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May 13, 2002
The Turkish/Iranian Border: The Who in Cincinatti
Leaving Turkey was easy enough, but getting into Iran proved insanely difficult.
There were about a hundred people in the Immigration Hall when I walked in. When I crowdsurfed my way out, several hours later, there were several hundred people more. There were no signs, no queues, no information posted, nothing. Just one door going in and another door, at the other end of the hall, going out. This other door had already attracted a lot of interest. Around it was a crowd at least a hundred people, all of whom were yelling at it. Every few minutes it would open and a very tired looking man in a uniform would appear, only to have a hundred people start yelling at him - only much, much louder.
This seemed puzzling. But I didn't think I was in a strong position to ask questions or give instructions. So I joined in. I started off with some light vocal warm-up exercises, and soon moved on to thermonuclear yelling. But something didn't feel right, and I soon realised what it was. I didn't know what to yell.
So I improvised. I happily yelled whatever I could think of: I yelled jokes, I yelled insults, I yelled complements, I yelled all the words to Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." (which none of the locals recognised), and finally I yelled "why are we all yelling?"
There was a brief pause when everyone stopped and turned to look at me. "Hi," I said into the sudden pause, and cheerfully waved. Incredibly, everyone waved back. Well, everyone except for the tired man in the uniform. He just closed the door behind him as he snuck back through it.
Then there was a lot more yelling, but now a lot of it was aimed at me.
I gave up. I walked away to figure out what I was supposed to do. I was alone in a foreign country, or near a foreign country, and I couldn't even get in.
If in doubt, try neurosis
Eventually I realised that Iran is the kind of place that rewards patience. All those people were yelling things along the lines of "let me in. Let me in now." So I got back to the door, and did everything I could to get closer to it.
This seemed like a good idea for a few minutes, but then more people arrived and started pushing from somewhere in the crowd behind me. Things started getting ugly. At one point I got shoved to one side of the door by the mob, and ended up dangerously close to a very solid looking wall. Luckily there were piles of rice lining the walls, so I had some kind of soft buffer. I was also wearing a large backpack on my back and clutching a smaller backpack to my chest, and these offered a bit of extra protection.
This feeling of protection only lasted until people started climbing on the sacks of rice and started yelling at the door from a position directly above me.
I'd never experienced claustrophobia before, so it seemed like a good time to start. After a number of very anxious minutes the door opened again and my passport was handed back to me. I was free to go.
But I had one last test: I had to get past the hundred or so yelling people in my path. But by this time my personality had changed from mild-mannered Australian tourist to an enraged Incredible Hulk. I just wanted to breathe. Really badly. I charged through the crowd and got to the safety of the door.
Only when I got through it did I realise I was shaking with fear and anger. Why did I have to endure this to get into this country? I was suddenly very conscious that eleven people had been crushed to death getting into a Who concert in Cincinatti. Getting into Iran was a bit like that, except for the absence of the band.
And the fun wasn't over. I still had to get through Customs. From past experience, customs officers tend to look for guns and drugs, so I was unprepared for the question I got: "magazines?" "Why, yes," I said, happy to admit that even though I was from the infidel West, at least I could read.
"Give," he said, so I pulled out a copy of The New Yorker. I gave. He opened it, and flicked through a few pages, and found an advertisement which had a picture of a fully dressed woman with long, shiny hair. "Banned," he said, and threw the magazine on to a large pile of other banned material. "Welcome to Iran," he said, "you may enter now."
Iran, I later discovered, is a wonderfully civilised country. In many ways, it's a paradise for tourists: there's a lot to see, it's clean, safe and incredibly cheap. And the people are warm and welcoming and very friendly.
But they really have a problem with women's hair.
They also have a problem with their television. They have the homicidal telethon problem.
The Homicidal Telethon
A few hours later I was in Maku and obliged to spend a few hours waiting for a bus. All the yelling and claustrophobia had made me hungry, but Ramadan was on, which meant that it was hard to find a restaurant that was open during the day. Eventually I found one, and ordered some food, and tried to pretend that everything was normal.
It wasn't. I was in Iran and the television was on.
The first thing I saw was footage of an enormous, insane crowd jumping up and down and screaming. Everyone in the crowd was wearing long white robes, and they seemed to be venting a stunning amount of hostility. Every few moments the camera would change angles or provide a close-up of one particularly deranged section of the crowd, but insane crowd footage was all we got for what seemed like the next substantial bit of eternity.
At last the scene changed. Next up was a senior military man with an oiled moustache and a chest full of medals. He was sitting at a desk, and pounding his fist on it, while yelling and screaming and venting a stunning amount of hostility. This went on for a few minutes, so we got to see just how battered his desk was, and then the cameras went back to the insane crowd.
I sat in that restaurant for nearly three hours, and the only show on TV was this homicidal telethon. It went on and on, without commercial breaks, for the whole time I was there. For all I know, it's still on right now. For all I know this is the only kind of thing Iranian television ever shows. Perhaps there are high powered television executives who are proud to be bringing their nation live hostility 24 hours a day.
But as a newly arrived tourist, I longed to see something, anything, that would give me more information about this country. I was particularly keen to see a commercial: after all, what does a fundamentalist Islamic nation advertise? (Probably not shampoo, I surmised.) But I hoped in vain. No guy with a smooth moustache ever appeared to say "and we'll be back with more fundamentalist insanity after these messages." There was just a lot more footage of an insane crowd. And there was no climax to the thing; just hour after hour of heavy breathing.
After I finished my meal I got out my notebook to try to get some thoughts down on paper. I opened it, took out my pen, looked around the restaurant, and immediately put the notebook and pen away. It just didn't seem safe to be seen in public in Iran, making notes. It seemed a great way of saying to the people around me: "look, potential screaming mob, I'm an imperialist spy. I've come from the infidel West to do a little research on how to destroy your ancient Islamic culture. Perhaps you could make me the subject of your next homicidal telethon."
And to complicate the situation, I couldn't even find out exactly what all these people were going insane about. Only when I got to Esfahan, a few days later, did I find out: it was a protest against the existence of Israel. But at the time I didn't know that, so I did what any normal person would do. I immediately started paying a whole lot of attention to the people around me, searching for any signs that someone was ready to get a few friends together and start screaming at me.
Only when I did that did I start to relax. I obviously had nothing to fear from the Iranians in my immediate area. They were all very calm and relaxed people. Especially the ones lying down in the bus station, fast asleep.Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:41 PM in the Dog Biscuit category | Comments (0)
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