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Published: September 27th 2005
It is with great anticipation that I raise from the couch on which I have been sleeping restlessly for a few hours. Fortunately it is still such an early hour that my mind is rather numb, and I don't have to get all worked up about it all just yet. I pack up my belongings and leave the small flat I have been borrowing in Stockholm before moving on to Arlanda airport.
When entering the departure hall and locating the proper counters the first thing I notice is that there is a long and winding queue in front of the Iran Air check in desks. The second thing I notice is the impressive amount of luggage carried by my fellow passengers; there is an obscene amount of trolleys stacked with heavy plastic suitcases, cardboard boxes, improvised textile bags and on top of it all a lot of big rugs and carpets in plastic covers. I am wondering if my 7 kilo bag will be returned to me in a flattened shape in Tehran. I cannot see a single western face in the crowd. This should be interesting.
The flight itself is promising to be a novelty, as Iran Air
is one of the users of the unusual stubby Boeing 747SP. I try not to think about the things I have been reading about the airline having difficulties maintaining their fleet and obtain spare parts due to U.S. trade embargo. However, for this flight it the has been replaced by an Airbus A300 which saddens me a bit. "In the name of God, welcome onboard the Islamic Republic of Iran Airways!" We are greeted onboard the plane by a staff of black clad flight attendants in full chador, and I realize that the visit to Iran begins right here. The flight is relatively medium haul at 5 hours, but I am lucky to get two seats on my own and the food is great.
I pick up a book aptly named "Culture Shock" and start reading a bit on the customs and traditions of Iran, and realize that if only half of this is true I will be a walking, talking breach of protocol. This is also reflected in the customs declaration form that is handed out. It seems a lot of things in my luggage belongs in the red channel: Books (check), CD-media (check), deck of cards (check),
and I begin to wonder if I will have to surrender my intellectual property on arrival.
We've been airborne for a while (somewhere over Armenia) and darkness has already fallen. I decide to ask one of the flight attendants if it would be possible to make a visit to the cockpit. She looks a bit surprised but disappears to inquire, and to my big astonishment she returns with a positive answer. Before being allowed in however, I am interviewed a bit by the plain clothes head of security, a very friendly man who sincerly wonders why on Earth I am travelling to Iran on holiday. Allowed inside the cramped interior I sit down in the jump seat in the back. Captain Saneifar is sitting leaned backwards a bit with one foot on the panel lighting a cigarrett. "So" he asks, "you're from Sweden?" First officer Behzadinia offers some coffee. Once again I get the question, this time by the captain, why have I chosen to travel to Iran on holiday? I am starting to wonder if someone is trying to tell me something.
I am invited to stay during the landing which I of course heartily accept. The lights of Tehran are now spreading out all around as the plane banks to the port side and suddenly the runway comes in to view and lines up perfectly in front of us and before I know it we're down nice and easy. Amazing, I have never seen anything like it. While the plane is taxiing to the terminal of Mehrabad International I am staring out of the cockpit windows and am beginning to get a bit anxious. I squeeze through the crowded aisle back to my seat to pick up my bag (why is it that everyone always have to rush up and block the aisles for no good reason?) before setting foot on the ground. Immigration is a quick affair, but glancing at my customs declaration form again I decide to play it safe and go through the red channel. A young woman in black chador is examining my bag with a tired smile; like they would even care about my things.
This being a group trip I am pleased to find my guide Farzaneh waiting for me together with the other passengers. My fellow companions are an old couple from Sollentuna, pretty much what I expected. There were originally supposed to be more travellers on this trip, but there were a string of late cancellations as people got worried after seeing the recent hardships in Israel on TV news. I guess it is an effect of ignorance and the media constantly reporting about "trouble in the Middle East", which is surely responsible for many mixed up mental maps.
We also meet up with our driver Mr. Hoseyn who drives us to the Laleh Hotel
, a five star monster downtown. Driving through the busy streets we make some light hearted conversation (I honestly cannot remember if Farzaneh also asked why we were going here... I guess she would have pretty good answers to the question herself anyway) and I am happy that she speaks very good English. It is late evening when we arrive and I end up sitting in my room watching weird Iranian TV entertainment à la the "funniest homevideos" concept. The room is quite nice, although the five star rating seems a bit exaggerated. Electrical cords are dangling from the walls and the carpet is soaking wet from the cleaning detergent. This is the first time I experience an Asian style bed, and it feels like sleeping on top of a crispy bread. I seriously consider migrating to the couch.
Looking out on town from my window I feel both a bit excited and intimidated at the same time. I muck about paging through the Quran which is supplied in the room, and zap through the TV channels again. There are some mullahs lecturing in various discussion programs, another channel offers a tired locally prouced sit-com of the Cosby-style which seems just as stale as the western shows it mimics. I try to make a sport out of finding unislamic photography in the foreign reports on the news instead, before lying down on my crunchy bed and sleeping hard.
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