Detained in Tehran—Sort Of
The timing of the call could have won an award for serendipity. I was walking the halls of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, nicknamed Henderson High by the former diplomatic staff because of its resemblance to American high schools of the 1940s, when it was built. Now it is the Museum of Anti-American Arrogance, since it reopened to display the alleged subterfuge of American diplomats before the fall of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
It was Firouzeh’s phone that rang. For three days Firouzeh had been my guide in Tehran, leading me around the sights of the city. The call ended, and she told me that when we were finished she had been instructed to bring me to the visa office. I didn’t know, but soon learned, that within the Iranian foreign ministry there is a special department that approves (or denies) visas for the “usual suspects” (from the Iranian point of view)—Americans, Canadians, and citizens of the United Kingdom—who are required to be accompanied by a tour guide from the beginning to the end of their stay in Iran.
We spent the next half hour strolling through the grim corridors, eyeing the massive office machines, circa 1979, which the regime claims as proof of the effort of a global power to “meddle in the internal affairs” of a smaller one. Which was probably true. But whether all of this was evidence of “crimes against Iran” or merely the electronic gadgetry any embassy would have had on hand to do its business, circa 1979, was anyone’s guess.
The visit over, we headed to the main gate. As we left the ticket seller, with customary Persian hospitality, wished me a very pleasant stay in Iran. When we entered he’d asked Firouzeh where I was from.
“Welcome home,” he’d replied.
Our driver was waiting at the gate. Firouzeh had summoned him. We navigated the Tehran traffic for half an hour before pulling up in front of a drab, nondescript office building. Nothing stated its purpose. It could have been a department of the foreign ministry or the office of an insurance company. The interior was just as drab. Drabness is the face of bureaucracies because drabness makes no statement. It says nothing about its modus operandi, least of all its character or values, if it has any.
But drabness takes on special meaning in Iran. Because drabness says nothing it can say anything, and in Iran any statement—of aim, of intention, of principle—depends on circumstances, which are forever changing. Therefore the bureaucracy, and those who administer it, may alter its face at a whim, because they, too, have made no statement, staked no claim, said nothing. In the Persian mind clarity limits flexibility, offers no wiggle room, no opportunity to adjust to changing circumstances. One needlessly boxes oneself into a corner. It is bad politics, bad negotiating strategy, bad everything when delicate relationships are in play.
Firouzeh was told to wait outside. I handed over my cell phone and passed through the metal detector and spent the next 10 minutes sitting on a drab waiting-room chair waiting for—I knew not what.
Finally I was called to an inner office. A tray of Persian sweets was centered on a coffee table surrounded by leather couches. I sat down to wait. An office lackey brought me a cup of tea with a mountain of sugar cubes. The cubes were provided so the tea could be drunk the Persian way—sucking it through a single cube, placed between the teeth.
After a few minutes two officials entered—a 30-something I will call Amir and an older man with a salt-and-pepper beard and hair to match I will call Reza. Amir sat on the couch across from me. He had a scholarly look, with horn-rimmed glasses and thin build. But Reza established himself as the boss by seating himself behind the only desk in the room.
“Are you aware of the reason for this?” Amir asked with easy, Persian formality.
I shook my head. “No.”
“We have many foreign tourists and like to learn about their interest in our country. We realized you were leaving Tehran tomorrow and wanted the opportunity to meet you. We have many Americans but not many who come in Iran three times.”
Of course this was horseshit. If the visa office wanted to meet every foreign tourist who came to Iran it would have to book appointments. Likely they realized only that afternoon that I was scheduled to leave Tehran the next day and told Firouzeh to hustle me over to the visa office before I was “on the road”—Iranian style. But why? Because few Americans visit Iran three times, if at all, and my repeat visits had made them curious. Reza and Amir tried to wear the garb of gracious Persian hosts, but it was costume that did not fit.
To get ahead of them I explained my interest in the country. For years I’d read articles about Iran that portrayed a much different reality than anything conveyed by conventional news outlets. In 2004 I moved to the UAE and one of my aims was to see it firsthand.
The conversation shifted to my first visit to Iran, during the postelection demonstrations in 2009. Violent demonstrations rocked the streets of Tehran and other cities, because former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected to a second term due to poll results widely seen as fraudulent.
“Weren’t you frightened?” Amir asked.
“No. I grew up in Chicago in the middle of the civil rights movement. It was the violent sixties, and there were lots of protests over the Vietnam War.”
It was not the answer they expected. Americans are supposed to be afraid to leave their comfort zone, fear places in the world viewed as threatening.
“Didn’t you think someone might attack you, being an American?”
I shook my head. “Iranians aren’t violent, and they like Americans.”
Reza was listening close, but turned to Amir for a translation. Then he sat back in his chair, revealing nothing.
Amir then wended his way through a series of questions he already knew the answers to: How long had I lived in the UAE? In what area did I teach? In classic Persian style it followed no particular path and was aimed in no particular direction, like all good conversations. But it clearly had one, otherwise I wouldn’t have been summoned to the visa office the day before I was supposed to leave Tehran. Whatever it was, only Reza and Amir held the keys, but even they may have had no clear aim other than to “feel out” this American on his third visit to Iran.
What did I think of Trump’s decision to move the American embassy to Jerusalem?—Amir asked.
It was a mistake. Jerusalem should become a neutral city, shared by all the major religions.
Did I believe in God?
How we arrived at this is lost within a series of steps that left no trace, but I found the winding, twisting course of the conversation fascinating.
In the traditional sense—no. As a Syrian friend of mine once said about religion, “I believe in all of them and none of them.” But, I added, just to throw a spanner into the works—I was part Native American, and I’d always felt drawn to Native American spirituality.
Reza leaned forward to listen close, but far more important than my responses was tone and body language, which needed no translation. Sometimes I sat back in the couch, sometimes I leaned forward—whatever suited the moment.
That I taught university-level writing courses also interested Amir: Did I have a Web site? A blog?
No. I told him I had neither the time nor interest.
“I have always been under the impression that writers feel their work has to make an impact, socially or politically.”
“That’s more true of Europeans,” I explained. “European writers have a much longer history of social and political activism. They’ve had more revolutions. It happens in the U.S. too, but usually among minorities and other groups, or during times of conflict. Many writers have strong views, but in America it isn’t seen as obligatory to use writing for that purpose.”
All of this was translated for Reza, who nodded with each phrase Amir sent his way. I enjoyed the mini-lecture on American letters. It turned the tables, if briefly. Iranians are masters of obscurity—in language, thought, even purpose. But here was a straight-talking American they could not quite figure out.
Amir recalled what I’d said about film studies being my main area of teaching. He asked if I knew much about Iranian cinema.
“It was excellent,” I replied, which was certainly true, and I rattled off a string of films I admired— The Color of God, by Majid Majidi, Leila, by Dariush Mehrjui, A Taste of Cherry, by Abbas Kiarostami, and of course Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and The Salesman.
For the first time Reza cut in, without translation: “You like the ones with all the beautiful women.”
“Who cares about the men?” I shot back.
There was a round of laughter. When it died down Amir asked if I found the Iranian people hospitable.
“Very much,” I replied, which was also true, “but they can’t beat the Syrians.”
Amir was nonplussed: “The Syrians are more hospitable than us?!”
“Yes, but don’t take it personally. No one can beat the Syrians.”
Another round of laughter.
It had become clear this was not going to be a short conversation. I thought of Firouzeh waiting outside and hoped she’d found a coffeeshop nearby to kill the time sipping a cappuccino.
Amir asked to see my passport. I told him I’d given it to the reception desk at the hotel when I checked in and never got it back. This threw them into a minor tizzy.
I was supposed to have it in my possession all the time in Iran, he scolded—slightly.
Reza summoned the tea lackey, issued instructions, and he left the room. And then, without any explanation, Amir left also. Then it was only Reza and me in the drab surroundings. Reza leaned back in his chair and rocked slightly, avoiding eye contact. Time passed—15 minutes, then 20. I wanted to engage him, seek tips on the best coffeehouses in Tehran, or where to find the best pizza—anything to fill the silence—but his English was not up to the task. That had been Amir’s job—to serve as translator and questioner.
Time passed, and I wondered what the point of this was—the wait. Was it calculated? Very little in the Iranian mindset isn’t calculated. Like all good chess players, they make no move without thinking five steps ahead. To paraphrase Barack Obama, Iranians “don’t do stupid stuff.” They may blunder, like all good chess players, but impulsiveness is a rare find in the Iranian gene pool.
So I waited—for Amir or the lackey to return with my passport so we could get on with it. So I could head back to the Hafez Hotel, put my feet up, and watch a bit of Press TV, the English-language Iranian satellite network.
I wondered what Reza was waiting for. That I’d crack under the pressure, reveal the true reason for my return to Iran? That would be the tactic of any interrogation, but this wasn’t an interrogation—or was it? When Amir first settled down on the couch across from me he said, straightway, that if I felt uncomfortable about the meeting I was free to leave and go on with my sightseeing. And he meant it. But I wasn’t uneasy and had no reason to be anywhere else. Besides, whatever was about to transpire was far more interesting than anything that could be found in another Tehran museum. One of the purposes of museums is to project clarity—historical, cultural, scientific. Here nothing was clear, not the aims of Reza and Amir, nor the reason for my presence, nor the possible endgame, which made this more enthralling than any museum could ever be, and it give me a better insight into Iran than any museum could.
After 20 minutes Amir reappeared, holding my passport. I was impressed. The lackey must have zipped through the Tehran traffic on his motorbike in record time, flashed whatever credentials he needed to obtain it from the hotel staff, and done double-time all the way back.
Reza took the passport and flipped through it. It was cluttered with a dizzying array of visa stamps and entry and exit permits, which said as much about my travel patterns as a jumbled Rubik’s cube. Reza tossed it on the table.
I looked at the clock. It was almost five-thirty. Again I thought of Firouzeh, and wondered if she wondering if I had been carted away to Evin Prison or some holding tank within the labyrinth of the Iranian penal system, and if I had, what would she do?
But there was no reason for worry. Our chat was at an end. Both Reza and Amir rose, and with consummate Persian politeness shook my hand and wish me a very pleasant stay in Iran. Amir added, in a moment of rare candor, “We had no idea it would go on this long, but it was so interesting!”
I’m sure. And with that I left.
Regrettably, Firouzeh hadn’t been whiling away the time in a coffeeshop. She was so unnerved she hadn’t left the car for the past two hours, now waiting outside the office door. The driver flashed his lights and I got in.
“When you didn’t come out I didn’t know what to think,” Firouzeh stammered. I was about to fill her in on the curvaceous conversation, but she had other things on her mind.
“Did they ask about me?”
“Every day we just followed the program, what the agency gave me,” she argued, defensively, and she opened a plastic binder to show me the itinerary she had been handed. It was all written in Farsi and meant nothing to me, but her worry was clear. Had we strayed from it in any way and had there been questions about it, it was she, not me, who would have had questions to answer. But Reza and Amir weren’t interested in where I had gone or what we had done, and probably knew anyway.
To put her mind to rest, I gave her a quick rundown on my conversation with Reza and Amir in all its mundane detail—banality is often a balm for anxiety. Soon we were turning off Ferdowsi Street and pulling up in front of the hotel. I got out of the car and thanked her for her very professional service over the past three days. The worry lines on her face had smoothed—a little.
The next morning I was greeted by a new guide, Aydin. After breakfast we loaded his car and headed northwest, spent three days in Tabriz before making an abrupt right turn at Ardabil to cruise toward Rasht and Ramsar, on the Caspian coast. All was smooth going. Then we got to Rasht. The night we arrived there were antigovernment demonstrations on the streets. In the past few days they had erupted in many cities, but oddly, many were known to be government strongholds. Tehran, usually the hotbed of antigovernment sentiment, was left in the cold. Even by Iranian standards it was curious—forever curious.
Aydin and I had dinner at an Italian restaurant and then took a stroll along the pedestrian streets for which Rasht is well known. The shops were alit and buzzing. Then progovernment demonstrators appeared, parading down the center of the street, escorted by security forces and mouthing pro-regime slogans. Politically speaking, it was a muddle—pro-regime voices shouting down protestors who were also attacking the government? Pundits speculated that it was all a stage show, that the antigovernment protests had been organized by anti-Rouhani forces aiming to blemish his too-liberal government, and the harder hardliners had taken to the streets not to support Rouhani, but to bolster their allies seeking to humiliate him. In the end the guessing game continued. No one knew anything.
The next day Aydin’s phone rang. We were on the highway somewhere between Rasht and Ramsar, with the azure sheen of the Caspian glimmering to the east. I identified the voice on the other end as the woman from the tour agency who had met me at my hotel in Tehran one morning to collect the payment for the trip. She had called a few times before, but this was the first time since the Rasht episode. The two chatted, I heard laughter, and when Aydin hung up I asked, “Was that the office again?”
He sighed. “Yes . . .”
“What did they want?”
He fessed up. The agency had been calling him two, three times day, he said, sometimes first thing in the morning, sometimes late at night, at least once in the middle of the day: How is everything going? Have there been any problems? This time they wanted to know about the night before.
“What did you tell them?”
“That we went for a walk and there was a demonstration.”
“What did she say?’
“She just laughed and asked, ‘What did you do? I told her—we watched it go by.”
And that was that, and other than that I knew nothing, and neither did Aydin. Perhaps the visa office had instructed Hamid, the tour agency’s man-in-charge, to check in on me. Perhaps Hamid had taken it upon himself to check in on me, to ensure he had nothing to report to the visa office should it call to check in on me. Either could have been true, or not. In Iran one learns to work with a limited horizon. It is like forever driving on a foggy night with the headlights going dim.
The trip finished, and a few months later I contacted Hamid. Could he arrange another visa for me? The timing was bad, and I knew it. The U.S. had just pulled out of the 2015 nuclear deal—that was a fact—and likely the Iranians weren’t very anxious to welcome an Americans, even a returnee. But Hamid passed my request on to the visa office anyway. A few days later he replied.
“You are very famous to them,” he wrote back.
No kidding. But then he went on, with practiced Persian regret, to say that the foreign ministry would not give me another visa—not now. It might approve one “in the future, after a while.” But—he made clear—they gave no indication of what “a while” meant, and “might” only guaranteed that there was no guarantee, but it didn’t close the door, either.
I couldn’t have expected anything else—a reply that was forever obscure, perfectly noncommittal, classically Persian. As an Iranian friend of mine once said, “Who would be stupid enough to tell anyone exactly what they think?”
Previously published in Scarlet Leaf Preview.
Christopher Thornton teaches in the writing program at Zayed University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. His essays have appeared in numerous magazines and journals in the U.S., U.K., and Canada. Last year his book-length travel narrative on Iran was published by Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press.
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