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As I pulled the scarf back on my head, I felt the black and bleak circumstances once again cover me from the outside in

Mahtab Gibbs
January 9, 2007


Forgiveness is the fragrance
That the violet sheds
On the heel that has crushed it

-- Mark Twain

The day after I graduated from New York University, I decided I would go to Iran. I wasn't sure exactly how I would pay for the ticket, nor of the logistics involved in getting my passport, but I knew that I wanted to go visit the land where I was born. I called my father and asked him what to do. He informed me that I had to go to Washington DC and get a passport there. We no longer had an American embassy, for obvious reasons, but the Islamic Republic had established a small office within the Embassy of Pakistan. So on a Tuesday evening, I loaded up my rental car and drove the four hours from New York to Washington DC.

I arrived outside the embassy at midnight. I had three hours to go before they opened the doors to give out numbers -- then we'd have to line up at six a.m. to wait our turns. It was a nasty process, but I was well-prepared. I had my hijab in my knapsack and all my papers indicating that I would be traveling to visit my aunt and to do a bit of writing. I wanted a tourist visa, which was not as easy as I'd hoped, because I had not been back to Iran for over twenty years. The Islamic Revolution really didn't make it easy for us expats to travel to the region, but in our own way, we were still children of the Revolution living in America.

I tilted my driver seat back and rested my head on the cushions of the rented SUV. I popped in a CD of Alice Coltrane and closed my eyes to the smooth, relaxing rhythms. I fell asleep, dreaming of black chadors, women without faces, dark haired men in crowded streets, the smell of barbecued corn and gasoline -- I was back in Tehran.

Like a shadow, I slipped between the people, unseen, and magically found myself in a café where men sat drinking chai in fenjoons (small glass teacups). In a Zen-like state, I floated out of the café and waited in line for a beef kabob, grilled onions and noon tafton (bread). As I took a bite of the savory sandwich I suddenly awoke to a great hunger. I checked the time. Two-thirty a.m. I had about a half an hour to go. My stomach was growling but I was too nervous to eat much. I dipped into my bag and pulled out a bag of sour cream and onion chips. My favorite. I ate a chip and then grabbed for a cigarette. What I really wanted was a stiff shot of whisky.

I finished smoking and flipped the rest out the window. A man of Middle-Eastern descent walked by and watched as I tossed it out. I yanked on the black scarf -- actually it was a skirt Amanda had bought me in Mexico one summer when she was on holiday. I really did not have access to a hijab so I pulled the loose skirt over my head and tied the strings around my chin. I took a peep in the rear view mirror. It'll have to do. Taking a deep breath, I grabbed my sack with my papers in it, and hopped out. I was the seventh in line. Good, number seven is my lucky number. The woman handing out the numbers stood at the open doorway and examined my hijab.

"Pull it up more," she said to me in Farsi, looking me up and down in bewilderment. 

I adjusted my hijab, or Mexican skirt, and took the number from her.

"Come back at six," she muttered, closing the door. 

I stood on Wisconsin Avenue, a cool, early morning chill passing through the air. It was still dark out and I could see shadows of women dressed in long black robes approaching the door where I stood outside. They walked by me without a glance and buzzed the door where Madame was issuing numbers. It was hard to fathom that I was standing on the corner of a busy street in America's capitol. I felt like I was in Iran already.

I walked back to the car and quickly opened the door. I got back in, a breath of air escaping my lungs like smoke. Whew, safe and sound. I'd take a quick nap, I figured -- just set my watch and then wake up in a few minutes to get my passport.  At least I was number seven, I should be out of here by ten am at the latest, I thought. I fell asleep again but kept waking to the wild beat of my heart. I was terribly nervous, and Madame's message to me about the looks of my hijab did not help in the least. I felt like such an oddball. I grabbed another cigarette and lit the tip. It was June and when I turned on the radio I heard a wrap-up of yesterday's World Cup game. Portugal had lost to Germany. I was sick and hungry and my eyes were red and heavy.

I woke up frantically to my watch alarm at 5:46 am. I hopped out of the car, locked the door, and pulled my Mexican skirt over my head to reach halfway over my forehead. I walked over slowly in the early morning light, my belly growling from lack of food. I tasted cigarettes in my mouth. I took a sip of the bottle of water I had in my hand and went to stand in the line that was already forming. I had my ticket which I foolishly thought meant something, but I soon came to realize that disorder and chaos were an everyday part of life in the Middle East, and the same was true here, despite the fact that we were all standing on Wisconsin Avenue.

I stood there dumbly and looked around me. People were staring back openly.  Maybe it's the dumb skirt on top of my head, I thought. But it wasn't that obvious -- it really just looked like a piece of black cotton material. I don't look stereotypically Iranian and most people often mistake me for Brazilian, Italian, Spanish or a Yemenite, so perhaps that could have been it. I always felt so left out of Iranian culture. Come to think of it, I always felt left out of American culture as well. 

Just then the doors opened to a man with a long beard, a suit coat, and no tie. "Tavajoh, Tavajoh, Attention, Attention. Everyone please file in according to numbers."

There was a bump rush to the door and before I knew it, a separate line had formed inside the small and decrepit room with only three little windows. All the older people went first. My lucky number seven quickly jumped up to ninety-something. I was second-to-last in line, right before a young Iranian boy who didn't speak a word of Farsi.

I sat in the Waiting Room of Havoc, everyone pushing and shoving one another as three separate lines took shape in the hot, stinky room. There were two televisions on, both with video reels of the Iran and American World Cup competition. Men sat with their eyes glued to the television chanting, "Iran, Iran, Iran!"

I was sick. I had smoked too much. I was thirsty and my water had run out. I thought maybe I should try to exit the caldron of hell, but worried I'd lose my hard-won number ninety-something place in line. I waited and waited and watched as the clock turned past noon. Finally, my number was called.

"Khanoum Tabatabai? Please come forward."

Now what I should have done, was spoken English to them as the boy behind me later did. But I chose to be foolish and use my elementary Farsi to a bunch of apparently brainwashed men who sat behind their desks with a life-sized frame of Khomeini in the background. Below the frame read the words: Imam Khomeini, the Occultation of Mehdi.

You see, in Shi'i Islam there were twelve Imams and the last, Mehdi, disappeared -- or as many Muslims believe, went into occultation. Much like beliefs about Jesus, there is this idea that there will one day be a resurrection and Mehdi will come back to rescue those who are true believers of his word. Many had believed that Khomeini was the return of the Mehdi and that he had come to save the non-believers during the Islamic Revolution. Not a very practical theory, since Khomeini was in Paris sipping Café Lattes for many years before the CIA requested that he return to Iran to guide over the revolutionary groups because the Shah had been gaining too much power and had pissed the Western countries off by pan-nationalizing OPEC (The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries).

I walked up to a man whose name plate said: Aga Ferdosi. He was the quiet poetic one in his mid-forties with rugged good looks and nice eyes. 

"Khanoum, why do you want to go to Iran?" he questioned.

"I would like to visit my aunt and travel to Persopolis."

He looked at my US Passport. "How long have you been in the United States?"

"Over twenty years."

"Why has it been such a long time since you've been back to your motherland?"

"I guess, um," then I gave up and switched to English., "there was a... engelob? a revolution?"

He looked at me suspiciously. "Please take a seat," he said.

I sat and waited and wondered if I had answered the question incorrectly. I watched as the boy behind me went up to the booth with his LA accent demanding a passport. It turns out he did not speak a word of Farsi. I realize now after having traveled to Afghanistan and Africa, that the safest thing for one to do is to speak whatever language one has mastered. It may seem colonialist for me to say this, but English carries power behind it when one can speak it with ease. For me to try and speak this neo-religious form of Farsi to a bunch of men of the Revolution was a bad move and I now sensed they would try to use me as their example for the day.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Middle Eastern men are like wolves to women. If you show them the slightest fear, they will tear you apart. That is clearly why so many women I have known from all over the Middle East and North Africa are hard, pushy, strong-willed. They know that if they try to use the language of Western women, these men will eat them up. My second mistake was trying to be soft with Ferdosi. He must have seen his way in for the slaughter.

I didn't make another move. I watched as Iran killed the US in footbol, 2-0. The mood in the room was joyous after the game, with people chatting and moving around in glee. 

What country do they think they're in? I thought to myself.  Idiots.

"Khanoum Tabatabai."

I walked up to the line. The second man, Khameini, sat there gazing at me, a long grey beard partly concealing his hideous face, making him look as foreboding as the portrait of Khomeini behind him.

"You will have to pay forty-five more dollars," he stated.

"Why is that?" I asked in Farsi. I knew the cost was usually seventy-five dollars total. I did not see anyone else paying extra. 

He stood there quietly and turned to the man named Rafsanjani and asked him what I was saying.  Bullshit, like he didn't know. Rafsanjani shrugged his shoulders and replied, "That girl does not speak a word of Farsi."

It was near lunchtime and I figured the Ayatollahs needed to stuff their fat faces with kabobs. I was probably the perfect candidate to pay for their feast. I gave them the money in cash. Khameini took the money and closed the window. I guess I wasn't going to be getting a receipt either.

An announcement came on over the speakers stating it was lunchtime and the offices would be closed for two hours. Any one left with a number, please come back at 2:30 p.m. I couldn't believe it, I had been there since 6 a.m. and all I got were three questions, I was out forty-five bucks and had been told I didn't speak a word of Farsi, which was total bullshit.

I walked out of the cauldron and onto the street. I was still wearing my made-up hijab and was startled when a Goth-looking white chick walked by in leather pants fastened with safety pins, a cigarette dangling from her mouth. I must have looked foolish watching her. I was in America! Thank God. I quickly ripped the scarf from my head and felt the fresh air wrap around my curly long hair. Ahh, I breathed in a sigh of relief.

While all my fellow comrades in arms flew across the street to dine at Iran's R Us local kabob joint, I ran in the opposite direction, to the American Hamburger restaurant where the jukebox was playing Lynyrd Skynyrd. I sat at the counter and a waitress came up wearing a cowboy hat.

"What'll you have, Hon?"

"An all-American burger, French fries and a diet coke please."

As I devoured my burger, I stared out the window and a fright came over me. The nightmare had not yet ended. I had to go back and face those awful people again. 

The big picture of Khomeini -- his creepy eyes following your every move like in one of those horror films. I shook my head to shake off the nervous feeling. I hadn't eaten a thing in nearly twenty-four hours and I was starved. I cleaned my plate and asked for another coke. I still had a half an hour to kill.  

"You all right, Hon?" the waitress asked me.  

Like Blanche DuBois in A Street Car Named Desire, I too always relied on the kindness of strangers. I wanted to tell her that I wasn't okay, that I was being harassed, that I was terrified to go back into that mess, that I felt like a scared animal. I looked back at her in silence and had to bite my lip in order to stop the tears from coming.

"I'm fine." I tried to brave a smile. "I'll have a vanilla sundae please."

She looked at me and smiled. I guess she could see the tears in my eyes because when she came back, she set the triple sundae in front of me and said, "It's on the house, Hon." I paid my check and left her a big tip.

As I pulled the scarf back on my head, I felt the black and bleak circumstances once again cover me from the outside in. I walked slowly back into the building and was met with the stuffiness of the air, the carpeted stairs leading up to the small room filled with those of us still left waiting for our passports. I was the first to be called.

"Khanoum Tabatabai," said Rafsanjani, pretending to be neutral, "We have discussed your situation, and we believe it is best for your father to call us to confirm that he allowed you to be here today."

I was dumfounded.  What the hell were they saying? I decided to be smart about it and spoke in clear English.

"I don't understand you. My father lives in California. I am an American and twenty-eight years old. Why does my father have to call?"

"Well, let us be perfectly clear, Madame," Ferdosi burst in, his voice loud but lyrical. "You are not married and so your father must give you permission to be here to get a passport according to Iranian law."

"But, um. Well okay, I'll have him call you now." And I walked away. 

There was obviously no use in arguing with them; they seemed to share no known logic between the three of them. As I got on the payphone and rang up my Dad, half embarrassed about what I was going to ask him, I looked back over the booth and saw the three stooges huddling together whispering about me before they opened a door and went to the back. I caught a glimpse of a man with a white beard and Muslim dress and wondered if it wasn't the occulted corpse of Khomeini himself. The door shut quickly behind them before I could get a good read on his face. Like a ghost, he sat behind his desk surrounded by the stooges.


"Hi Dad, it's Mahtab. I'm at the passport office and these men here want you to confirm that it's okay that I'm here or something like that."

"They want me to do what? What are they trying to do, give you a hard time, eh? And my Dad laughed. "Enshallah (God willing) everything will go your way," he said.

We were good friends at that time, my dad and I -- real chums. I knew I was my Dad's favorite. It seemed that in my twenties I had blocked out all the memories of my father that were bad until they came back to me in a flash in my early thirties. The feeling of shame I always felt around my father. The feeling that I wasn't doing enough, that I wasn't good enough. This is what made our relationship come apart again in recent years. 

But this was a different time and my father was excited that I wanted to visit my native land. Although he was secular and a supporter of Westernization and the Shah, he still had a great gift of making me love Iran for its historical beauty. The rich tapestries and art, Persopolis and the Persian Dynasty, the regality of it all. I wanted to travel to the Damavand (Mountain) and buy gabbehs (rugs) from local villagers in bazaars; eat the delicious food and smell the barbecued balar (corn) on the streets of Tehran, the beautiful children in their brown slacks and white shirts with dark straight black hair and deep eyes. This is the Iran I wanted to see and taste.

My father got on the phone with the men after forty-five minutes of prayer music on the phone while he was kept on hold. He interrogated them in his professor-like voice. He still had a lot of connections and a good reputation in Iran, which meant a lot to these types of men. A few minutes later, I was yet again summoned over by Ferdosi and the lot. It was amazing how his handsome face had turned wretched to me after only a few hours. His demanding personality and smug ways made his poetic voice and beautiful face so ugly.

"Okay, Khanoum, we have spoken to your father and will issue you a passport but without a reentry stamp."

"What does that mean?"

"That means when you want to leave Iran you will have to stop by the government office and request a visa stamp out. It is not an easy process and it would help if your father was with you. We will keep your American passport for the time being, until we process your application, which could take up to three months."

I supposed that was that. After nearly twelve hours, total humiliation and exhaustion, I left the Islamic Interest Section of Iran, hopped in my rental SUV, ripped off my head scarf, popped in The Cure and headed back to New York with a cig dangling from my mouth.

I never did end up going to Iran. My parents worried that I might not be able to get out safely, and now it's over six years later and I have yet to make the trip. I am worried, too, as political circumstances still make it difficult to feel safe there as an American-Iranian female journalist. But I will go someday.  Enshallah. Comment

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