Courting the unknown
I went to Iran to flirt with my childhood
April 19, 2001
Excerpt from Christiane Bird's Neither
East Nor West: One Woman's Journey Through the Islamic Republic of Iran
(Pocket Books Hardcover, March 2001). Bird is the author of Jazz and
Blues Lover's Guide to the U.S. and coauthor of Below
the Line: Living poor in America. A graduate of Yale University and
former travel writer for the New York Daily News, she lives in New
I am on a bus traveling through the desert between Kerman and Yazd when
we pull over to a checkpoint. Checkpoints are common along Iranian highways
and I've grown accustomed to stopping every hundred miles or so to watch
the driver climb out, papers in hand. Sometimes a guard in dark green uniform
enters the bus and walks up and down the aisle, eyes flicking from side
to side, pistol butt glinting in the shadowed interior light.
This is one of those times. The bus falls silent as a young guard enters,
and we all determinedly stare straight ahead, as if by pretending to ignore
the guard, he will ignore us. We listen to his footsteps sound down the
Persian carpet runner that lines the aisle, turn, and come back again. He
reaches the front of the bus and makes a half-turn, towards the door. But
then, just as we begin a collective deep breath, he surprises us by completing
his turn and starting down the aisle again, this time to tap various passengers
on the shoulder. They gather their belongings together and lurch out of
the bus and up the steps of a cement block building.
I sit frozen, hoping that the guard will not notice me and the blond
hair sticking out of my rusari, or headscarf. I've seen guards pull
passengers off buses before, and although it never seems to be anything
serious -- the passengers always return within five or ten minutes -- I'd
just as soon remain in my seat.
The guard climbs out of the bus and I relax, wondering what, if anything,
he is looking for. I've been told that these searches are usually about
drugs and smuggling, but to me, they seem to be more about the display of
The guard is back and intuitively, I know why. He beckons to me.
Me? I gesture, still not completely convinced that he wants me. After
two months in Iran, I've learned that-- contrary to common Western assumption
-- the authorities seldom bother foreigners here.
You, he nods.
Copying my fellow passengers, I gather my belongings together and stand
up. Everyone is staring at me -- as usual, I am the only foreigner on the
I climb out, nearly tripping over my long black raincoat -- it or something
similar required wearing for all women in public in Iran. My heart is knocking
against my chest. The guard and one of his colleagues are waiting for me
on the steps of the guardhouse. At their feet is my lone duffel bag, which
they've hauled out of the belly of the bus. It looks like a fat green watermelon.
"Passport," the young guard barks in Persian.
I hand him my crisp, dark blue document, "United States of America"
emblazoned boldly across the front. Vaguely I remember someone back home
warning me to get a neutral-covered passport before entering the Islamic
Republic. Too late now.
I show him the appropriate page in my passport.
"Where are you coming from?"
His Persian has a strange drawl that I haven't heard before.
"Kerman," I say.
"Where are you going to?"
I nod, thinking there's no need to complicate matters by telling him
that I'm here in Iran to write a safarnameh, the Persian word for
travelogue or, literally, "travel letter." But then immediately
I wonder if I've done the right thing. My visa says "Press."
Slowly, the young guard flips through the pages of my passport, examining
the immigration stamps and the rules and regulations listed in the back.
He studies my picture long and hard, and then passes my passport to his
unsmiling colleague, who asks me the same questions I've just been asked.
"Where are you coming from?"
"Where are you going to?
I nod again. I can't change my answer now.
The second guard hands my passport back to the first, who reluctantly
hands it back to me. I notice a smattering of acne across his forehead and
wonder if he's old enough to shave.
"Is this your suitcase?" he says, looking at my bag.
"Yes," I say and move to open it.
He shakes his head.
All of the other passengers are now back on the bus, and I wonder how
much longer the guards will keep me. What will happen, I worry, if the bus
leaves without me? We're out in the middle of the desert; there are no other
buildings in sight. Hardened dust-white plains broken only by scrub grass
stretch in all directions. The sky is a pale steely dome sucking the color
and moisture out of the landscape.
Clearing his throat, the first guard stares at me intently. His eyes
are an unusual smoke -- blue, framed by long lashes. They're the same eyes
I've noticed before on more than a few Iranians. He nudges his colleague
and they whisper together. Sweat is slipping down their foreheads, and down
Then the first guard straightens his shoulders, takes a deep breath,
and blushes. "Thank you," he says carefully in stilted, self-conscious
English. "Nice to meet you."
The second guard is now blushing as furiously as the first.
"How are you?"
He lapses back into Persian, only some of which I understand.
"We will never forget this day. You are the first American we have
met. Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Go with Allah."
I went to Iran to flirt with my childhood. I went to Iran to court the
unknown. I went to Iran to see the effects of the Islamic Revolution for
My family and I had lived in Tabriz, a city in northwestern Iran, for
three years in the 1960s, when I was a young child. Some of my earliest
memories are of Iran -- of the mud-brick compound in which we lived, of
the horse-drawn droshkies clip-clopping down the streets, of a shrunken
beggar man with a monstrous swollen hand larger than my head, of a vendor
on the corner who sold my brother and me bubble-gum coins wrapped in bright
foil. Silver, pink, green, and gold-the shiny orbs seemed to roll through
the hot desert landscape of my earliest memories, drawing me back to a time
and place far removed from the New York of my present.
I wanted to go back to that place, if not that time. I wanted to reach
through the thick plate glass that separates now from then and remember
what life had been like. I could see us all so clearly, moving silently
about in a stark, white landscape just beyond the glass: my gentle father,
the doctor, who had volunteered his services to the then -- undeveloped
country through the auspices of the Presbyterian Church; my stylish mother,
the lady, who had fled her home in eastern Germany to escape the Russians
during World War II; my younger brother, hair the shiny, silvery color of
moonlight; and I, an already pensive child yearning to learn how to read.
The world had seemed so orderly then, with well-defined rules and structured
roles for everyone. The United States was at the apex of its power, spreading
the "light" of democracy and technology into the remotest corners
of the developing world; there was no question then about whether America
should be in Iran. The sanctity of the nuclear family was as yet unchallenged;
my parents' divorce and my own unmarried and childless, though cohabiting,
state, still lay many years in the future. Economic security and happiness
seemed the birthright of every American child; what did I know then about
the vagaries of love, work, adulthood, and the freelance writer's life?
But even as I remember order and light, I also remember darkness. The
half-comforting, half-frightening darkness of childhood, when most things
are still shrouded and the world is filled with secrets. Secrets that sometimes
flitted past me when I was out playing in our garden, shaded with almond
and pomegranate trees, or listening to a bedtime story, or watching my parents
and sensing that there was more transpiring between them than just the exchange
of big words. At the beginning of consciousness, I saw the world then --
though I certainly couldn't have articulated it -- as being filled with
dark mysterious mounds awaiting my excavation.
When my parents told their family and friends that they were going to
Iran, most people didn't know where it was. My parents had to pull out a
map, only to meet with amazed, concerned -- or horrified -- stares. Some
people told them that they were foolish for going; others said that they
were selfish for "risking the lives" of two innocent children.
Pre- or post-Islamic Revolution, Iran has always been a cipher to the
West, which as far as my grown-up self was concerned, only added to its
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