The International Writers Magazine: ARIVING IN IRAN
A Westerner in Iran
James Hope Wilson
Departure lounges are rarely gratifying places to find yourself in; you haven’t even made it yet. Time in airports always seems to possess a subdued quality of having already been beaten and as such wanders aimlessly, as if delayed, through the long hospital-like corridors as any other patient or traveller of flight.
There are of course the relentless bargain offers for sunscreen and small toothbrushes. Thick pleasures. The very people you intend to spend the next several hours with suspended several thousand feet above the earth are typically unresponsive and usually boring, though normally both.
I was flying with British Airways, to Iran. Only a very slightly insulting charter I was assured. British Airways, that standard bearer, colonial in name as if there even existed particular ‘ways’ through the ‘air’, and by God, if they did they were British. I can’t quite remember the last time that I looked at a newspaper with such longing and poignancy – at least I could read it I thought to myself. And that was the Mail.
By some freak fortune, I happened to be making this voluntary journey alone as well. Three others had fallen at the first hurdle: the destination. But, buoyed with,
“I’m sure you’ll be safe,” and,
“At least you’ll get a good tan,” and, “I don’t think you have to boil the water. If there is any, that is,”
I was for a fleeting while, dare I say it, confident. Resolute in decision, sound in reason and bold in action...
I’ve always liked the word trepidation and it’s fair to say that there was a fair deal of it when I was called to stand and board flight BD753 from another arid airport lounge bathed in strip lighting and populated in equal measure with people and hand luggage. Simple enough, though at this stage, BD753 was just another number.
Believing that everyone has a particular way of toying with emotions; tangling the hair, biting the lips, drinking gin, writing it down and so on, I found particular comfort in going over and over in my head how it all started: a frank discussion about interests, a startlingly quick settling on the shared love of food, heartfelt expressions of national cuisine, a decided approach to seek out authenticity, followed promptly by snap agreement that context was essential, and finally concluded by the idea that I must go, to see and to taste, to truly understand for myself.
Saman loved his food. He was Iranian, became an incredibly good friend very quickly and it followed that I had to visit.
Arriving at International Khomeini Airport was surreal at best. At least I’d landed and God had been willing. Upon hearing calm voices concerning our impending touch down, “inshallah”, it has struck me ever since that perhaps I overly rely on pilot capacity to land a plane, and how utterly complacent that was of me. Headscarves were heavily donned like visors in driving rain, talk ensued of baggage loss – B.A., I reminded myself – every imaginable sign of importance was written in both Farsi and English and I found myself planted in yet another airport lounge, much the same as every single other I’d ever seen. The difference was from afar however as this time in the distance, everyone was reading the newspapers backwards.
I was wholly tired – I hadn’t slept at all. I’d met a very friendly half-English-half-Persian man who had reassured me that there was nothing to worry about and had subsequently given me an address to visit (an address that was subsequently destroyed – as a precaution) and I had simply watched the in-flight monitor explain exactly which part of Iraq I was flying over for the approach.
They call Iran ‘The Cat’ on account of its geographic shape. I admit this slightly amused me and wondered if anything I had previously read or seen on the news had actually been true about the country; public executions, oppression and violence, political and press suppression, human rights abuses, Islam, nuclear enrichment, sanctions and progress. Not topics easily skimmed over with two hours sleep over a 36 hour period.
Saman and our mutual friend, Amir, met me immediately after the crush at the airport – no hitches whatsoever. I bundled my luggage into the back of the car (the car parks were the same, so far so good) and we drove, both my hosts aware of my state of exhaustion and I faintly listened to UK chart and electronic music issue from the front. My friends spoke normally and smoothly amongst themselves, and suffice to say, there was no wire of concern in their voices. Of course, I couldn’t understand what they were saying and I slept for what felt like 8 hours.
One and half hours having set off from the airport, I opened my eyes to wild reception from my two friends, and a loud helping of dance music. Bleary eyed, I noticed the familiar half-light of dawn and was served up information as and when it was required. We sped past the tomb where Khomeini the founder was buried, mint green minarets and large domes – or gumbads – demarcated where the whole current incarnation had begun in 1979. Huge billboards of planes lifting off from the hands of the leaders drifted by. And I welcomed and absorbed the whole lot, whilst moving steadily (and very quickly) towards the capital, Tehran.
The field of view had already started to encompass the outbuildings of the city, and the streetlights of the place had already begun to switch off one by one, and the lanes of the road had become more clear, and in the distance, tall structures loomed from the horizon that I had heard about, and through the weak light of the sun that was competently getting round to arriving to this part of the world, you could just make out the mountains that meet Tehran square on and indeed help to transform the city into a ski-resort in the winter from the climbing destination that it remains for the rest of the year.
Staring at the road and already strangely thinking how closely the setup resembled the highways in America was all it took to wake me completely from my half-sleeping-half-waking state, for there, across the motorway barrier separating the two sides of the road, was unmistakably a car travelling at exactly the same speed as we were travelling forwards, backwards.
I pointed this out in a particularly offhand and dismissive way – perhaps cars here were designed to go as fast backwards as they were forwards, and perhaps furthermore, this was acceptable providing one was reversing into the face of oncoming traffic – verily, the front of the car maintained a correct orientation and direction to its driving side throughout.
“Don’t look at that,” snapped Saman. “It’s a one off, it never happens, I’ve never seen anything like it, I’m surprised they haven’t been stopped.”
“Or crashed?” I added.
“Stopped,” was reaffirmed. “This is not normal.”
I would have been inclined to believe Saman had the reversing vehicle not remained exactly level with us for the following 5 minutes. I brushed it off for various sakes and then followed by trying to ask relevant questions about the state of the country and the food, whilst also keeping one fervent eye on our own road ahead, where thankfully all of the cars were thus far driving in the same direction as well as facing the same way as us.
Traffic I would soon learn was a way of life in Iran, and I was just going to have to get used to it.
“You remember the Green Movement?” Saman threw into the back of the car to sit with me.
“Yes, of course,” I said. It was hard to forget the resistance effort that built up in the Islamic Republic and came to a head only the previous year. The exact dates I had chosen to be here specifically did not coincide with any passionate anniversaries that recalled how the opposition had gathered, had spoken, and had subsequently found itself crushed.
“That was here. This is Freedom Square. This was the roundabout.”
‘Freedom’, ‘square’ and ‘roundabout’ all rang about dissonantly in my head for a few moments and then, sure enough, the distended arch that became so iconic in hosting millions of Iranians in their plight against the administration revolved about the car as we sped around this vast space. It looked particularly imprisoned and the nature of the architecture itself seemed to disavow the archetypal arch its flowing grace. Somehow plucked and stretched upwards, its geometry if anything only defined more acutely a dogmatic approach to building a monument that needed to symbolise power in height and strength in breadth. Unhelpfully lit, the arch was more a large symmetrical tower, as wide as it was tall, with inelegant symmetrical holes worked into it. It wasn’t something that looked like it would blow over, but it did speak of a structure that would be more than willing to allow a countless number of people to flow underneath it and share its stresses without any regard to the individual grievances of any of them. I couldn’t help but feel that the Azadi Tower looked more like a prison on precise and geometrical concrete sinews.
“It’s very striking,” the struggled reply came. “I know it from the news.”
“Everything is known from the news in the UK,” Amir said flatly and with a forthrightness that seemed fitting at that particular moment. After all, I had hardly invited any warmth from my dim observation. I thought a while and realised at that very instant how pressing the remark was. I knew all along that I had come to dispel anything I thought I ‘knew’ about an entire country, and here I was encircling a monument that was built to mark one revolution, served as a centrepiece for the efforts of another, and one which I could only lay claim to knowing by having seen it depicted in Western media outlets.
Quite possibly the only thing that I could have learnt about this roundabout was the fact that it hosted this rather obese arch and that that was at least in part accurate. It was exactly as I had seen it before.
I had nothing to offer in response. I wasn’t wrong, more I was completely right. What I was seeing I did know in part, but what I had yet to learn was everything else that could never be intimated by fervently watching the BBC and cross-referencing several broadsheet newspapers back home.
Tehran kept coming. Buildings, houses, factories, churches. Windows that must like everywhere else be looked through by people I have never met, holding down jobs and finding their own way through a life that is entirely specific to themselves alone. Windows which have a universal purpose to be solid and yet allow if not only light in but sight out also. Windows that were everywhere, signifying everyone that lived here. Lives in walls that had been lived out before those living now. Generations accustomed to different things, and not least upheaval.
The roads thickened, as did the traffic. The light grew stronger, as did the intentions of the early-risers, determined to thrash out the living and business of today as any other. Still dance music came into the back of the car and I had noticeably grown more animated and quieter. Fewer questions were asked, and anticipated strangeness gave way to an intense and wide-eyed bewilderment. This was the capital of one of the most notorious nations in the West, I was there, right there, for a fleeting while in the immediate and accommodating embrace of an instrument firmly rooted in the “Axis of Evil”. This was much more than your typical, run-of-the-mill “outpost of tyranny” – many thanks to Condoleezza Rice for the classifications – this wasn’t Burma or Belarus. This was the real McCoy, this was a fully fledged powerhouse of aggression. And bakers were wending their way to work and drove their cars on roads following signs that may as well have been designed for any U.S. interstate or highway, to simply go and be, well, bakers.
© James Hope Wilson June 2013
jameshopewilson at gmail.com
*James is planning a book on his 2000 mile journey through Iran