Welcome to Iran - Page 2
Story and photos by Roger Housden

"I always wear black," an American professor who had been there a few times confided to me a few days before I was leaving. "I don't stand out that way." Then, "They will always know where you are and what you are doing, so you should know the rules. Sharing a room with any Iranian is not allowed; sharing a room with a woman who is not your wife, not allowed; having sex with an Iranian woman, definitely not allowed; shaking hands with an Iranian woman, not allowed; alcohol, of course not allowed; most things, especially to do with pleasure, not allowed."

Iran tiles

I took him seriously. Not that I intended to share a room with anyone, though you never know. But who were they? The ones he said would know where I was and what I was doing? I trusted that I would never find out. It remained vaguely titillating, thinking I might be followed or watched. It would be a first, to my knowledge. So whatever it is going to be, and despite any romantic imaginings I might have had, it is not going to be friendly, that is for sure. The Islamic Republic of Iran does not approve of Western ways, especially American ways. They especially don't like writers. So, American or British, I am probably a marked man anyway.

I'm not feeling much better now on the plane. I am sitting next to a Danish engineer who tells me he is helping to rebuild some antiquated plant. He was there the year before and doesn't relish having to return. He tells me he's worried about his connecting domestic flight, because, he says, none of the signs in the domestic terminal are in English, and they only call the flight gate a few minutes before departure.

Iran dome

He seems as nervous as I am, and he has already been there once. Not a good sign. But then I am embarrassed to acknowledge that I feel a certain relief on looking around the plane and noticing that a large percentage of my fellow travelers are European men. They can't all be as ignorant as I am about where we are going, and they seem perfectly at ease — but then again it is three in the morning, when it's not always easy to distinguish between ease and exhaustion. I also remind myself that one of the two or three women I had seen boarding the plane, a nonchalant Iranian, was dressed in fashionable fitted jeans tucked into high leather boots, with a large silver chain belt draped around her waist. I can see her now, a few rows in front of me, sprawled in her aisle seat. She must know something I don't about landing in Tehran.

I stumbled off that Lufthansa flight somewhere between night and day, half expecting a grim and low-lit airport teeming with humanity, like the ones I had encountered in India. There would be long lines at passport control, glowering men with beards and machine guns, and petulant questions from the customs officer.

But I came out, blinking, into a large and spacious structure that could almost have been the international terminal I had left behind in San Francisco. I sailed down an open escalator to the passport queues, which passed along as efficiently as they might in Paris or New York. There were no guns, and no beards that I could see. The woman with the high boots and fitted jeans was just in front of me. As unconcerned as ever, she had now made the small concession of wearing a light silk scarf toward the back of her head. When it was my turn, the officer met me with a smile, looked briefly at my passport, and said, "Welcome to Iran!"

Iran mosque

I looked up, surprised, a little taken aback. "Thank you," I said. "You're welcome," he said. My body softened. So did my mind. I laughed at myself for having generated such concern because of some small visa problem. But then it wasn't just that; nor was it only the warnings of the American professor. I don't even have a TV at home; yet in that moment I realized that our collective fear and suspicion surrounding Iran had somehow entered my skin without my ever having been conscious of the fact. After all, I was a liberal Anglo-American living in the Bay Area, one of the most progressive places in the world. I tended to scoff at the fearmongering of the media and the departing Bush administration; at their clichéd images that neatly divided the rest of the world into good and evil. I liked to think that my European background gave me a more complex and nuanced picture of world affairs. You might call me self-satisfied, smug, and complacent. You would be right. But there we are. These were the assumptions about myself that my anxiety had brought to the surface and challenged all the way from Frankfurt.

And then there were the friends of mine who, on hearing I was going to Iran, said I was either courageous or crazy. Right there, passing through passport control, before even having set foot in this country, I was already feeling sheepish and ignorant for the collective images I'd brought with me despite myself — and on my friends' behalf as well as my own. Here am I, I thought, the intrepid traveler, standing in a perfectly normal airport, waiting for my bags at a perfectly normal baggage carousel, having fallen prey to fears I didn't even know I had — fears, I realized with some relief, that seemed unwarranted by the actual reality that had greeted me.

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Roger Housden

Excerpted from Saved by Beauty by Roger Housden © 2011 by Roger Housden. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Related articles:

Dark Side of the Moon in Iran by Rory MacLean
Lands of Lost Liberties by Michael Buckley
Fashion in Kabul by Kristin Ohlson

Other Middle East travel stories from the archives

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