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The American's visit
Smoldering in Tehran, Part 10
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Sima Nahan
December 13, 2005

My friend Roya and I had timed our trips to be in Iran at the same time. We live in different states in the U.S. and wanted to use the trip to spend time together and for our sons to become friends. Roya had been in the process of obtaining a visitor’s visa for her American husband for months. After completing a formidable amount of paper work with the Interest Section of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Washington D.C. to register her marriage, she was told that policy had changed and the only authority that can now issue visas to Americans is the Foreign Ministry in Tehran. A first-degree relative had to apply in person at the ministry. The visa for Roya’s young son -- who as offspring of an Iranian woman married to a non-Iranian is not eligible for Iranian citizenship -- was issued in Washington. (Children of Iranian men married to non-Iranian women are eligible.)

While the American husband waited in Istanbul, Roya applied for his visa in person in Tehran. I accompanied her on a couple of her many visits to the Foreign Ministry. In all fairness, getting a visa for an American to visit Iran was much more transparent and less humiliating -- and costly -- than getting a visa for an Iranian to visit the U.S. (This is noteworthy, since it is the president of United States who makes threats against Iran and not vice versa.) Roya’s frequent visits to the Foreign Ministry warmed the officials to her and expedited things. Calls from family members to the Iranian Consulate in Istanbul helped with last minute logistics. It is still sometimes possible to humanize bureaucratic processes in the Iranian system.

On one of Roya’s visits to the Foreign Ministry her son and I were with her. She took the little boy with her from office to office and his presence charmed the officials. Not being overburdened with work, they chatted with the boy and looked at the books he had brought along. After leaving the office of one high ranking official, the little boy turned to his mother who despite her calm manner was inevitably nervous, with a cocky five-year-old look: “You’re a sacredy-cat, aren’t you?”

He was not there to see his mother the day she had a face-off with one of the security guards at the door. When she was told that she could not enter because her pants were not of a solid dark color, she blew up.

“What is the point of this?” she said, raising her voice so everyone could hear. Everyone did stop, looking over their shoulders at the commotion at the door. “If you gave me freedom tomorrow I still would not dress all that differently from this.” She was wearing loose pants with a button-down shirt over it. With “freedom” she would only have eliminated the minimal scarf on her head.

I watched the guard listen to her ravings with a hint of a smile. “Don’t upset yourself,” he said as he called up the person with whom she had an appointment. “No, she hasn’t brought her son today,” he answered into the phone at some point. She ended up having her business conducted even though she was not allowed inside.

When the American husband finally arrived, he did not encounter hostility except for some posturing at the airport [See his article]. In fact, he was rather ignored. In the sahn of the old Shah -- now Khomeini -- Mosque in the great bazaar of Tehran, as the mid-day azan filled the air, Roya’s courage wavered for a moment and she told an enquiring bystander that her husband was Canadian. Immediately afterwards she felt like a coward -- the “scaredy-cat” her son had accused her of. To the next person who asked, she boldly replied: “American.”

One enquiring shopkeeper, it turned out, only meant the question as a way of opening a conversation with our group.

“So where do you live?” he turned to me after Roya.

I told him I lived in Tehran. “No you don’t,” he laughed. “I can see you’re from Tehran, but you don’t live here.” How could he tell, I wondered. “Because you don’t look esteressed,” he said -- “stressed,” that is. At any rate, his real object was to divert our attention from a competitor. He threw a disparaging glance at the other shopkeeper whose wares we were eyeing. “Don’t buy from him,” he said. “The jerk voted for Ahmadinejad.” Like all good businessmen he mixed politics and marketing.

I spent a good deal of time with Roya and her husband in Tehran. The American’s response to the chaos of Tehran and the social and cultural complexities of Iran were more remarkable than anybody’s response to him as an American. Only twice in his ten-day visit did he encounter any kind of reaction.

At the Sa’d Abad Palace compound that now houses museums, a member of the Revolutionary Guards asked for a light for his cigarette as we walked by. The American gave him the light and truthfully answered the question of where he was from. The guard grimaced. We could not make out hostility in the grimace -- perhaps only an indication that what he had to say about America and Americans had to remain unsaid.

The second reaction was at the passport investigation booth at the airport when the family was leaving the country. As they arrived at the booth, one heavily veiled inspector, with military stripes on the sleeves that poked out from under her chador, traded posts with another. As the American passports of Roya’s husband and son exchanged hands, the two inspectors made an inside joke and chuckled to themselves. Neither had probably had much experience processing American passports, which to the irritation of other waiting passengers held up the line.

Roya’s sociable little boy broke the ice with his timely “Salam” to the frowning inspector. With an unexpected smile back she waved the American father and son through the gate to take seats while the Iranian mother stood at the booth. Roya answered questions about what her husband did and the purpose of his visit, watched his name being copied on various documents, and they were cleared >>> Part 11

Smoldering in Tehran: Index

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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