A hint of fear … sprinkled with some magic fairy dust: I have to admit, that without exception, that is my first gut reaction to entering Iran and nearing passport check.
Obviously, with the thousands and thousands of political prisoners they are torturing already, no one is going to come after a twirpy blogger with a twirpy nickname. My blog is blocked in Iran, but that too by random chance I like to think, than any serious consideration of me as a big bada** revolutionary who poses “threats to the regime”.
Even still, the fear, (or hint of) gripes at me, remotely contemplates being taken away into the dungeons of Evin and laughs at itself for being so gullible like those “other” Iranians.
Alas, it is not meant to be. I politely say hello to the passport agent, hand in my documents, get them back and begin the ride to my least favorite part of the entire trip.
My second reaction upon passing the passport check-in counter after arriving at Imam Khomeini International Airport. Get ready for the zoo …….
No, not Iran, but baggage claim which is surrounded by glass, where relatives stand with flowers, chocolate and tears on the other side. I Always feel uncomfortable knowing that I am being watched as I attend to my baggage, swear under my breath that IKI has no porters (as of 2009), that I will have to carry my two suitcases, my bagpack, my carry-on and my two bags (tobacco purchased at duty free, of course!) I am here to stay a while after all, who knows how many cigarettes that will mean?
As I stand in the long line to the customs, I try not to look the other way, not at the glass, so I do not have to make eye contact. I am filled with too many questions, too much fatigue, too many worries (no, not about Evin, but of the familial sort) to want to make eye contact, to force a grin or a smile.
The great wall of China, the Berlin wall, the Separation Barrier in the West Bank, … I try to remember as many separation barriers as I can, all made for different reasons, some more legitimate than others (and yet some with not a shred) - it puzzles me how something as thin as glass can create such dichotomy. The waiting parents, grandparents on one side. The tired, groggy traveler on the other. And in between them a world of longing, stories, separation.
I reach the baggage x-ray scanner which I am dreading, I have to lift the suitcases once again, retrieve from the other end … at least it will be the last time.
My suitcases are hard to miss, with the graffiti sprayed all over, making certain I don’t end up with some old sucker’s black Samsonite again – or vice versa. I am about to retrieve my suitcase for the last time, when suddenly, I hear someone calling me. “You, with the colorful suitcase, take your bags to customs.”
In all of my 20 something years, in all of this travelling back and forth, I have never, EVER been called to customs. Could have gotten away with an alligator in my bag, and they would have never known it.
I pick up my suitcase, and for one minute, am compelled to just follow everyone else to the exit. Who’s going to notice? There’s no one around me. I start walking to exit, until I see a man with a badge looking at me. I look back like a dumb kid. “ummmm, sorry Mr. I think that man in the back said something, I’m not sure I heard him.”
“He said for you to go to customs. The other way.” He sincerely believes I am lost – aren’t we all?
And so with my tail bewteen my legs, I head over to the “customs office”, which is basically the end of the long hall, dreading most of all having to pick up my suitcases again to put them on the metal counter.
By habit, I always stuff the top of my suitcase with tampons, pads and underwear, thinking that if someone out there on this journey decides to take a peak, s/he will decide otherwise upon opening the bag. I always over stuff my bags with sanitary pads, fearing some sort of countrywide shortage or tampon famine.
“Khanom, chamadoon ro baz kon.” [lady, open the suitcase] the customs agent politely asks.
I open them, and sure enough, a burst of lady’s unmentionables falls out.
While I am opening my bag, he starts writing a fine for the man beside me. “100,000 Tomans [$100 when I got to Iran, half of that now], go to the Melli Bank counter, pay your fine and come back.”
The man isn’t willing to budge. “I don’t have anything but a $20 bill on me!” he gripes. They start arguing. Then whispering.
My ears are as sharp as a wildcat right about now. They settle on a comprise: the man hands the agent a 50,000 Toman note, and back takes his bag, walks toward exit. The customs agent shoves the bill in his pocket, rips the fine and moves on to his next victim … moi.
As I listen in on their conversation, I try to think of what I will do: argue with him? pay my fine? bribe him like the other man just did?
I decide on the middle option: pay whatever I have to pay at the bank, and not a single dime for bribes.
He gets to my suitcases. Starts tearing the first one apart. Throwing things everywhere. Of course, 70% of the content is gifts. with tags attached. He shakes his head some more, “you’re only allowed to bring in $80 a year, per traveller, this is clearly more than $80.” Although he’s come to that conclusion already, he goes to the next suitcase. Starts tearing into that one too, like a hungry bear after dinner. What always pisses me off most about customs agents, anywhere in the world, is their complete disregard for how much work goes into packing – so that things don’t break, wrinkle, gift boxes don’t bend. And the hours and hours of work you’ve put into it – gone, just like that, as they impatiently dig through your luggage like the Tasmanian Devil himself, digging unwanted holes, rigging unneeded pits.
“This is clearly more than $80″ for what seems like the 50th time. EIGHTY dollars? When my frigging plane ticket alone costs $1450? I respond: “I never heard of this rule, why don’t you ask airlines to handout leaflets, like other countries do? How am I supposed to know?”
“It says on our website.”
He bends down to get his fines, and asks for my name. I give it to him, completely baffled and disoriented by now. “You pay the fine or your suitcase will be confiscated” he warns. He calls his colleague, to ask for a pen, and as they are conversing, I call out “kafar” more than a few times under my breath. The third time, I say it louder: “you call this the country of Islam? You’re all nothing but Kafars” [infidels] I say again.
At this point, I realize I clearly need a course in anger management. I am completely disoriented. Even though I’ve seen bribes and zirmizi [under the table cash] many times before, I can not believe that this man is writing me a fine, for stuffing my bags with the cheapest gifts bought on a thin student budget.
I even mutter “jakesh” [cock sucker, dick puller, pimp? Possibly the worst swear word I know in the Persian language] at one point, loud enough for them to hear, as the person to my left clearly does. Although if they do hear me, they are polite enough not to take notice.
“What’s the matter?” the other colleague asks.
“I’m a student, here to visit my family, I have gifts for my relatives, and no one ever told me the $80 limit. How was I supposed to know? Why don’t you hand out papers like other countries do? How are we supposed to know this stuff?”
“Go to our website, w-w-w-i-r-i-c-a-g-o-v-i-r he says very slowly. It’s all written there. See that lady over there? She brought a cat into the country, and she has to pay a 300,000 Tomans custom fee. It’s all rules and regulations.”
“But I don’t have a fucking cat!” I cry.
He looks at me, bewildered for a moment. “Let me see what I can do.”
He comes back a minute later, and says: “ok, ok, I know you’re a student, pay only half. Pay 50,000.”
At this point, my sweet mother has entered customs. I give out a sigh of relief that she’s here, and that she wasn’t here earlier, to listen to her sweet, darling girl call a customs agent in the Islamic Republic of Iran a “cock sucker”.
I explain everything and she turns to the customs agent and says: “you’re going to fine a student? for rules you failed to inform them of?”
He repeats the website, looks down, rips the fine and says: “ok, ok, go ahead, I know you’re a student, you don’t need to pay anything.”
Just like that, without any further pomp and flair my welcome home ceremony comes to an end.