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A slow night at Mehrabad airport
Smoldering in Tehran, Part 9



Sima Nahan
December 9, 2005

My friend Roya’s American husband was arriving early one morning. I went to the airport with her at 2 a.m. to keep her company and be of help if there were complications. It was a slow night and we were early, so we sat outside on a bench to wait. A group of taxi drivers waiting for passengers were chatting among themselves. In a little while passengers from a plane that had landed from Jeddah cleared customs and trickled out.

“Asghar,” called a driver to another who had just pulled in, “come give this haj agha a ride back to Jeddah.” The haj agha (technically a man who has gone to Mecca, but liberally applied in Iran) was a tall man with a formidable belly in a long white djalaba. He was followed at demure distance by half a dozen black cones whose heavy veils with barely a slit at the eyes identified them as female. Their ease of movement signified their age. As the great patriarch strutted about, a couple of teenage boys in jeans and T-shirts -- sons and brothers of the black cones, presumably -- handled the family luggage.

The Iranian cabbies snickered at the sight.

“I wonder why they come here,” one said.

“Well, for them Tehran is Paris,” said another.

In contrast to the passengers from Jeddah, Iranian women and men at the airport walked shoulder to shoulder. While women were veiled in various degrees of habit and reluctance, their body language spoke of a sense of entitlement to walking shoulder to shoulder with men. Nor did I see an Iranian man strutting about paces ahead of his females.

The night before we had gone to a concert by an Iranian woman singer. To perform in public is a right Iranian women have had to fight for after the revolution. But it is still against the law for a woman to sing solo; she must be accompanied by a man. One of the percussionists in this singer’s ensemble accompanied her while she sang. He was a pro at keeping his voice almost inaudible in the background. I was impressed with the courage of the woman artist and touched by the self-effacement of the man artist. The absurdity of misogyny is so apparent in Iran.

At the airport, once the amusing diversion of the passengers from Jeddah came to an end, the taxi drivers resumed their conversation.

“It has gone up to $59 a barrel,” said one.

“No, the latest is $62.”

“I wonder what they’re going to do with the surplus.”

“I just heard on the news that Iran has committed $1 billion to rebuilding Iraq.”

“Rebuild Iraq…? They still owe us damages for the war.”

“If the American bosses say we rebuild Iraq, we rebuild Iraq.”

“These gentlemen have to swallow it if they want to keep their power.”

Then they fell silent -- partly because the airport is not a safe place to discuss politics too openly, and partly because the topic was downright depressing. They started watching the passengers again, discussing the foreigners.

A small group of European men, technical experts by the looks of them, walked out of the terminal building. They acted upbeat and polite but made eye contact only with each other. They avoided the locals altogether and were particularly careful not to show any awareness of the female population. (There was no telling what those crazy Muslim men might do to them if they looked at their women folk.) Roya and I couldn’t help staring at them with big smiles on our faces, watching them squirm under our gaze and making them feel as uncomfortable as possible.

“The Koreans,” one of the taxi drivers was saying. “They’re not really foreigners. They know all the exact cab fares.” >>> Part 10

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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