Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran

I am told that Dubai has some “interesting” immigration and visa rules.  Apparently, it is harder to get a work visa than a tourist visa and the work visa is considerably more expensive.  Insert a little capitalism and you have quarterly “visa flights” wherein those who live and work in Dubai – albeit illegally – stay on indefinitely using tourist visas.  Every 3 months they fly to another country, spend the night and then fly back the next day.  Finding a niche in this market, the Iranians have stepped in and offered flights to Kish Island in the Persian gulf.  Kish rests just north of Dubai and is only a short plane flight away.  Unlike Iran proper, Kish is in a “trade free – economic zone” and no visa is required to enter this part of Iran.  There are two other “free trade zones” in Iran that do not require visas and they are the only accessible way to enter Iraq (as a westerner) without having to go through the process of obtaining an Iranian visa.

A friend of mine who lives in Dubai emailed me some photos that were taken at the ancient city of Harireh and my curiosity was piqued.  Archaeologists are excavating the 13th Century city and I was very eager to see the dig.  It lay in the back of my mind and when I was in Dubai scheduling my flight to Oman when I saw the “visa flight” service to Kish along with a photo of Harireh.  I inquired with the tour agent and found that the round-trip airfare and hotel was very inexpensive.  I immediately booked a flight.

On board I was surrounded by Filipinos, Thais, Russians, Ukrainians, Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, and even a few South Africans.  All of my fellow passengers were workers who were looking to renew their 3 month visas and they told me about how they make this trek 4 times a year.  For them it was a big drag as they had to miss three days of work and had to sit around “bored” at a hotel in southern Iran.  They had all been to the tourist attractions on the island and now they were just bored with the whole affair.  I was quite the opposite – here was an opportunity to visit a country that was both distant and alien to my culture with difficult entry requirements.  All of the passengers on my flight were curious to know why I would “voluntarily” take this flight & when I explained that it was for “tourist” purposes and that I wanted to see the dig at Harireh they looked at me like I had an eyeball in the center of my forehead.

As I boarded the flight I noticed that ALL of the flight attendants where mysteriously beautiful.  Beautiful because they were; it was obvious that they all had pretty faces and shapely figures and mysterious because they were covered (completely) except for their faces.  Even their hair was covered.  But there is more than one way to skin a cat and as I’ve seen in other Muslim countries, covered doesn’t necessarily mean obscured: even a full hijab, when tight and form-fitting can be quite revealing.  Interestingly, perhaps it adds a bit of forbidden curiosity to the equation of male and female relations.  I am not sure if the custom of covering women (excepting the FULL hijab like the Saudi’s wear) really serves the purpose of dulling the titillation of men’s curiosity.

As I boarded, the flight attendants all looked at me as though I were the anti-Christ.  I almost thought that they thought that if they smiled at me a Mullah would come out from a spy closet and seize them on the spot.  As much as I smiled or chit-chatted with them, they kept a wide distance from me.

Once we landed we all walked to customs and immigration and unlike any customs that I’ve ever been through in my life, I was suddenly on the “other side” of the process.  In most countries, the American blue passport is the ticket to a quick pass & stamp.  I always count my blessings as I breeze through the world’s airports while travelers with different color passports are scrutinized and questioned.  I was about to learn how those with less readily accepted passports feel when they enter a new country.

As soon as the customs official saw my passport I was led away from the line to talk to a “supervisor.”  The supervisor called an assistant who went off to find another official and in no time I had 4 agents in front of me.  The led me to the luggage area asked me to claim my bag and then follow them to an office.  Right out of the movies, they sat me in a chair that was placed in the middle of the small room.  A spotlight was aimed at the chair.  When I sat down I couldn’t see any of the men facing me.  After a few moments a man in plain clothes entered the room and introduced himself.  He spoke English quite well.

Man:  Why are you in Iran.

Me:  I’m a tourist.

Man:  Why Iran?

Me:  Why not?  I want to see the ruins at Harireh.

Man:  Why Harireh, why not Cairo?

Me:  I’ve already been there.

Man:  Why didn’t you take a holiday in France?

Me:  I’ve already been there?  I have Australian friends who traveled here for 3 months and they really enjoyed themselves.  I was curious to see your country.

Man:  You could have gone anywhere, China, Italy, Egypt, I have trouble believing you would choose Iran.

Me:  I’ve already been to all of those places, I’d eventually like to see every country in the world.

At this point he picked up my passport and began leafing through it.  I had filled it up, added extra pages, filled those up, added more pages and already half of those were full.  His eyes opened a bit wider as he turned page after page, each one full of stamps and visas.  He made a “Hmmmm,” sound and flipped around some more.

He didn’t have much more to say after that.  He handed my passport back and said, “Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” said something in Farsi to the other men and then walked out of the office.  The men led me back to the customs desk and I was stamped in.

Outside, our “group” bus was loaded and all of the visa travelers were impatiently waiting for me.  If I could read minds I could probably hear them grumbling, “Why did we have to draw the tourist?”  We were then driven to our hotel and everyone piled out of the bus and queued at the hotel check in counter.  We each turned in our passports and filled out the registration form.  I glanced up and read this sign:

Interesting, I’d never seen anything like that.  I can’t imagine a hotel room anywhere in the world where you couldn’t bring opposite sex guests in.  Yes, this was different.  And I had never been subjected to a dress code when I checked into a hotel.  This was new – a bit unusual, but that’s the reason for travel, to learn about new cultures, yes?

I turned in my paperwork and then slid over to the next window where I could change some US dollars into Iranian Rials.  I pulled out a crisp new $100 bill and turned it in to be cashed.  The clerk looked a little surprised.  I guess that most of the guests bring in Emirate Dirhams and in smaller denominations.  The clerk did not have enough change to break a hundred.  She called to the manager who disappeared into the back office.  He returned with a huge stack of cash.  The entire pile was R 10,000 notes in 1,000,000 stacks.  The entire stack was 8 million Rials!  I thought that I couldn’t possibly by that man with just a hundred bucks!  But no, while I could buy many Rials (my $100 bought R 175,000), it was only part of one of the bundles, about 15 x 10,000 notes and some smaller change.

The hotel staff seemed busy and tired but they were quite polite.  So far, everyone had been quite congenial towards me, something I expected from the descriptions of other travelers who had come here before me but not something I would expect if I believed American television.  I collected my stack of Rials and waited for my room key.  I glanced around and noticed an ominous figure above the clock over my right shoulder.  Wow, the Ayatolla Khomeini himself.  Here is a guy I that I was raised to hate since I was a child – an arch-enemy and he glared down at me from his photo.

I thought to myself, “Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas any more.”


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