What does it feel like to fly into Iran, to enter the country for the first time? Here’s the story of our flight to Tehran including some things you might expect, and some others you might not.
Destination: TEHRAN. I ogle my boarding pass at the departure gate in Istanbul. We bought the tickets months before, all easy enough. So easy in fact that we wondered if the day of our flight would actually ever come; a rejected visa application snatching it all away in a breath.
But our Iranian visas were approved and there we were waiting to board a plane — our plane — to Tehran.
“We are going to Iran! Can you believe it’s actually happening?!” I almost squeal as we wait for the boarding call.
But I am still a smidge apprehensive. The worries of my family and friends echo and seep in, re-seeding doubt. You simply never know. Expectations and delivery. Fear of the unknown. Man oh man, the mind plays tricks. And the more those wheels turn, the more trouble they stir.
Turkish Rock Star Flight
Our flight is with Atlas Jet, a Turkish low-cost carrier. Our reasons for choosing this airline are simple: the right price, the right date.
Little did we know we signed up for the party plane. The cabin is as loud as any in all my travels. It’s almost raucous. There’s no alcohol on this Tehran-bound jet, so I wonder whether maybe there was a group bender in the Istanbul departures lounge that we’d somehow missed.
The flight attendants are decked out in short, sexy red outfits and rock star hairdos. One, a Russian-style dominatrix with a bob, thick inky black bangs, another faux blonde, almost Marilyn Monroe with garishly long fake eyelashes. The crew is rounded out by a boyish first class attendant, long and lithe, who just might be the second coming of David Bowie.
Is this a flight to Iran? Or the Eurovision music trials?
Lesson one: There’s no telling. Ever.
My Iranian Guardian Grandma
There seems to be an unspoken rule in this part of the world (and by this part of the world, I mean Central Asia, the Caucasus and the greater Middle East) that if you are a female traveler, local women – especially older women – will seek you out and make certain you are taken care of.
It just seems to happen. And so it did with our flight to Tehran.
We find our seats next to an older Iranian woman clutching her purse and wearing a dark headscarf (I begin to wonder, “Is mine too light?”). She gets up and waits for us to squeeze in, but she’s eager to engage the moment we’re settled in.
“Allemagne?” she asks. (Are you from Germany?)
Her eyes grow big, “America?”
I nod and smile, trying to feel out her reaction. She continues, “Oh, good. Very good. American people good. Iranian people good.”
Her maternal instincts take over. She looks at my uncovered head with concern, points to her headscarf and charades “Do you have one?”
I pull out my newly purchased headscarf from Istanbul. I begin to put it on and she shakes her head, “Iran, you need this. Not now.”
She gives me a big, warm smile; I can feel her relief that I’m properly geared up for her country.
We wake up at 2 AM for the descent into Tehran. I look over at my Iranian grandma. Two perfectly wrapped chocolates sit atop her tray table. You can tell she’s been waiting for us to wake up to give us this gift.
“You need to stay in Tehran more time. Then you come to my home,” she offers. I thank her profusely but explain that we are on a group tour and unable to adjust our itinerary. The real story is more complicated, probably in a way that we are both aware, but there’s no value in belaboring this.
“OK. Next time,” she smiles.
As I tie my headscarf with amateur hands, grandma nods in approval. “Iranian style,” she says.
I’ve got it right, apparently. Then I put on my long, butt-covering manteau-like sweater. Grandma flashes another smile of approval. “Yes. Better.”
There’s that mild anxiety of the unknown, again.
It becomes clear that her approval doesn’t originate from her desire to see me covered for religious purposes, but her wish for me to avoid any unnecessary scrutiny. I feel more comfortable with her blessing of my attire; she obviously knows lranian clothing norms better than I ever will.
I look about and notice that all the women around me have put on their headscarves and manteaux, too. I expect more black full-body chadors than I see, but our reading of the scene still suggests we are landing in a very different place.
As we exit, grandma pauses amidst the crowd of our fellow passengers to ensure I exit with her. She grasps for my hand to guide me into the correct immigration line for foreigners. Her responsibility complete, she waves, wishes us a good trip and ducks into her own immigration line.
Lesson two: The world over, grandmas keep you close.
Tehran Airport Arrival Process
It’s 2:30 A.M., an ungodly hour to stand in an immigration line. A few butterflies begin to collect in my stomach. We don’t have anything to hide. Regardless, I don’t look forward to enduring a round of questioning at this time of night.
The FOREIGN PASSPORT line moves at a trickle. Virtually everyone else in line is Turkish. From their body language, it seems like they’ve all been through this routine before.
Maybe this is the point where the Iranian visa process – with all its depth, all its background checks, and the hairline timing of the pickup process in Istanbul – comes full circle to bite us in the ass.
It’s our turn, our time to find out.
Trying to look alert, I hand my passport over to the immigration officer, my thumb marking the page with my Iranian visa. I hope to save him flipping through 95 other pages of stamps and visas — to make his job easier and to steer my way into his good graces.
STAMP! Anyone who has traveled knows the victory signaled by the sound of a passport stamp. The entry stamp is easy — perhaps too easy, for the immigration official takes our passports and motions for us to follow him. We are the only ones in line singled out.
We sit and wait.
A few minutes later, we are led by another official into a drywall enclosure marked “Fingerprinting.”
The fingerprint man asks the name of our hotel in Tehran. We fumble through the name. He offers a nod of approval: “Good hotel.”
I place my four fingers onto the electronic fingerprinting machine. The days of fingers in ink, even here in Iran, are gone.
“Welcome to Iran. Enjoy your trip,” he smiles and sends us off to fetch our bags.
I wonder: “Is that really it?”
At the foot of the escalator to baggage claim, a Tehran airport employee stands guard — with a basket of red roses. She hands them out to everyone – passengers on business, passengers returning home, and us. “Welcome to Iran,” she says.
We collect our bags, wait in line for another scanner to exit via the GREEN line, “Nothing to Declare.” All the fear of our photography equipment and laptops inspected – and possibly confiscated upon arrival — all for naught. We meet our guide, pile into a car and head off into the rain-drenched Tehran night.
Welcome to Iran, indeed.
This is only the beginning.
Lesson three: Be prepared to take what you believe you know with a grain of salt.
In recounting this story, I asked the others on our G Adventures tour – two other Americans, two Australians and a Dane — whether they felt the same emotions boarding and disembarking their flights to Iran. Yep – they’d all cycled through the various dramatic scenarios borne of lengthy visa processes and fears of Iran back home.
Like us, they all expected a shake-down but each reported an experience similar to ours, minus David Bowie and the dominatrix flight attendants.
Let’s hope our return to the U.S. this Thanksgiving is similarly uneventful.