An excerpt from the newly published book by Matthew Stevenson. Copies can be ordered for $15 at the CounterPunch store or they will given free to anyone who donates $100 or more in the next two months. All proceeds will go to support CounterPunch.
What gave my flights from Geneva to Kiev and Tehran some drama is that I left Switzerland without an Iranian visa. Needless to say, this wasn’t my idea, but Omid’s [who helped arrange my train travels]. He said he had spoken with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) about it, and they told him there had not been time to process the application, and that I could get my visa at the airport on arrival.
It all sounded too casual for my taste—Iran doesn’t strike me as a visa-on-arrival kind of place. My choices, however, were simple: I could cancel the trip (losing the $300 for the flights) or I could push ahead and hope for the best with airport immigration. My risk there was that, if turned away at the frontier, I would have to buy a one-way ticket back to Geneva, which could easily cost another $700. Finally, if I postponed the trip, I didn’t know when I might have another two weeks to go there.
I spent a few days thinking over the problem and decided to risk getting a visa at the airport. I had come to trust Omid in our e-mail exchanges about train schedules and city options—his thinking often matched mine—and I figured he should know better than I about the MFA. I did recall, however, that during the 1979 hostage crisis, the MFA had held the American chargé d’affaires under house arrest. (At least the MFA was always too diplomatic to tell him he was a prisoner.)*
The first flight, to Kiev, was half full, but the next flight, to Tehran, had fewer than twenty passengers, as the timing of my travel coincided with a Russian offensive in Eastern Ukraine. (Kiev’s more in the west, but the headlines were not helping the airline’s business.) We landed around one in the morning, perhaps the last flight of the day. At least the arrival side of Imam Khomeini International Airport was empty, and I easily found the short line of passengers from Kiev in front of the MFA airport visa window.
The two men in front of me looked like Ukrainian arms merchants, and they had been drinking heavily on the flight. Nevertheless, the immigration officer on duty (he was wearing slacks and a shirt, not a military uniform) processed their papers, printed the visa, checked with someone in the back office, and stamped them into the country. The process took ten minutes, and when I stepped up to the window, the officer went through exactly the same steps with my application, making me think I was “in”. I could even see the visa sticker with my name on it on his desk. Then he said: “There’s a problem. Did you once before apply for a visa?”
His English was good, and I told him about wanting to take the train from Turkey and filling out the visa application, which went nowhere. (“I couldn’t find a guide to meet me at Razi, the border town…”) I began unloading papers from my bag that I had asked Omid to send me, “just in case I have a problem at the airport.” He had sent the schedule and verified that I would be with a guide, but the officer on duty seemed unimpressed. I got the feeling that pretty soon I would have to turn around, head back to the departure lounges, and try to bum a ride on a flight to Europe. Maybe Argo[the Ben Affleck film] had been more accurate than I thought?
I didn’t plead or argue with the officer (who looked exactly my age), but I didn’t leave his desk, either. I just stood there, silently, while he looked at my papers and went again to the back office. Then he sighed out loud over my passport, pasted down the visa, and said: “You know, I shouldn’t do this, but welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
I had with me some Swiss chocolates, and I thought of thanking him with a bar, but that seemed over the post-revolutionary line. Instead, I collected my bag, passed through customs (where no one was on duty), and found my cab driver near the exit gate.
It was well after 2 a.m. when the taxi left the airport and drove me to my hotel in Tehran, the Parasto, on a side street in the center of the old downtown, not far from the Russian embassy and the site of the Tehran Conference. (Roosevelt and Churchill, who met Stalin there, skipped meeting with the shah, which tells you what they thought of Iranian sovereignty.* [see footnote below.]
My room had two twin beds, which suits me well when I am traveling, and on one I unpacked my maps, books, and papers. On the bed closest to the window I fell asleep almost instantly, and slept until 9 a.m., when I ate breakfast and awaited the arrival of my guide, Farshad Mousavi, at 10:30 a.m. Breakfast was juice, cheese, lunch meat, delicious flat bread, hard boiled eggs, and coffee, and I ate the same thing each morning, with pleasure, no matter where I was in the country. Nothing in Iran is better than the morning bread.
I had not known who my guide would be or what he would be like, and I dreaded getting someone fluent only in guide-speak—that endless patter about “the early days of the Persian Empire when Cyrus…” I had avoided traveling in China for years when my only choice was going around with a tour group. Omid had said my guide would be “a good one,” but he didn’t have a name or a profile when I left Geneva, and only when he came through the door did I get Farshad’s full name.
My great luck was that Farshad, who was studying for his masters’ degree in tourism at the University of Tehran, was in his mid-twenties, had an engaging sense of humor, knew Iran as well as I know Brooklyn, and was game to take me anywhere, discuss anything, and knew, early in our travels, exactly what might interest me (the National Museum) and what would not (expensive meals that take two hours).
Farshad and I spent the next twelve days together, and all I remember now is a general bantering, teasing conversation, many laughs, no arguments or disagreements, and a near-perfect alignment of shared interest in ancient and modern history. (It helped that he was about the same age as my children.) He never said no to my requests or interests (although he did gently guide me in other directions when an idea of mine was stupid), and I loved that he was game for touring whenever—such as one night at 9 p.m. when we rode the subway to south Tehran and saw the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini. I was always saying things such as, “Where was the house of Mohammad Mossadegh?” and he would tell me, “Well, it’s about a hundred kilometers south of here, in Ahmad Abad. The house is there, but I am not sure there is much to see.” Although, had I insisted, we would have gone.
Thanks to Farshad, I got into the holy shrine in Mashhad, biked around Esfahan, saw in Tehran where the American hostages were taken, walked around Tehran University, found the Iran-Iraq war museum, and arrived, as I wanted, at Persepolis just as it opened. We ate breakfast at the hotels, lunch on the run, and dinner in neighborhood restaurants. On trains and buses—he knew both systems well—he left me alone to read my books, which I also appreciated.
* Also on the grounds of what is now the Russian embassy was Atabak Palace, where in 1911 the American Morgan Shuster was stationed, in an effort to bring order to Persia’s finances. He was a choir master sent to bring organization to a brothel—he lasted less than a year on the job. In his memoir of the assignment, The Strangling of Persia, he wrote: “The destruction of her independence was written down in the book of history at Potsdam in 1910…. Russia is now the sovereign power in Persia. She is the practical and effective ruler of the country. The whole of the country is to-day a satrapy.” Shuster left the country in December 1911, much the way an earlier frustrated diplomat in Tehran said to his chauffeur: “Drive me to Europe.”
Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including , , and , about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled . His new book is: .