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Diaspora

One winter morning
Memoirs of a recent trip to the sefaarat

By Alex Faghri
February 27, 2004
iranian.com

I woke up at 4 in the morning. I had estimated my trip to Washington D.C. would take 2 hours, including a 5 minute pit stop for coffee. I left myself another half an hour to find free parking in the alleyways of the residential neighborhood around the Iranian Interests Section, wrongly but commonly referred to as the "Sefaarat" (embassy). I figured I should be at the Sefaarat's door 2 hours ahead of when they open, thus making me the first in line. I was hoping with the cold weather, the line would be rather short.

I was repeatedly advised by relatives that to avoid the long line up, I was better off leaving the night before, checking-in at the nearby Holiday Inn, and walking to the Sefaarat at 3:00 am to be the first in line. However, being an early riser and enjoying long drives down the highway with my large black coffee in hand, while listening to BBC in NPR, I was happier with my own plan.

It would be my first encounter with an Islamic Republic representative in 20 years. Ever since my illegal departure from Iran through the mountains of Sistan-Balouchestan and crossing the Hamoun Desert in Pakistan, I never had the guts nor the need to apply for an Iranian passport.

I had ran away from the draft. At the time the Iran-Iraq was at its peak. Every week on Fridays, I used to see 200-300 shahids (martyrs) brought to my hometown, Isfahan. Now when I think back, if it wasn't for those shahids, we'd be carrying Iraqi passports now, and Saddam Hussein would be looking for a hole to putt his golf ball as opposed to hiding in one.

I got there at 6:30 am. Right on schedule. As I drove by the Sefaarat I saw no one in the streets, let alone at the Sefaarat. I was happy to find out that I'd be the first in line. But at the same time, I was a little confused. May be the Sefaarat was closed. You know how these mullahs are. There is no organization. They work any time they want. They close the Sefaarat if they don't feel like working that day. Without prior notice.

But I had done my homework. I checked their website - there was no mention of it being closed. I even double-made-sure by calling them. Although I had to wait on the line for a good 15 minutes, yet the guy on the other side of the phone sounded surprisingly pleasant.

I took my time going around the block to find a free parking spot. I parked the car. I took my folder filled with all sorts of applications which I had downloaded from their website weeks in advance. It was a five-minute walk to the Sefaarat. Considering the cold month of January in DC, it felt more like fifty minutes. But the free parking was worth it.

As I was getting closer, I was happy to see another person -- a woman -- there. Now I didn't have to look like an idiot, standing there with a folder in hand so early in the morning in freezing weather. The woman sounded like she had been living here for ages. She kept throwing all these English words in her Persian sentences. I can understand being more comfortable using everyday / colloquial English words like "ok" and "alright" after living here for all these years, but who says "Aghaa, shomaa midonin kay OPEN mikonan"?

For two hours, she and I were the only idiots outside the door, waiting desperately for 8:30 to come and the door to open. She too was worried that the Sefaarat might be closed. They operate when they feel like it; there's no organization," she said shaking her head. "They close without prior notice."

We chit-chatted. She told me a story about when she was in collge many years ago in Texas, where a male Iranian student had put "Khaak-bar-sar" as his name on the phone company directory, then made thousands of phone calls to Iran just before fleeing and going back home for good. And the phone company spent months looking for "khak-bar-sar".

She told me the story as she tried to sneak into the lobby of a building next door while someone was leaving. She innocently and quietly grabbed the door as the guy left the building door half open. She pointed me to go in the lobby with her. I accepted the offer. After all it was much warmer in there.

At around 8 o'clock, another old-timer with his parents and an American-born Iranian youngster -- the rapper type with headphones over his thick-gelled hair -- joined us in the warm lobby, anxiously waiting for the Sefaarat to open.

Soon the woman ran out of patience. She went out of the lobby and pressed the buzzer outisde the Sefaarat for quite a long time. She spoke through the intercom and asked if the Sefaarat was going to open. A guy answered back that we had to wait until 8:30. But then immediately after, we heard a buzzer and the door opened to let us in half an hour early.

But of course, once the door opened, it didn't matter who came first. The old Iranian parents jumped three steps ahead and ran up to the second floor along with their son. Then the old-timer lady righteously shuffled into the second position in line followed by the Iranian-American punk rocker, who pretended not to notice me.

Nevertheless, I was glad I was inside the Sefaarat half an hour early. I mean when was the last time we saw an office here in the great US of A open its doors early because of cold weather? A week before I was at the US immigration office in Philadelphia. It was a cold rainy day and the line outside extended a good half a mile. Even when they opened the doors, right on-time I might add, the line was moving very slowly because of all the security checks.

When inside the immigration office, there was only one window open. I couldn't help but notice that majority of the clients were rejected, for one reason or another, and were referred to the other immigration field offices outside the State. Of course I am not an immigration expert. Maybe the couple-hundred people in line -- mostly Orientals, Hispanics and East Europeans with very poor English -- had made a mistake and shouldn't have gone to the Philadelphia office.

Anyway, it was good to be inside the Sefaarat. A large screen TV was showing a soccer
match (good-old Persepolis was playing against some other team) at Azadi Stadium. A short middle-aged, bearded of course, Sefaarati behind the window welcomed us in. He said he had just made tea and suggested we all should have a cup to warm up a little. He asked if there were enough sugar cubes. We all said nothing. I think we were more, like, speechless. At least I was. In my twenty years of living in North America, I am not used to being treated like this in an office environment. One of the old parents finally thanked him and indicated that there was enough of everything.

As we waited, more people came in. Apparently everyone knew you don't have to come in so early and wait in line any more. You could just come in during normal business hours and take care of your business, or mail-in your stuff. We all had to take a number once we walked in, and one of the Sefaaratis kept track of it by pressing the electronic number indicator. There was a sincere informality in the air. There wasn't any "organization" but the environment was pleasant. Felt like home.

Every once in a while the Sefaarati would point to a lady or a man way back in the room and shout form behind the window: "Khaanoom... Agha... shomaa kaaret raah oftaad?" Also, every once in a while, he'd asked us the soccer score, since the big screen TV was facing us and he could only hear the sound. He got very upset that Persepolis had tied to match in the very last minute.

I told the Sefaarati I was planning a trip to Iran after 20 years and that I had exited the country illegally and had no passport. He smiled and wished me a pleasant trip. He said "Khosh be haaletoon". He said he too has missed his family.

When I went back to pick up my passport a month later, he pointed out a stamp put on my passport. He told me that with that stamp no one would "bother" me at Tehran airport. I was surprised. After all this was my problem. I was the one who had ignored all laws, and gotten out of the country illegally. And I was ready to accept the consequences. But why was HE sympathetic?

It was funny to see how all the Iranians, once their number was called, would take forever to leave the window. It was like they were grabbing on to their ancestral inheritance. They even filled out their forms while standing in the thresholds. This was true for the old-timer too.

Later that day, around lunchtime, I saw most of the people that were at the Sefaarat, in the nearby chelo-kababi. They looked happy. I noticed the punk rocker ordered a Soltani.

BTW, I still haven't been able to go to Iran. The travel document that the US immigration promised me more than five months ago has not arrived yet. They suggested I should wait between 30 to 480 days.

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