As we slowly taxied into position I looked around the half-empty plane. One of the benefits of flying to odd places is that the flights are rarely crowded, and Iran Air 801 was no exception. Nearly everyone on the plane had a whole row of seats all to themselves. Across the aisle next to me, behind the businessman doing his puzzles, there was also an empty space where the airline had removed some seats and hung up a thick curtain. Strange. Since when did airlines reduce seating? I looked closely. Visible behind the curtain was a prayer rug and a sign pointing toward Mecca. My first taste of life in a theocracy takes place before we ever even leave the ground.
During take off I browsed through the oldest, most raggedy in-flight magazine on the planet. Pages took turns sliding onto the floor while I looked for the in-flight entertainment and meal service. Surprise, the drinks list contained no alcohol. And, of course, no pork was available in the meals. The movie list was also different from anything I’d seen before. American sanctions prevent the airline from buying and showing any U.S. films, so the two movies and one short on the video list were all Iranian, theoretically with English subtitles.
We landed at about midnight Iran time. Tehran’s dingy Mehrabad International Airport turned out to be surprisingly busy, not the Pyongyang-like backwater I’d imagined. Sitting near the front of the plane I was one of the first off and inside to the immigration lines. Unlike most other international airports Iran doesn’t have separate lines for Iranians and foreigners. Which confused me at first, thinking maybe I was missing a sign somewhere; or should have spent more time learning Farsi. After a few seconds of mindless staring though my brain finally filtered through the jetlag and realized any line would be fine.
I checked over my documents while I waited, wondering if someone from the travel agency really would be there to pick me up. After a few minutes I looked up and noticed the Koreans from my flight, apparently similarly confused by the lack of signs, all standing behind me. They knew I wasn’t Iranian and apparently figured I knew something about the airport, or English, that they didn’t. So, to my amusement and some odd looks from the immigration clerks, ‘my’ line stretched nearly to the door while others stood almost empty.
As ‘blind leading the blind’ fumbled about in my head, I finally got to the front. To say the lady working immigration sat in stunned shock to see an American passport on a flight from Korea doesn’t do the look justice. She was utterly and completely dumbstruck. When she finally came to her senses she immediately showed it to the female clerk next to her. Which brought another shocked look. I was actually kind of surprised myself, the first workers I meet in Iran, the very gatekeepers to the country, turn out to be women. And I could see their faces. And obviously I had to talk to them. In my ignorance I’d confused Persian Iran with Taliban Afghanistan.
The woman found the giant Iranian visa freshly stamped in my passport and began logging the info into a computer while I stood waiting with my giant stack of required documents. She was not in any way happy to see that passport, and was so flustered and irritated she kept asking the other clerks how to enter such a rarity into her (U.S. economic sanctions aside) Windows-based computer terminal.
As soon as she got ready to ask me a question I pushed some more documents through the hole in the window. That sufficed for a little more typing before we came to our first problem. She needed to know my hotel. Unfortunately that useful little nugget of info hadn’t been provided by the travel agency.
Fortunately, years of traveling through the hyper-anal airports of Japan had long prepared me for this. Out of sheer boredom I'd once convinced a Japanese immigration official that the ‘Kevin’s place’ written on my immigration form was really the name of a guest house; rather than simply my friend’s apartment as the official had initially, and correctly, surmised. So I gave the immigration lady the name of the travel agency and said it was also the name of the hotel. Her English wasn’t strong but she finally got what I was saying, thought about it for a moment, then decided to believe me.
She went back to processing while I stood there smiling dumbly and trying to look innocuous. Just then irony brought a grin to my face as I overheard the frustrated conversation of a couple of Koreans stuck behind me. “Ugh, why did we do that?!?! What kind of idiot gets behind an American in an immigration line in Iran?”
Since I usually scan immigration lines for Japanese or Western tourists to follow, or Chinese and Middle Easterners to avoid, I got a good laugh at finally being a ‘trouble’ nationality myself.
Finally, after a couple more conferences with her co-worker, to the point where no one would have noticed George Bush himself walking through the other line, I got stamped in and allowed to proceed. My bag was waiting for me on the dilapidated 1970s carousel and, after changing some money and getting an exceedingly quick once-over from customs; I started walking into Tehran’s cold January night.
Walking out I was trying to figure out what I’d do if no one met me. I didn’t have a ton of cash, given the trip was pre-paid and all-inclusive, but not being met would give me a chance to search around the country on my own …
As I weighed the trade-offs someone gently tapped my elbow and welcomed me to Iran. Professor (as I would come to call my guide in the days ahead, and as I’ll refer to him here) had easily identified me from a photo. We were soon in a cab and on our way to the hotel. It was 1am and the quiet night streets of Tehran opened before me.
Axis of Evil tour part III … underway.