In Iran it would have been better if you had lost cash, jewelry or a car
By Akhtar Sayar
October 7, 2002
Of all the things that can befall a person here in the Islamic Republic of Iran,
losing a passport must be up there as one of the worst. Being as lucky as I am with
things even slightly material, I of course, managed to lose my passport right here
in this huge quagmire that we call Tehran.
Now, you must realize, that the reason for the tragic proportion that this rather
mundane occurrence takes is the nature of this place: this town exits and functions
day in day out against a backdrop of mutual, mirrored and magnified mistrust.
The government mistrusts the people, the people mistrust the government, men mistrust
women, and women certainly mistrust men. The children are apprentices; usually precociously
articulate and more and more mistrustful of everyone as they add on years to their
first appearance in this so called republic.
In fact with this kind of paranoia permeating here it is no wonder that there thrives
a love of God and the Imams; they after all, long dead and relegated to the heavens,
are the only ones anyone can trust. All this translates into the fact that should
a citizen lose a passport in this country she is considered guilty until proven innocent.
You see, so many people, especially young ones or those who have gone too far in
expressing their malcontent with the regime, yearn to leave the borders of this theocracy,
that there is a thriving business of smuggling humans outside. This, then, turns
a passport with an exit permit stamped in it into a valuable commodity.
And so the authorities have to make sure that the person in question has not sold
it to someone or that whoever has found it has not used it or sold it, etc÷ Apparently
Iranians have become very good forgers in these twenty some years. At least they
have improved greatly. Necessity here, is the mother of all sinister actions.
So I have to wait a good six months -- not just wait mind you: I have to spend the
next six months running after my passport, filling forms, answering interrogations
and begging, until the authorities are comfortable enough to give me a new one.
I have learned that in dealing with these kinds of bureaucrats one should be persistent
but not arrogant, humble but not destitute. It is a fine line to tow. Not showing
so much meekness that your business becomes unimportant and not to show so much arrogance
that the person on the other side of the desk or counter should, god forbid, feel
inferior to you.
One must shed that look of fed-upness that betrays an attitude of, "I have been
everywhere in the world and compared to everything I've seen and everywhere I've
been, you must be one of the most incompetent." It works best to show a sense
of respectful empathy for how difficult the under paid clerk's job is in this setting.
To show that you and the clerk in question are mutual victims of a slow and difficult
labyrinth of governmental paper work.
Six months wait would not seem so draconian if it were not for the nature of this
place. There is a sense for someone like me, who has been away for so long, no matter
how glad she may be to be here, that she is living in a prison. This, I believe,
must be true of living in any totalitarian regime.
This is a place where people are routinely arrested for minor infractions of the
law and the government looks more like a blatant cross between the Vatican and the
Sicilian Mafia equipped with a full-sized state army than anything else. Here, having
a passport with an exit visa and money for a plane ticket assures one not only of
a quick exit if necessary but of unhindered breathing brought about by a sense of
being able to escape at any time. It is like the cortisone spray for the asthmatic:
essential to clear breathing.
Anyway, the minute I announced this unfortunate occurrence to friends and family
(the few of them who have not left the country), they all gave me the same lecture
about how the passport is the most cherished possession in the IRI and that I should
not have been so unorganized and klutzy as to lose it.
I now felt humiliated as well; no Iranian who has lived
here long would commit such a sin as to lose that cherished prize, which every where
in the world indicates terrorist possibilities of its holder, but here assures quick
exit. So I now try not to talk about it or to inform any new people of this huge
gaffe on my part.
The funny thing is that I know where I lost it. The cab driver, in whose cab I had
so idiotically dropped my passport, had tried to find me. But where he dropped me
off was my brother's building and none of the doormen who work there know me so they
sent him back.
I have gone to the taxi drivers union in south of Tehran where there is a "lost
and found" several times and call them everyday, but to no avail. I have also
gone to the passport agency and other places where the man may have given it. But
no luck. I want to take my time hoping I will find him because that would be easier
than reapplying for a new one.
It seems to everyone and myself as well that the cabby, who was some sort of Sufi
follower of Ali with all the accoutrements indicating so hanging in the inside of
his taxi, may want a big tip and is therefore not turning it in to the lost and found.
Before I left the cab he did a random reading (faal) from the Koran he had
in his dashboard and told me that it meant that my problems would straighten out.
Or it could be that he simply does not trust the authorities or whoever is behind
the desk of the lost and found. He had told the guards at my brother's apartment,
when they told him to leave the passport with them until the owner shows up, that
he would only turn it in to me. I think he wanted a tip. I wake up every day hoping
he has gone back to the apartment buildings. Every ring of the telephone fills me
with gleeful possibilities until I answer it and it is some self-righteous friend
or relative asking, "Did you find your passport?"
The friends and relatives don't quite trust me either.
Having decided to move here on an impulse and a dream (something no Iranian trusts
anymore) and being perennially lazy about packing, my loved ones think that perhaps
I am coming up with this farce so as to avoid going back to pack my house in America.
These are the ones who live abroad. Those who live here know that no love or chore
is great enough to make one avoid going abroad and lose a plane ticket to the south
of France that has an "ok" on it. Traveling abroad here in the IRI is considered
the height of luxury the ultimate prize of a life of hard work or a "good marriage".
A very pious and religiously correct lady, one whom I have never heard openly criticize
the regime, and who is au currant about the state of my affairs in this country,
told me the nicest thing, "Poor darling. In this place, it would have been better
if you had lost cash or jewelry, a car. Sometimes God bothers most those who are
good." After I hung up I felt better and so I decided to deconstruct her sentence
to understand what about it worked.
She admitted the hugeness of the tragedy, the fact that this place is not a good
place to lose a passport, and blamed it squarely on God as well as letting me know
she thinks that I am good, all in one sentence. So in a single comment she let me
know that she sympathizes with me, that she is aware of the enormity of the loss.
She also criticized the system as well as giving me the age old wisdom of the stoics
that believe the good are given obstacles to overcome in order to strengthen their
By labeling me good and telling me that this was in a way God's will, she gave me
a way to strengthen myself and put the incident in perspective. "If God makes
it happen then he knows you have the strength to endure it," so goes the logic
so simple yet empowering.
I knew she had told this to many mothers who had lost a son, or wives who had lost
a husband. It came out so smoothly that it betrayed having been repeated many times.
I thought to myself, these people are experienced in dealing with grief caused by
non-sensical actions -- after all they lost millions of youth to a war where no one
gained a meter of territory. They are the professionals par excellence of
dealing with pain. I should learn from them how to take what comes to me.
This is one of the reasons I came here. I was sick to
death of making lists and planning. Sick of fixing things in a minute so as to run
around after other things the rest of the day. Sick of the fast pace of a life so
efficient that it loses its humanity. It went so against my nature. The price of
freedom perhaps is the loneliness that one feels in a place where everything comes
easy except for wisdom and empathy.
So I will just go to the required offices every day. So much so that I will get to
know the bureaucrats personally while having tea with them. I will soak in the slow
rhythm of work in their damp, dark and beat up offices. I will learn about them,
their cherished, deliberate slowness, and the reason behind their infinite patience.
I will be calm knowing that God is harder on the ones who are good even if I am not
sure he exists.
And voila the six months will come to an end and I will go abroad cherishing
every Chardonnay sipping, hair blowing-in-the-wind-freely minute of it. Far more
than anyone abroad could fathom. Inshallah.