I push my face up against the airplane window like a little kid. Twenty-eight years older and a couple of feet taller, I am returning to Iran.
It is a long journey. I study Spanish, a pursuit I’ve undertaken to assist me in my career as a physician. My neighbor peeks over my shoulder and asks, in broken English with a thick Iranian accent, if I am Italian. I reply in Farsi. “You don’t look Iranian,” he remarks. “Are you sure you’re not Italian?” The Air France flight attendant has arrived to take our dinner orders. She speaks to me in French. I try to respond, but it’s been too long, and learning a new Latin language has done irreparable damage to what French I knew. What results is Spanish with nasal intonations. We laugh. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I thought you were French. You don’t look American.” “Yes, eez right, eez vaat I say,” my neighbor pipes up, “but no eez Ferench! Eez Eetaly!” He has trouble understanding the menu in English, so I help him order, grateful to move past this familiar discussion.
We enter Iranian airspace, and the captain announces that all women onboard must now dress in compliance with the rules of the Islamic Republic of Iran, donning appropriate hair and body covering. A woman behind me curses up a storm, then shouts, “At least give us another drink — it will be our last for a while!” The ladies all giggle together. I have been growing my hair long, and I run my fingers through it before covering up. I overhear a male flight attendant joke about taking off with a plane full of beauty queens and landing with a plane full of peasants. I put on my manteau. My neighbor, formerly self-conscious about his language skills, turns and looks me directly in the eye, with seemingly newfound confidence.
We arrive at Mehrabad Airport. In the immigration line, a man cuts in front of me and several other passengers. A lady from the back follows suit. I don’t know the culture or street lingo yet — do I say something? Cut in myself? Ten minutes and two line-cutters later, I reach the passport guy. I’d had some anxiety about this first hurdle I would face on entering the country. I’m an American citizen and an American passport holder. But I’m also an Iranian citizen, and the government here requires me to enter using my Iranian passport, bearing a photograph of me wearing a veil. He flips through all the blank pages. “Avaleen baareh be Iran?” (“First time to Iran?”) What a first question.
People ask if I remember anything. It’s hard to know how to answer. I’ve learned, over time, that most people are like the passport guy — they want simple answers. I remember paloodeh (a dessert of noodles in rose water) and lavashak (plum-fruit roll-ups) — because I couldn’t have them again. I remember my best friend Reza and my preschool, where his parents showed up with suitcases. Us crying because he was going to Paareess (Paris). Where the hell Paareess was, we had no idea. But it sounded far away, and it seemed we’d never see each other again. We didn’t. And I remember our own suitcases a few weeks later.
So I say a straightforward “Baaleh” (Yes), and he is satisfied. I clear customs and hear the hubbub just beyond the glass doors. There are, give or take, 15 excited family members for each arriving passenger. Someone’s tapping me on the shoulder — a deep, harsh, crackly voice: “Khanom? Khanom?” (“Miss? Miss?”) Black, black, everything black with a set of white eyes poking out. Oh, dear — it’s Darth Vader? At Mehrabad Airport? No, I realize, it’s a chadori (devout Muslim woman covered from head to toe with a veil). “Khanom, parvazetoon khoob bood? Khoob reseedeen?” (“Miss, was your flight good? Did you arrive all right?”) I relax and nod. She and her family group giggle excitedly while awaiting their own loved one’s appearance. She smiles and squeezes my arm: “Khayly khosh aamadeen” (“A great welcome to you.”)
I spot my father. He and my mother had one of their first dates right here at a swanky airport bar (which was closed after the revolution). Now, women are not allowed to shake hands with or embrace males in public, so I blow fake kisses to our male relatives and family friends. And we’re off. We drive onto Khiyaabaaneh Enghelaab (Revolution Street), previously Khiyaabaaneh Reza Shah, the long thoroughfare that stretches throughout the city. To ensure that references to pre-revolutionary regimes have been eliminated, all the street and monument names have been replaced with the names of mullahs, Islamic scholars, important revolutionary dates or events, or, most of all, names of the hundreds of thousands of shohada (martyrs) — soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War.