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Mission accomplished
Traveling to Turkey to bring my daughter & visit Rumi

Written and photographed by Jahanshah Javid
August 23, 1999
The Iranian


- Aval-e besmellah
- Turkish delight
- Ankara
- Mahdiyeh's arrival
- Khanom Tamara
- The visa
- Visiting Rumi
- On U.S. soil


- Konya: Rumi's resting place
- Ankara
: Just like Iran, but...
- Islamic Turkey
: With and without the hejab
- Earthquake
: Turkish TV

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Aval-e besmellah

I thought I should go to the airport early. I never do, but the possibility of missing this particular flight was too frightening. If I had missed my flight, my 16-year-old daughter Mahdiyeh would have been stranded in Turkey -- all alone. She was traveling from Tehran to Ankara. I was coming from the opposite direction; Washington DC to Ankara.

I called the taxi service early in the morning and told them to send a driver to my apartment at one o'clock. The flight was at ten past three. At 12:55, I was still at the bank trying to get some travelers' checks. Just as I got home, the taxi driver was about to leave. It was 1:05. I grabbed my bag and camera and got into the taxi.

The driver was in a hurry. I told him my flight leaves in two hours. There was plenty of time. He said he had to pick up another passenger in Washington DC in an hour, after he dropped me off.

I had my ticket, my passport, my wallet, my camera, my... where are my travelers' checks? Did I leave them in the apartment? Or at the bank? That's okay. I could call the bank and cancel them.

Dulles Airport, 1:35. I look at the flight departure monitors. My flight is not listed. But I'm not worried. Similar situations have happened at Dulles. Some flights simply aren't listed. I call my bank to cancel the travelers' checks. Which branch did I purchase the checks from? I don't know the address. There's one on the east side of town and one on the west. I ask for the one on the east side. No one picks up the phone.

I look at the flight departure monitors again. Still not listed. I look at the travel schedule prepared by my travel agent. The Delta Airlines flight from Washington DC to New York is not from Dulles, but from Reagan National Airport. It's 1:50.

I run out of the airport terminal and look for taxis. There are none. How could there be no taxis at an airport? I see a yellow dot in the far distance. I run towards it. The taxi driver is unloading suitcases from the trunk. He says "May I help you?" with a thick accent. Sounds eastern European. I have to go to Reagan National Airport, can he take me? Yes, he says. Relief.

My flight leaves in an hour and five minutes. Reagan National is not more than thirty minutes away. I have time.

I notice that the taxi meter is off. Why? "Because I work in Baltimore. Instead of meter I charge you $1.50 per mile," the driver says (he's Russian). I'm annoyed, but still glad that I will be at the right airport on time.

Ten minutes later. "Do you know the directions?" Just follow Highway 66 East to Washington, I tell the driver, very slowly. He has no clue where he's going. He misses four exits. I almost died.

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Turkish delight

The plane has not left New York's JFK Airport. Most of the passengers are Turks going back home. The last few passengers get on board. One of them is a young Turkish woman. Maybe 22. Select 10 of the most-beautiful women in the entire world. This woman would be number 11.

She has a stern, oval face with a diamond pierced on the top right corner above her lip. Deep dark hair pulled back with a short pony-tail. Her white tank-top is revealing. Very revealing. She is not wearing a bra. Her tight black pants and thick, high-heeled, black, funky shoes highten the drama.

I look around. ALL the men, young and old, are staring. The women, too, inevitably.

Two rows in front, a 30ish American man stands up and asks her to sit next to him. He's practically begging. He doesn't care if he's acting like a fool in front of 300 other passengers. She says, "No. I have seat. I am sorry." He insists. "No. I am sorry. I have seat." And she moves on, almost expressionless, chewing gum.

Throughout the eight-hour flight, I see men -- single & married -- in groups of three or four, whispering, giggling and looking towards the girl. I wonder if the men, including myself, are acting like animals out of control. And whether this is right or wrong. Or just human nature.

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Arrival at Ankara. The airport is much smaller than I expected. There is a bus waiting outside. "Ankara?" I ask the driver. "Ankara," he confirms. I have no idea how much to pay him. I give him fine million liras. He returns most of it. I eventually figure out that one million liras is about 2 dollars and 25 cents (I think).

The bus ride to Ankara's central train station takes about half an hour. I get off and look for the information booth. There is one but no one speaks English. They only respond with Yes and No but I have a feeling they didn't understand the questions.

I ask an ordinary Turkish man: "Ataturk Boulevard?" He responds in German. I understand enough. He helps me catch the city bus. Five minutes later I'm in the main commercial district.

Ankara looks just like any large Iranian city. Do they also have earthquakes like in Iran? The only noticeable difference between the two countries is that the alphabet here is Latinized and the women don't necessarily wear the hejab. About 65% of them do not. There seems to be no obvious friction between secular and religious Turks.

I come across the massive Maltepe Mosque. There are five men praying.

I notice that young Turkish couples aren't shy. Public display of affection is common. Although I did not see any kissing, there was plenty of hugging and holding hands. Photographs of women in bikinis -- or even topless -- appear regularly in many newspapers.

The tank-top is by far the clothing of choice. But unlike the woman on the plane from New York, the great majority of Ankara women wear bras. I hear women in Istanbul are not as modest.

I have been in Turkey for only a few hours. I already like the people. They are very proud of their Turkish heritage, but they don't consider themselves racially superior. They don't pretend they are the best in everything. They are very much down to earth.

I cannot understand the virtual worship of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. Not all of it is propaganda. People simply love the man. He is revered more than Mohammad. I think even God is jealous.

I take a room in the first hotel I see. A single room with shower and TV costs about $50 -- too much, apparently. But I'm tired.

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Mahdiyeh's arrival

I go back to Ankara airport the following day. Mahdiyeh is due to arrive from Tehran (via Istanbul). I've told her to get help from the Turkish Airlines staff and that she shouldn't talk to anyone else for any reason.

A young man and an elderly woman walk into the terminal. They are talking in Farsi. I walk up to the man and introduce myself. Jamshid is a tall, handsome man. Very kind. Chain smoker. He tells me his life story in 15 minutes. He's waiting for his Green Card. He gives me his business card and offers his services for visa and hotel accommodations. I trust him.

The airport is confusing. Travelers from Istanbul may or may not arrive at two different terminals. They are not far apart but it would be nice to know where to wait for the daughter I haven't seen for four years.

I see a young girl walking out of passport control to pick up her luggage. I think it's her. Jamshid, who seems to know all the Turkish officials -- police and customs -- walks into the forbidden area and brings Mahdiyeh with him. I can't contain myself. I haven't smiled this broadly for a very long time. She's smiling too. I give my petite 16-year-old a big, tight hug and kiss her head.

She's definitely an adult, be it a young adult. I'm in a bit of a shock. What do I do now? She, too, is not sure about the next step.

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Khanom Tamara

I accept Jamshid's offer to stay at his apartment. He has extra rooms for Iranian travelers. Two Armenian Iranians are currently staying with him -- Khanom Tamara and her grandson, Matthew. They have an appointment at the American embassy to get a Green Card.

Jamshid says Khanom Tamara is an incredible fortuneteller. She has told him things that no one, not even his wife, knew anything about. I believe him.

Khanom Tamara shuffles the cards. She tells me to pick 13 cards, then eight cards, then another 13 cards, then...

"People think that you are a happy-go-lucky guy, selfish, always having a good time. But that's not true. You have lived in a dream world. You have gone through hard times ... but you will be happy... (sigh) I see no love in your life. You're lonely. There's a woman who loves you and she's crying. She wants to say she's sorry, but it's too late. It's not too late for you but maybe you're too stubborn ... do you have a mother? Or a grandmother? She's worried about you ... but you will be happy ... you think everything is a lie. You're heartbroken. You will be very successful, but you will not feel joy. You're not after money. Someone will make you a big offer, but you won't believe it. You will not stay at your present place. You will go away ... but you will be happy..."

Mahdiyeh takes Khanom Tamara to the other room. She prefers to have a private consultation.

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The visa

I love Iranians. About 50 of them have lined up outside the American embassy. A woman has allegedly cut through and won't budge. Several people are arguing with her. She tells them to go to hell. (Jamshid says last week was even more amusing. At least one person was knifed when an argument got out of hand.)

But once they get inside the embassy compound, everyone, without exception, behaves. No one speaks. They obey every order, no questions asked. Can't mess with Uncle Sam.

I'm worried. I have a U.S. passport and brought all the documents in the world. But what if they don't give Mahdiyeh a visa? There is no Plan B. She MUST get a visa. But what if she doesn't? There are no guarantees.

We change seats three times. Every time, I forget to pick up my bag or the documents folder. The security official calls out a name that sounds nothing like mine, but could only be mine. I have forgotten to pick up my wallet after it went through the x-ray machine.

After about an hour, it's our turn. The American official, who speaks a respectable amount of Farsi, is soft-spoken and kind. No funny questions. He says Mahdiyeh's visa will be ready in 15 minutes. Did he say Mahdiyeh's visa will be ready in 15 minutes? But he hasn't asked for a single document. "We don't trust documents," he says.

There IS a God.

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Visiting Rumi

"Did you wake up last night?" Jamshid asks. No. Why? There was an earthquake, he says, centered in western Turkey. Three hundred people have died so far.

Jamshid arranges a taxi to drive us to Konya. Our driver, Ramazan, charges $150, including gas. Reasonable, I think. It would cost twice that much by plane and we would have had to pay extra for travel inside the city.

During the two-and-a-half-hour drive (about 250 kms from Ankara to Konya) Mahdiyeh and I play noon-beeyaar-kabaab-bebar. Poor thing ... :-)

And we tell jokes left and right. Even some (soft) adult ones. The ice a broken.

Mahdiyeh is not too thrilled about going to Konya. "Rumi? The poet? He died a long time ago, right?" Right. But Rumi isn't just any poet, I explain. And besides, I just like him a lot and I want to see where he lived and died. "Wouldn't you like to go and visit Sohrab Sepehri's grave in Kashan?" I ask. "No," she says.

Ramazan says we are entering Konya. I am immediately reminded of Shiraz. The surrounding mountains. The dry weather. Most women here are with hejabs.

We park at a concrete structure across the Rumi mausoleum. We walk by tourist shops and enter the grounds. It is not as crowded as I thought. And there aren't many foreign tourists. Ramazan says he wants to wash to prepare for prayers. Mahdiyeh says she too wants to wash for prayers.

We enter the mausoleum with its beautiful, distinct turquoise dome. It's relatively dark, with dim orangish light adding texture to the Persian and Arabic writings on high walls, columns and domes. Sufi chants are played through loudspeakers. To the right and left, the graves of -- presumably -- prominent Turks and non-Turks, many of them Ottoman royalty.

About fifty feet from the entrance, on the right, is Rumi's sarcophagus. It looks like a giant king-size bed covered with a golden comforter, and on top, two cylindrical Turkish turbans. Looks magnificent but in an unusual way. Is Rumi happy, surrounded by dead kings and princes and draped in glitter? He must be enjoying himself, in peace, somewhere else.

People stand in front, with raised cupped hands, quietly offering prayers.

Several glass cases have been placed at the center of the adjacent hall. They contain clothes "connected" to Rumi. Who knows. There's even a box with Prophet Mohammad's "beard" inside. Please...

Mahdiyeh is impressed. She wasn't expecting this at all.

After about 20 minutes we are about to leave. I stop for a moment. All I have done is take pictures. I must go back. I go back. This is it. This is where he is buried. I have no prayers to offer. No wishes. Only respect.

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On U.S. soil

The flight from Istanbul arrives at New York's JFK Airport half an hour late. We have to catch a connecting flight to Washington DC. But hang on, Mahdiyeh is not an American citizen. She's only an Iranian.

The immigration officer tells Mahdiyeh to go to the room in the back. They have to take her photograph and fingerprint her. I don't expect any complications and there aren't any. We are done in 15 minutes and "free to go". But is this really necessary?

We catch the flight to DC just in time. An hour later we are in Washington. And after another hour we are at Sears department store. I buy Mahdiyeh a small TV and a boombox. She's so happy she can hardly contain herself. The next day I take her to the trendy Old Navy and buy her clothes and shoes. Could she be happier?

Yes. The following day she's rollerblading at the Reston town center with her new inline skates.

Go to photos main index: - Konya - Ankara - Islamic Turkey - Earthquake

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