My first visit to Iran was not what you could really call a conventional trip but then it could be argued that perhaps with Iran no visit is ever really very conventional. It was about 6 years ago and the company I worked for asked me to go and present at a seminar in Tehran. The plan was that I would stand up and prance around for 45 minutes or so and tell them about what was happening in the world of sweet products and then they'd whisk me off to pontificate about toothpaste to a couple of major manufacturers and to drink lots of tea and eat lots of cakes with a couple of bakers. As you can imagine, it was an offer I couldn't resist.
The plan was that I would join four of my colleagues from our Dutch office but because I was already visiting our agent in Turkey a few days before, the decision was taken that I'd rearrange my dates so that I could go directly from Istanbul to Tehran and meet everyone else the following day. For once I managed to play the 'Woe-is-me' card with the travel secretary and persuaded her that I was simply not willing to land in Iran in the middle of the night and stand in line for who-knows-how-long trying to persuade the immigration people to let a woman, travelling on her own, into the country. I demanded – and for once got – a business class ticket. At least that way I'd be first in the queue. This review is about the experience I had arriving in Iran for the first time.
I was nervous and I'd be lying if I didn't admit it. The prospect of turning up in the wee small hours of the morning (about 3 am if I remember correctly) and fretting about whether I was properly attired was causing me worries. Another female colleague was going to Iran for the first time and we'd both been chatting to a colleague who worked in Saudi a few weeks before. He'd gone home and asked his wife to go out and buy us each an outfit for getting into the country and she – perhaps not too sure on just how strict Iran was, or maybe exhibiting some kind of evil sense of humour – had gone out and bought us both the Omani abaya. This version of what every good god-fearing ultra-conservative Muslim lady should wear consisted of a floor-length black outfit that fastened at the shoulder and hung shapelessly to the ground like a chorister's gown. Lest a sudden wind should catch the fabric, it would have had to be a massive tornado for the merest hint of flesh to be on show due to the massive overlap of fabric. And it came with a large headscarf of course, all of it in jet black. Clearly in the Middle East, black really IS the new black.
Sitting on the plane in my already fairly conservative clothing, I popped off to the toilets about half an hour before we were due to land to get myself togged up for landing. You know how tiny airline toilets are? Well imagine trying to get yourself dressed up in a big black sack in a confined area. I used to have a neighbour who lived most of the year in Saudi and she'd warned me about the risk of showing my hair so I'd bought a large stretchy head-band to ensure no hairs escaped under the black scarf. I went into the toilet a typical European and came out looking like a nun and avoiding the gaze of every other person on the plane in a sense of exquisite embarrassment.
When we landed I took a deep breath and stepped off the plane. Every news report of bad things happening in Iran went through my mind as I walked down the steps. I was mentally running old newsreels of the American hostages, the death of Khomeini and the Iran Iraq war. And then, as I reached the bottom, there was a guy with a placard with six or seven names on it and mine was amongst them. Whilst the rest of the flight headed off to go to the terminal, we were herded into a plush little minibus and whisked off to the C.I.P – Commercially Important Persons – lounge. Oh joy! Whilst I had absolutely no idea what was going on, I was clearly getting some kind of special treatment.
In the spirit of the demure and placid good lady that I was passing myself off as, I sat with my eyes lowered trying not to meet the gaze of the other passengers. I was, after all, wearing the most ridiculous fancy dress of my life and I couldn't be sure that I wouldn't burst out laughing if someone smiled at me or burst into tears if someone had looked at me 'a bit funny'.
The minibus discharged us and we were guided into an ornately decorated lounge. Someone took my passport and luggage receipt and disappeared with them and I was led to the back of the lounge where two men were waiting for me – the agents who were due to meet me. Well at this point they looked me up and down and burst out laughing. "Where on earth did you get THAT?" asked Darius, the more confident of the two. "I've seen more flesh on an ayatollah's wife" he said. They quizzed me about what I was wearing underneath (which my demure self considered a bit cheeky) and when I said I had a long jacket and trousers they urged me to take off my crow-outfit and to remove the hair-band. I think they were torn between being moved by the ridiculous trouble I'd gone to in order to 'do the right thing' and the need to suppress the tears of mirth that were welling up in their eyes.
And so I shed my cloak of invisibility and embarrassment and sat down. A waiter brought us drinks and snacks though a gin and tonic would have been a lot more welcome than the sweet and slightly sickly juice. It was a relief to be comfortable in the lounge whilst somebody somewhere was off getting my passport stamped and picking up my luggage. About half an hour later my passport returned and my suitcase was delivered and we were able to head off to the hotel.
I never completely got to the bottom of how the CIP system worked. I assumed my hosts had paid a fee to expedite me through the system and I was very grateful indeed for the help that they gave. When it came time to leave a few days later the CIP system again clicked into place and I was able to simply dump my bags (my original case plus a large additional bag filled with rugs I'd bought and the ridiculous number of gifts I'd received) and go straight to the lounge with the agents. I suspect the CIP enabled me to get away with a massive amount of excess luggage as well as avoiding queuing to check in and to board. I've never been a very self-conscious person but several days of being openly stared at was starting to get me down and being able to avoid that at the airport really was a bonus.
If you find yourself travelling to Iran for business it's certainly worth asking your hosts if they can help you out with access to the CIP system. If I'd known in advance that everything was going to be made so simple and easy, I think my nerves before the trip would have been greatly reduced.