Friday, March 12, 2004

Flying to Tehran

Schipol Airport, Amsterdam Thursday, March 11

I enter the waiting room for Gate D5. The ratio of men to women appears to be about 60/40. Very few of the women have their heads covered. As boarding time approaches, the scarves start to go up. Many of these coverings, though, continually slip back, as though the person underneath is pushing it away.

I do not see any woman pass by the ticket taker without her scarf in place. Once in the lounge, they start, once again though, to fall back.

There is one woman on the flight who remains uncovered and I have not yet seen her scarf. She is dressed in jeans and is with a male companion.

I have only observed two female cabin crew and several males. All of them are middle aged. The two women are almost stern in their composure. Their faces reveal nothing, as they glance about the cabin.

An older woman stands in the aisle engaged in conversation. Her face sparkles as she smiles continually. Her light demeanor is highlighted by her light blue and cream-colored head scarf.

There is still a reluctance to stay in place being expressed by some of the head scarves, but the closer we get to the Islamic Republic of Iran the more firmly they stay up. All, that is, except for the woman in seat 7A.

Headsets are being handed out, but there doesn’t appear to be anything to listen to. We continue to watch a toy plane traverse Europe on its way to Tehran on our TV screens.

Sometimes I wonder if I should be censoring my writing, for fear someone will insist on reading my words before I enter the Republic. Fear has the power to shape and direct behavior in many ways.

To me, most passengers on this plane appear to be native of Iran. There is much friendly banter. I expect these people are not representative of the population, as these are people who can afford to fly to Europe. Perhaps, though, they are ex-pats returning for a visit.

Suddenly, a movie begins to show on the screen. A quote from Charles Dickens flashes on the screen: “I hope we are all judged based upon the truth.” The movie, with English sub-titles is called “The Last Dinner”. I find the movie engages me. In some ways it seems to parallel “Reading Lolita in Tehran”, as it is about a Professor of Architecture at the University of Tehran. In this story, however, the 45-year-old Professor is sought after by a much younger man in his twenties. It is an interesting social commentary on the institution of marriage.

With the movie over, I am now intrigued by the route of our aircraft displayed on the screen. From Amsterdam across Europe, we cross the Black Sea north of Istanbul. We continue south easterly to the border with Iraq, and then veer left, staying in Turkish airspace to the Iranian border. Our groundspeed is in excess of 1,000 km/h, so far topping out at 1020 km/h.

I am speaking with my seatmate and I ask him if he is from Iran. “No”, he states, “I am from Kurdistan.” We talk about the movie we have just seen, which leads to a discussion of the social situation in Iran. He explains that in many places, such as Europe, people are living for today. “Here, we live for the future.” His expression is relaxed, and he speaks with confidence.

You know you are in Iran when you exit the door of your Airbus 300 onto an unsheltered stairway leading down to the tarmac. You then walk to a waiting crowded bus, where everyone stands, holding on for dear life as we make our way to the airport. As we start rumbling along I have no idea how long this part of my journey will take, but mercifully, it ends after three or four minutes. I simply follow the crowd.

Ours is the second of two flights to arrive within minutes of each other and the passport control lines are deepening. I am standing behind a short balding, yet swarthy gentleman who, upon noting my Canadian passport, strikes up a conversation. I note that I am feeling guarded in my response, as I am unsure of his motives. Suddenly, a man appears behind me to my right and, without warning, snatches my passport and entry document and begins scribbling on it. Perhaps noticing my startled look, he starts to explain, “validation” and hands my documents back. By this time my “swarthy” companion has explained that he is of Iranian origin but now a Canadian, and the person who snatched my passport was a policeman who just made my entry a little bit easier. I just think to myself “I hope so.” (Later, I reflect that perhaps this was the reason they required me to submit a photograph of myself when I applied for my visa.) Easy, though, my entry is, as no questions are asked as my passport is stamped.

Next I approach what I assume to be custom control where I will be questioned. There is a simple guard with an x-ray machine to my right, and about fifty feet of open space to his left. About fifty feet directly in front of me is a vast sea of faces. I place my bag in the x-ray machine. Apparently I pass inspection as I am waved through without questioning. I am free to join the sea of faces. But, is one of them familiar to me? And then, I spot Masoud. I dive in, we meet, and he introduces me to his brother Ali.

Within half an hour of touching down, I am walking to the parking lot. The driving in Tehran is surreal. In a word, it is nightmarish. The main problem with traffic in this country is that very few people follow the rules of the road. Cars drive without headlights. I observe four people on a motorcycle driving on the wrong side of the road. I will have more to say about it later, but it is like nothing I have ever seen.

After about half an hour of hell on the streets, I am introduced to Masoud and Ali’s mother in her beautiful three-bedroom apartment, just off of Vali-Asr Street. It is after two in the morning before I am asleep.

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