"Why did you switch to this line," the passport control officer at Tehran's Mehrabad airport asked. "Because no one was here," my wife answered. The officer took a suspicious look and then reluctantly took our passports. I tried to lighten it up a bit and said "Do we win anything for being the last people in line?" He ignored me! I knew taking pictures at the airport wasn't allowed. I guess smiling wasn't allowed either.
We were truly the last people to get through, mostly because we had the premium seats in the back of the plane!
The officer finally stamped our passports and handed them back to us. I wanted to ask him "how about a welcome for your countrymen." But I decided to stay quiet and not risk his wrath :-)
Welcome to Iran! But don't let the reception at the door disappoint you. In fact don't let anything disappoint you. Leave all your expectations and perceptions behind and enter with an open mind and heart. Just enjoy the ride and be prepared to take home some good and interesting memories with you.
Here is a little advice for Iranians living abroad who plan to make a trip back home. If you don't want to become disappointed and disheartened during your visit to Iran, don't try to gauge everything against western standards. And don't go in on a mission to change and improve things. Otherwise you'll come back disappointed, disillusioned and perhaps angry; and you'll then give your friends an earful about how bad things are in Iran. It's a lose-lose scenario!
This is what I've learned and works best for me. I enter Iran without any expectations. I see myself as an observer and learner rather than someone who is there to criticize, to look for faults, or even worse try to fix things (I did make a mistake and tried fixing a lock this time, but didn't go far due to lack of tools. Then we had to go out. When we came back, a new lock was shining on the door. I had obviously failed!) I even check in some of my values at the door (you'll quickly find out it's impossible to honor your values there and actually make forward progress!). Ultimately, I look at the Iran trip as an adventure, with potential consequences of course. So when we come out in one piece, not only I don't feel disappointed at our experience, I actually feel ahead and victorious :-)
We visited Iran five years ago after being away for over 20 years. That was an eye-popping experience. We went back again last August and stayed there for 16 days. It was another interesting experience, full of surprises. This is how I would summarize what I observed and felt during this trip:
Iran is a land of contrasts, from the landscape to the people. It is where many things may seem impossible, but almost anything is possible. A visitor may see disorder everywhere: at the airport, banks, bazaar, on the streets and the roads... Yet there is a subtle order to this grand "disorder" that an outsider cannot easily comprehend. There is however one thing that I as this outsider could feel: Tehran and Iran are full of life, love and energy. A very vibrant society with diverse flavors, tastes, colors, and views. The place where all our senses will be stimulated.
The Airport Experience
After we had picked up our luggage, we had to wait in line to exit the airport. I later noticed this was due to the extra check added where every piece of luggage has to go through screening machine. The line moved very slowly, and by the time we exited the airport, it was about 2:30 AM.
We had asked that only few people come to pick us up. It didn't make sense to me for the whole family to pack the airport to greet four people. But this is exactly what makes sense in Iran :-) Just as we passed through the exit doors, we were stormed by over twenty family members who had literally camped right outside the door. It was impossible to move a step forward without first kissing on the cheeks three times as it's customary or rather mandatory in Iran. With every three kisses I was able to move one step forward. And I couldn't help feeling bad about the people stuck behind us. But now that I think about it, I would've enjoyed that experience more if I'd left one more value at the door :-)
On the way home, I rolled down the window and sniffed Tehran's air. I expected the familiar gasoline smell. Surprisingly I couldn't feel it! The weather was actually pretty nice, a little cool and enjoyable. I found out that this is attributed to the gasoline rationing, the colder than usual summer and the recent out of season rainfalls. Whatever the reason, it was great and refreshing! I remember during our visit five years ago I would go outside in the mornings to get some fresh air, only to breathe in a heavy dose of the polluted air and get a feeling of suffocation due to the smell of gasoline. Looking at it positively, I was able to fill up my lungs at no cost :-)
And what about gas rationing by the way? We soon found out that everyone was still able to get around, even though they were clearly careful about their fuel spending now. The gas rationing has just created another subject for people to immerse themselves in. Some people share their fuel ration cards. Some get it from family & friends who don't need it. And some buy their needs from the black market. As a whole, it didn't seem that anyone is handicapped because of it. They had rather become more creative, as usual :-)
Next: An Encounter With Morality Police In Tehran
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