Entering Iran. Not quite business class, but almost felt like an Economy Plus seat. I stretched my feet in the bulkhead area and luxuriated over the two adjacent empty but faded seats. I twisted my head and peered behind me. Head scarves and dark, cheap suits stared back at me. I was the only westerner on the plane from Yerevan to Tehran. Did they put me in this seat on purpose? Were they tying to separate me? Or was this western privilege?
I thought of the long embargo on Iran, years and years of economic isolation. Was the tired plane I was flying on at risk? It was a dated Airbus. I theorized that maybe the Iran Aseman Airlines plane was stitched together with counterfeit spare parts and duct tape.
The steward plopped a tray of food on my lap. I scrutinized my chair for the hidden, folding table. I looked at the people across the aisle from me. They had already dug into their meal. And they were eating off their lap. I correctly deduced that there was no hidden table.
The plane landed early at Imam Khomeini Airport. I reasoned that this was a favorable omen. I was the second person off the plane, and I steamed to Immigration. There were only several booths open, and only one for foreigners. A couple of dozen people were in front of me, and scores behind. A family of seven stood in front of me. A man, his two wives, two older sons, and two younger daughters. One of the burka covered woman, with her face completely obscured in a black fabric, clutched 7 passports. I eyed the cover. Iraq. I grabbed my American passport, and pressed it tight against my chest. The front cover was not visible. The husband barked orders at his wives. He was dressed in conservative Islamic garb. He looked like Mullah Omar.
I then slyly turned my head and eyed the two men behind me. Two darker skinned men were busy in conversation. I honed in on their passports. Pakistan. I pressed my passport even closer to my body. I contemplated that I might not be the most popular guy in line.
I scanned the immigration hall. Several hundred people queued. Burkas and head scarves. Dark suits. There were no other westerners here. Just me.
The line moved arduously and after 30 minutes, I was ushered forward. I slid my passport to the immigration official. He scanned it and haphazardly typed some information into his computer. He punched the ink pad, and then stamped my passport. I smiled, that wasn’t too bad.
But instead of sliding my passport back to me, he handed it to another official behind him. A young Persian looking Ray Romano stated: “Follow me”. He led me to a desk and grabbed a form and began a series of standard questions which I had already answered at the Iranian Embassy in Yerevan.
Traveling so frequently, sometimes my preparation and paperwork is lacking. A combination of being jaded and insouciant. “What hotel you stay at?” I was already stumped. I had a driver picking me up at the airport as required by law for US, British, and Canadian citizens. I didn’t know the name of the hotel. I quickly decided to make up the name of a hotel. “I am staying at the Tehran Hotel”. I reasoned there must be a hotel of that name in the capital. Ray Romano looked at me, and scrunched his eyebrows. My bullshit was not passing his detector. I slid out my iPhone, and despite not having wifi, one of my recent emails from my tour provider was still loaded. I found the real name of my hotel. Nadari Hotel. Ray scribbled something in Farsi, right to left.
“What airline you fly?” This is a pretty basic question. But I didn’t know the answer. “Not Mahan Airlines, but the one that starts with an ‘A’,” I offered with a weak smile. Ray scrunched his eyebrows at me again. I had just bought the ticket the day before, and the name of the airline was escaping me. I found my ticket jammed in my pocket and proudly showed the immigration official. The airline was not printed on the ticket. Ray looked at me again, disappointed.
I was then about to whiff the next question. “What your job?” Again, a pretty basic question. But I was about to make this more confusing than it should be. I technically have three jobs. How was I going to explain this to Ray with his limited English? “I am a salesperson,” I offered. This should satisfy him. “Sales of what?” I sighed inwardly. “Ummm, sales of limousines.” He scribbled something on the form in Farsi again. I own and manage a car service business.
I smiled at Ray. I deduced that I had passed the exam and I would be on my merry way to my hotel. “Wait here.” He walked away with my passport. No explanation. And, he did not tell me when he would return.
I paced in a circle, my heavy backpack weighing on me. Did I do something wrong? Is Ray Romano suspecting me of foul play? Did my incomplete answers make him doubt me? My paranoia increased every time I completed a circle. I passed an office with a picture of the Ayatollah. A lone man sat at a computer-less desk. Every time I circled, this commonplace office began to transition into a sinister interrogation room. The Ayatollah’s dark eyes appeared to follow me.
Maybe, it was my passport. I was travelling to Iran on my second US passport. Yes, that is possible. My pristine passport only had one stamp and one visa in its crisp pages. My Armenia exit stamp and my Iranian visa. Maybe the officials were wondering why my passport was nearly empty. What was I hiding?
Every time I paced my circle, and passed the intimidating interrogation office, I also checked the clock. I made a new circle every two minutes. I watched the lines of people at immigration, waxing and waning. Scores of people were passing through immigration every time I completed a new circle. After thirty minutes, I braved my way back to the desk where Ray questioned me, and I found another official. “Where is my passport?” I asked meekly. He motioned for me to be patient and wait.
The official then starts talking with another man, laughing and then pointing at me and saying something like “Americano”. The other man wearing a cleric’s robe, turned to me with a wide grin, and stated “welcome to Iran.” Was he being empathetic or sarcastic? I forced a smile. I felt like I was an abandoned toy from the land of the misfit toys.
Then the immigration lines completely disappeared. The hall is empty. All of the officials have congregated around the desk which I am leaning against. All the officials, except Ray. The officials were in high spirits, laughing and talking loudly. I was like the invisible man.
Maybe this trip was not meant to be. The stars were simply not aligning. I received my Iranian visa on Friday, April 22nd, with my flight departing on Monday, April 25th. Not a lot of wiggle room. I sent in my paperwork on February first to the tour provider. Americans along with Brits and Canadians fall into special category when visiting Iran. Americans are not allowed any independent travel within Iran, they must be accompanied at all times by a government approved guide. Is this CIA paranoia or the result of poor Iranian-American relations and distrust? In addition, Americans must first submit their visa paperwork to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran, wait for a visa code, and then proceed to your local embassy to process your actual visa. My tour company advised me that turn-around time from the MFA is approximately 30 days. I reasoned that this gave me ample leeway since I sent in my paperwork on February first. March first came and went, and no visa code appeared. In fact, I left my home for a European road trip on April 5th without ever receiving my code.
I arrived in Yerevan on April 14th, and intended on flying from Yerevan to Tehran. I had been informed on April 12th that my visa code had been issued. I excitedly called the Iranian embassy in Yerevan before my arrival, but the embassy informed me that they had not received the code. They told me to contact the MFA again for the code. And one time they even suggested that I visit the MFA in Tehran in person. After a moment, they realized that this was not great advice.
This started a week long Kafkaesque process. After the Iranian Embassy stated they did not have my code, I contacted my tour company. The tour company then emailed me back to say the Embassy had my code, and to call them back. This process took place one to two times a day until the code miraculously appeared at the embassy on Wednesday April 22nd. After depositing 90 Euro for expedited processing at their bank, I sped off to the Iranian Embassy. I dropped off my passport and was told to return on Friday.
I returned on Friday to find my passport with its new, shiny Iranian visa. I then headed off to the travel agent to purchase my ticket to Tehran. Since Iran isn’t part of the international banking system, you cannot easily purchase these tickets online with a credit card.
After another thirty minutes, with his 5 o’clock shadow, Ray appeared. He led me to a small office at the far end of the hall. I stood in the doorway, as he sat down at an ancient computer. He led me through another series of questions, and methodically punched in the answers in Farsi.
After several minutes, he handed me my passport. I stood there and looked at Ray Romano. He stared back and smiled. “You go now.”
And what do Iranians think of Americans? Do they hate them? Read here.