man at the customs stall who had just sent me over.

A bit frustrated, and more brazen due to being overly tired at this point, I charged back to the front of the line with a look on my face of someone who had been scolded but was starting to get pissed off about it. The young customs agent made eyes bugged out, and motioned for me to come in. "He told me to tell you I'm sorry" I whined before I had even gotten to his counter. My fellow passengers were watching, worried. He looked puzzled and asked in a lowered voice. "Where's the stamp?" I explained to him that there was no stamp, just a "sorry." He noticed I was upset. So he did what I later learned is typical of many Iranians: he complied in order to avoid seeing me cry. He quickly stamped my passport, wrote some squiggles which I later learned are numbers, and wished me a good time in Iran. I fetched my luggage, and changed my money. The dark clouds lifted: all my dreams were possible again, because I was allowed independent entry to the Islamic Republic of Iran!

I had a few phone numbers of family of friends on me, but due to how I normally travel, I never felt an urgency to call them to see if any of them would want to meet me at the airport or offer me a place to stay. As I looked at all the families feverishly thrusting bouquets of flowers in loved ones faces, hugging, kissing and squealing with glee, I drifted through the crowds in the greeting hall virtually unnoticed, thinking that it would be nice to receive such a reception. Even though the black chador was the look that dominated the fashion landscape in the airport, the people wearing them sure appeared happy and full of joy -- more joy than I recall seeing back home in America in some time. Instead my welcome reception team awaited me outside: the illegal taxi drivers. Because I had been through such a long day and felt so incredibly blessed to have made it past the scary man in the office at immigration, I decided to go ahead and s
plurge on getting ripped off by a taxi-driver without feeling taken advantage of, guilty, or getting into a huge haggle over prices. "The money diet starts tomorrow," I thought. My driver said he did not speak English, but did speak the international language of grabbing my bags, tearing off to toss them in a beat-up jalopy of a taxi held together by duct tape. I have to admit, that US$25 taxi ride that should have really cost no more than US$3 was truly the ride of a lifetime. The hot oven-like summer air blowing on my face, the seatbelt that did not work which inadvertently liberated me on some subconscious level, the sheer speed and agility of this racecar-like driver, the darkness of night, the stifling pollution still lingering after the day had gone to bed, the glowing green mosques whizzing by.... I pulled my turquoise Indian scarf out of my bag, casually putting it on, over my navy scarf, my bangs still hanging out, lipstick still smeared.

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3 Comments

U lady are just too sensitive. Not everywhere is WEST and not everybody is trained as Westerner when it comes to treat a customer professionally. Didn't u know this obvious fact before going to IRAN?Just FYI : Iranians are "impolite" but kind-hearted people. "Impolite" compared to Western standards.Will u upload your pics of Iran anywhere, so i can see them?

Sleepless in BR / December 28, 2008 11:22 PM

What is polite? By Persian/Iranian standards the West is impolite and vice-versa. So this indicates that there is no concrete definition or existence of polite.

Anonymous / January 14, 2009 1:09 AM

I admire your courage and humanity for traveling alone to a country that everyone is so scared of. I love and miss the pure and unadulterated Iranians you had the privilege of meeting on your trip. It's admirable that you were not turned off by an immigration officer or two. They may be gruff on the outside, but often warm, generous and kind-hearted underneath. I like your photo too. You certainly got the fashion down like a pro.

Anonymous / January 25, 2009 2:54 PM