How I Got Deported from Iran
March 31, 2000
We were on a boat and I was the first person to see that they were going to dump us into a large pool filled with screaming people. There were objectsscraps of old boats and raftsfloating in the pool and we tried to grab onto them. I got a hold of a plank with my hand. And as soon as I regained enough composure to look around I felt the bottom of the pool as I grazed it with a big toe. I stood up to confront the screamers but as soon as I did I saw what they were screaming about. Sharks the size of Pekinese were swimming all around us. Their noses stuck out of the water, their mouths gaping open. One came towards me and I stuck a piece of Styrofoam , which I had in my hand, in its mouth. "Punch them in the nose!" I screamed, remembering from somewhere that the nose is the most sensitive part of a shark. The people on the sides of the pool were now jumping back into the water and I yelled at them to stop but when they hit the water they turned into sharks. My heart jumped causing me to take in an entire mouthful of water and, while I was choking, I reached down to swat at a shark that had a hold of my foot.
...And shook myself awake, kicking and coughing, one minute before my alarm went off at 6:30am. Jesus, I thought. That was horrible. This was the first time I'd dreamt of anything in the three months that I'd been traveling. Even In Pakistan when I had lay in bed with a fever over 102 degrees, through hot and cold sweats, I didn't dream. (Although, once in delirium I did think that my backpack sitting in the corner of the room was a gnome.) So, in Tehran, Iran after dreaming my first dream in months I got out of bed and went into the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face. I looked at my watch. I had a half an hour before my friends were coming to pick me up and take me to the Swiss embassy. I went to pack.
A few months prior it seemed unlikely that I would be able to visit Iran at this point in political history. Relations between Iran and the United States have been rocky, if non-existent, for the past 20 odd years and permission to travel between the two countries has been rough going at best. But times are changing, tourism is picking up and trade is reviving. Just recently Madeline Albright made an announcement that ended strict sanctions (to name a few: Iranian pistachios, dates and almonds) allowing much needed capital to flow into a country that's economy, once among the strongest, now rivals neighboring Turkey.
On March 16th my visa wishes were granted. I picked up my Iranian visa in Islamabad, Pakistan after waiting for eight hours and bribing the officials. A group in London in conjunction with a tour guide in Tehran had processed my visa. The price for this was just shy of 1,000$US50$ per day for my guide (for a total of 15 days) and a lump sum of close to 300$ for the processing of the visa (50$ bribe in Pakistan not included).
On March 17th I caught a flight at 3am. Six hours later I landed in Iran. With my head covered I went through customs and passport control too tired to believe where I was. And, besides the headscarves and long trench coats the women were wearing, the airport looked as sterile as any other international hub I'd visited.
As I was coming out of baggage check the sun broke through the windows and a hand grabbed my shoulder. "Hello. I'm Mr. Tofighi. I'm your guide." He smiled as he explained that there were a few other people waiting for me outside that he didn't know.
"Oh, don't worry. Those are probably my friends. They work in environmental organizations and I'm writing a story on them for a magazine in America." Tofighi nodded and followed me into the light.
We entered the parking lot and there stood Mr. Haghighi, a man whom I had been in touch with since the past fall when I was given his name from ENN.com (Environmental News Network). Haghighi had been invited to the United States a year earlier to promote environmental awareness between the two countries. I had planned to meet him at the airport and then to meet the family he had set up for me to stay with while in Tehran.
"Mr. Haghighi, hello! How are you? It's great to finally meet you." I said as Tofighi and I stepped through the doors. Before Haghighi could say two words Tofighi spewed forth a flood of words that pooled into one question: would I go with Haghighi or would I go with Tofighi? We stood there; Tofighi rambled on about this and that and something about a required guide. I was so tired that I would have jumped into a lion's mouth if it asked nice enough. As it turned out I did just that. Tofighi explained that I had paid him and that he was going to take care of me so I nodded and managed to tell Haghighi that I would call him that evening to set up the following days before slugging my way to Tofighi's car.
In the car I sat down next to Tofighi's wife and nearly fell asleep. "We will go to the Ancient Museum, have lunch and go to the hotel." He rambled on. I threw a few words in about Haghighi and my desire to call him, and also about the hotel and my desire to do nothing but sleep.
"Which hotel am I staying in?" I squeaked. Tofighi had made reservations at the Esteghlal, the former Hilton, in a 50$ a night room. "I'm sorry, I can't stay there. I don't have the means. In fact," I said "I don't have the means to stay at any hotel that's why I was going to stay with the family Mr. Haghighi had set up for me."
Having arrived at the museum, Tofighi grabbed my bag from my lap and threw it in the trunk saying we'd think of something. "I am your brother. It is my honor and my duty to look after you. No problem."
This is going to be a problem, I thought and shuffled after him into the museum.
With every step my eyes dropped lower and lower as Tofighi talked on and on about this piece of stone and that piece of stone. A fellow drew up next to us with a camcorder and started filming Tofighi as he talked. Tofighi faced the camera and starting swinging his arms and shouting. I hung back watching against a 2000-year-old Persian pillar thinking, Damn, why do I always run into these guys?
Later that day, after I had eaten lunch and helped install a computer at Tofighi's uncle's home, we drove to Tofighi's apartment 30km outside of Tehran. This was the compromise we made, if I couldn't stay in a hotel I would stay with my "brother".
At the apartment I showered, had dinner, watched two documentaries on Iran and one of Tofighi's wedding before I was finally able to call Haghighi and fall into a coma from lack of sleep. Tofighi mumbled something when I asked to use the phone and then went back to chirping and cooing with his wife in the next room. On the phone Haghighi said he'd have Katy, the girl I was set to stay with, call Tofighi back and set things up. I went to sleep as the phone rang, assuming it was Katy and that she and Tofighi were arranging schedules.
Feeling well rested the next afternoon as Tofighi, his wife and I were pulling out of the parking lot I asked, "Are we going to meet Katy?"
Tofighi's face sunk. He turned around to look at me, "I don't know about these people." He said and took the pit of the date he was eating out of his mouth. "I don't trust them. You know, you have to be really careful here. You're passport is worth over 5,000$. You have to watch it all the time."
I took the pit of the date I was eating out of my mouth. "I don't understand." But of course I did. Tofighi himself had described the previous night how he receives almost 30% commission on every hotel and monument he gets his guests to visit.
So I stared at him waiting for a reply. He stared back. After half a minute he grumbled, "We can go to lunch and then meet Katy for a few hours."
"Take me to Katy's now." I said and grabbed another date. I was tired of Tofighi's history lessons and wanted to meet Katy. After another one-minute staring contest, me looking out at the city skyline, Tofighi burning a hole through me, he consented and we left.
An hour later Tofighi and I walked into Katy's living room, she introduced us to her mother and we sat down and had a glass of orange juice. Her house was beautiful, Persian carpets covered the floor and miniature paintings hugged the walls. Katy asked me if I'd like to stay with her for a few days. "I'd love to." I said and looked to Tofighi for a response. His face turned red, he put down his glass, jumped up and said suddenly, "You have used me!"
I thought, There's no way I'd ever USE... But said, "Don't get upset..." He interrupted. So I tried to tell him I was sorry for the misunderstanding. "I told you yesterday..." He just shook his head.
Katy stood up and told Tofighi to calm down. He didn't respond and got up to leave saying that he would pick me up at 7pm and we would discuss things then.
After Tofighi had gone I lunched with Katy and her mother and afterwards Katy took me to meet with the Green Front of Iran, one of Iran's only registered NGOs (Non-Government Organizations). Haghighi was there along with a few others, we chatted for a few hours and left; we didn't want to be late for Tofighi.
We arrived at Katy's house at 7:30pm. Tofighi was not there so Katy went to call. When I got on the line with him I asked him how he was and told him about my meeting. Then, seeing he was calm, I told him that I would like to stay with Katy. "It will be easier for you if I stay here. I really enjoyed your home. Thank you." And can you drive to your house and pick up my luggage while you're at it, I felt like adding but resisted. Tofighi said he would be at Katy's in an hour.
When he arrived, he, his wife and his brother-in-law came into the room and sat down. I came in from the kitchen and asked him how his evening went. Before I could sit down he yelled that it had been horrible, that the police had called him and that there was a chance that I could be deported. "D-E-P-O-R-T-E-D. You're not allowed to talk to anyone or stay in anyone's home! You have to go immediately to a hotel!"
I couldn't say anything. My mouth was literally frozen shut with the thought of Iranian secret police dragging me off and kicking me out of the country. I left with Tofighi; we drove to his home to pack my things and then back to the city to a hotel.
In the car Tofighi told me that I would get deported the next day and that my friends were very stupid. "If you want to stay in Iran you have to stay on the tour." I sat motionless thinking about deportation. I don't know anyone who's ever been deported, I thought. This might make a great story. I snapped out of my fantasy when we arrived at the hotel.
At the hotel desk I checked in as Tofighi wrote a note in Persian that the clerk posted above my key-cubby. He kept shouting at the clerks and telling me how stupid I am. "I'll pick you up here at 9:00am! We'll sort things out then!" And he asked again if I wanted to stay in Iran and follow his tour or leave. Oh, no you don't, I thought and I told him I was too tired and that I'd let him know in the morning.
In my room I unpacked and tried to sort out the situation in my head. I picked up the phone to call Katy and tell her I was okay. But the phone wouldn't work. I re-dialed several times until the desk came on the line.
"I want to make a phone call."
[Pause] "The line is closed."
"U-huh. I'll be right down."
I pointed to the phone on the desk and said "Local call." He said the line was closed. I asked when it would be open. He didn't answer. I asked him, pointing to the note, if the fellow, Tofighi, had told them I couldn't use the phone. He shrugged his shoulders. We sat by the phone for another few minutes in silence. No one moved. Then I headed towards the lobby doors and walked outside to see what was around, if maybe there was a shop I could call from. I stood just outside the doors looking stupid, not able to think of anything else to do. I can't believe this is my life, I thought. Then one of the clerks came and asked me what I was doing.
I'm standing here cause I can't think of anything else to do and if you don't let me use the phone I'm going to start screaming, I thought. "I just want to call my friend and tell her I'm okay." I said. The clerk shook his head sorry and muttered something about the police.
"Police?" I blurted out. The clerk smiled nervously.
"He's a tour guide. He is not POLICE." And I almost grabbed the man by the shoulders to shake my point across. The clerk laughed. His face broke into a smile and he called to the other clerk. They both laughed. I went back inside. They let me use the phone.
I called Katy. She had phoned the Swiss embassy and they thought everything sounded strange and said I should come speak with them. We planned for Katy to pick me up at 7am the next day.
At 7:15am I sat on my bed next to my packed bags. Little images of sharks swam through the carpet and around the bed. I walked over to the window to take a look at the high snow covered 14,000ft mountains that surround 4,000ft Tehran. The city has every suggestion of being a modern first world Mecca for shopping and commerce. Tehran is one of the biggest cities in the world (as well as one of the most polluted). Large buildings crawl out in all directions.
I grabbed my bags and followed the sharks down the four flights of steps to the lobby. Katy and Haghighi had been waiting; the hotel staff had not allowed them to ring my room. Katy pushed me out the doors and I whimpered, "But he's not police." to the clerks because they wouldn't let me take my passport.
The Swiss embassy welcomed me in and after a few short minutes convincing them that I was the good guy and Tofighi not, the two diplomats let lose on me. They pointed out that I was held illegally whereas they were unable to do anything, not even move about the embassy, without an Iranian accompaniment. Also, they said, it was the beginning of a weeklong holiday in Iran and all of the government offices were on vacation. It would be impossible to tell if Tofighi was right or not about the police, his lying, hysteria or much of anything. "Think about your family, your mother." Said the head of the foreign relations. And they scared me with stories of their own surveillance. "They know when you go to the bathroom. They know when you make a phone call."
"I think I'll buy my ticket onwards." I said and the two Swiss diplomats looked like they were going to high-five.
I left the embassy and went directly to a travel agent to buy my ticket to Turkey early the following day.
Later that evening after taking a quick tour of the city with Katy and her mother, meeting one of Iran's up and coming Kurdish filmmakers, Bahman Ghobadi, and dining with Haghighi and his family I thought about canceling the ticket. "Please. We would be honored if you would stay here." Said Mrs. Haghighi as she brought more tea and dates while little three-year-old Tina sung me a song in English and showed me her prowess on the computer. It was getting late and I was leaving at 6am the next morning for my flight. I looked down at all the gifts my Iranian friends had given me and the phone rang. Haghighi answered, mumbled a few words into the receiver and said to me, "Tofighi says that you need to go back to the hotel."
"I'm sorry," I said when Mrs. Haghighi dropped me off. "I just can't think..." But she would have none of it. She told me that soon things will be better in Iran and that I wouldn't have to go through this hassle next time.
"He's a bad man. A bad apple." And left it at that.
And as I sat there in the Tehran airport the next morning waiting to board my flight I felt like throwing things, yelling, and running back out into the parking lot to call my friends. But my visa was no longer valid. So I sat. Maybe it's a personality flaw, like a tiny line running through porcelain, because I couldn't figure out what exactly went wrong. I walked over to the snack shop to buy a coffee and get my mind off of the situation. And as I reached into my wallet I remembered that I hadn't even changed any money over to Iranian currency. This has to be a dream, I laughed and glanced up at the cashier who, for a split second, looked just like a shark.
-Sarah Reed Bargren