An American finds Iran a pleasant surprise
YOU'RE going to Iran?'' the flight attendant asked in disbelief. ``Just being an American is a crime there.'' While the Pakistani passengers on the Pakistan International Airlines flight to London changed into jeans, I carefully wrapped a veil around my head and shoulders as we descended to Tehran.Skip to next paragraph
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The first thing I saw when we touched down was a large sign on the outside of the terminal. Angry red letters declared, in English, ``Down with the USA.'' Then followed an abbreviated version of the Iranian government's motto: ``Neither East nor West, Islamic Republic is best.'' ``Welcome to Iran'' was nowhere to be found.
Only a few passengers got off the plane and headed for customs. I worried that the passport checker might say, ``I'm sorry, your visa was issued by mistake. Get back on the plane.'' But he stamped my passport with a bored air, as if American tourists entered the country every day.
In fact, I was one of the few Americans who had been allowed into Iran since the revolution of 1979, when the Shah was ousted by a popular uprising and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini established the Islamic Republic.
Diplomats in the Swiss Embassy, which now handles American interests in Iran, were shocked when I walked in the door to get a new passport during the latter part of my trip. They said I was the first American they could remember seeing in years.
``You are lucky to have been to different areas of the country. Two years ago, foreigners couldn't travel one hour out of Tehran,'' an embassy official told me. ``But didn't you read your State Department's warning against Americans coming to Iran? I think we have a copy.''
The advisory, published in February 1981, reads: ``Travel to Iran is extremely hazardous because of the continuing anti-American atmosphere and the virulent anti-American stance of the Iranian government. . . . The possibility exists that American citizens traveling to Iran could be detained without charge or taken hostage. . . . Under these circumstances, the Department of State strongly urges United States citizens to avoid any tr avel to Iran.''
``So,'' the Swiss official advised, ``please find a safer place for your next vacation.''
The Swiss were right in one regard: Not one Iranian I met in almost three months of travel around the country had seen an American since prerevolutionary days.
But they were wrong in another. Although I did meet with some suspicion, most of the time I received wonderful hospitality.
On the whole, strangers constantly went out of their way to help me, whether to find an unfamiliar tourist site or to locate a bakery for some delicious Iranian bread -- long, piping hot slabs topped with sesame seeds.
Many people, from police officers to taxi drivers, apologized for having forgotten their English. In the past six years, they hadn't needed to speak a word of it as the country turned away from contact with the West.
Rusty English was also a problem for the woman at the airport office of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, where I was taken that first day by a helpful airport official. This department, which replaced the Ministry of Tourism after the Revolution, was set up to advise foreigners on proper Islamic behavior while in Iran. Providing tourist information is a secondary role, since few tourists of any nationality have been admitted into Iran.
The woman at the ministry was astonished that I didn't have anyone to meet me at the airport, and moreover, that I didn't know a single Iranian. ``You are all alone? What are you going to do?'' she asked.
Courteously giving me a ride into downtown Tehran, she commented, ``Before the coming of Imam Khomeini, I didn't know anything about Islam, or politics, or the superpowers.'' She pronounced the last word with distaste. ``The Shah kept all this information from us. All women knew to be interested in was fashion. But now my leader has made us aware.''