Three Days in a Chador

Guerrilla Tourist in Iran

by Nuria Tahan

As a dancer, I had long been fascinated by the elegant classical Persian dance; as a world traveller, I had also been fascinated by the attractions of ancient Persia such as the ruins of Persepolis and bazaars full of Persian carpets. Unfortunately, these wonders are in a country called Iran where current politics dictate that I, along with all American citizens, are members of the “Great Satan.” Iranian singers dancers and actors had long since fled to the more welcoming oases of Los Angeles, London and Paris. Why on earth would an American belly dancer brave the danger and discomfort of travelling to Iran? I had set out to see (or at least set foot in) every country of the world, good or bad, friendly or unfriendly, by hook or by crook.

Nuria complying with Iranian dress code

After thirteen years of extensive overland travel, with a few furtive dashes across dicey borders such as Honduras to El Salvador and Gabon to the Congo, I now was only four countries away from my goal: Iran, Libya, Lebanon and North Korea — in other words, the political pariahs with no relations with the U.S.A. where I was passport non-grata. Well, relations are improving with North Korea, and in a pinch I can always dash across the border at Panmunjon. Lebanon is also stabilizing and quickly recovering its former position as entertainment capital of the Middle East. Lebanon boasts many fine nightclubs and very talented belly dancers, and is sure to attract many American dance tours when travel restrictions are lifted. Libya is going to be tough — relations with the U.S.A. are unfavorable and U.S. citizens are banned from travelling there. A pity, since the country would be a fascinating tourist destination, with some of the finest Greek and Roman ruins in the world, and an appealing population of Bedouins and Tuaregs in the desert areas. And finally, Iran — although trade had recently been banned between the U.S.A. and Iran, tourism was technically allowed, but discouraged by our side.

The first hurdle to overcome was the visa. I am a legal resident and business owner in Dubai, U.A.E., so I first applied to the consulate there twice — once as a tourist and once for a transit visa to travel overland from Dubai to Afghanistan. Both times the applications were sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tehran, and after about six weeks, refused without explanation. Since I was going to Afghanistan anyway, I decided to try again there, assuming that since Kabul was an unusual place to apply I might slick it by. As in Dubai, I was appropriately dressed in a tent-like black veil called a chador, and had all necessary documents. The consul, after getting over the shock of seeing an American woman with Middle Eastern features in a chador, in Kabul, travelling alone, started sputtering excuses as to why he couldn’t give me a visa:

1. Americans need to be approved by Tehran — other nationalities could get visas on the spot. I showed him my equivalent of a “green card” for Dubai, and the documents proving ownership of a tailor shop there.

2. It’s too dangerous for a woman to travel alone in Iran. My passport with visas from Albania to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between spoke highly for my competence as an independent traveller. If I was not afraid to go alone to Afghanistan, a war zone, surely I would not be afraid to travel in Iran.

3. I showed him how much cheaper it would be to transit Iran, buses and trains are ridiculously cheap there, and I pretended to be in a financial bind: my credit cards were useless in Afghanistan and I hadn’t brought enough cash with me, but in Iran I could charge a flight ticket home. He didn’t buy it.

4. Travel is an education and it is important for human beings to experience other cultures for greater world understanding. Iran has a lot to offer with the ruins of Persepolis, beautiful mosques and handicrafts and museums. This was the truth, but I had yet to learn that honesty was not going to be very effective.

Once again, I filled out an application to be faxed to Tehran “express.” Like all Iranian consuls, he was going to pass the buck and make Tehran the villain. I don’t know whether or not he actually sent the fax, but the next day, he informed me that Tehran was refusing the visa because I was a single lady traveller. He told me that an English girl had been caught “behaving immorally” and henceforth all single women were banned. Now he was adding insult to injury. Did he really think that I, an independent businesswoman, would risk punishment of eighty lashes and a jail term for a quick fling with some equally chauvinistic and arrogant Iranian man? I was quickly learning that some Iranian men had unjustifiably high opinions of themselves.

With my travel goals still in sight, there was one “loophole” left to me. Iran has a duty-free shopping port on a small island off the coast near Bandar Abbas called Kish. In the days of the Shah, so the story goes, this was a private playground for wealthy Iranians with casinos, bars and brothels. They had a deal with Madame Claude (the Heidi Fleiss of Paris) to fly in plane loads of call girls to entertain the rich and powerful. After the revolution in 1979, the Khomeini regime did away with the sinful activities, and the Shah’s palace was converted into a bazaar. Kish is now a favorite holiday destination for Iranians who can’t travel abroad. They have separate beaches for men and women, a horse riding arena, duty-free bazaars for electronic goods and imports, fancy hotels for families, and even a small scuba diving shop (which doesn’t serve single women, as I found out later). Best of all, from my point of view, according to Kish Air’s Dubai office, all nationalities were supposedly granted visa-free entry, although they would need a visa to travel to the mainland.

There were only two flights a week, so I knew I would have to stay at least three days. Clad in a chador and with minimal luggage to avoid complications, I boarded the Kish Airplane, an antiquated Russian Tupolev with no air conditioning. The crew consisted of several Russians who had obviously graduated with honors from the KGB charm school. It was the worst airline I had ever flown on. My polite requests for water were ignored, while two Iranian men sitting in the first row of the all-economy plane were given their own pitcher of ice water.

Arrival in Kish was a nightmare. I was regarded with suspicion from the very beginning. The passengers were Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis, and me. I had made every effort to show good faith and a willingness to respect their laws and traditions. I was wearing a chador, I had been careful not to pack anything that could be construed as political or immoral, such as a foreign newspaper or Cosmopolitan. My Lonely Planet travel guide was carefully thumbed through and passed. They still were not ready to honor the visa-free entry for Americans, even if that American was a resident in an Arab country.

I was kept in an office for several hours while they phoned around trying to find someone to tell them what to do with me. They seemed to take sadistic pleasure in keeping me off-balance. First, they’d be nice and bring me a Pepsi, then they’d be screaming at me in Farsi or ignoring me when I tried to speak with the few that spoke English. After the last flight had left, they wanted to get rid of me so they could go home, so they said I could stay (they actually had no choice since the next flight to Dubai was in three days, and I wasn’t allowed on a domestic flight without a visa), but they were going to keep my camera and Handycam. I refused to give them up, saying that I had come as a tourist, I was respecting their customs and their airline had said I could come. If Americans were not welcome, they should have told their ticketing staff in Dubai. They said OK, but they would have to search my bags. They went through my wallet, and as I was distracted watching them count my money, one of them grabbed the camera bag and shoved it in a cabinet. I threw a fit and refused to move, demanding that they send me back to Dubai, even if they had to charter a plane. I had come as a tourist and I wasn’t going to spend my hard-earned cash to be treated like a criminal for three days.

Finally, an English-speaking Iranian lady named Roya came over, said that she was the wife of the Kish Tourist officer, and that she would accommodate me free-of-charge in their hotel and my cameras would be returned to me when I left for Dubai. More inclined to trust a woman, I followed her out to her car and she presented a “guide” named Salimi and told me that he would be in charge of showing me Kish (translated, supervising me). They took me to the Shayam Hotel and signed the bill so I could stay in a special room they kept for their guests.

After dinner, Salimi came back to take me to a celebration of the prophet Mohamed’s birthday. He drove me to a small village, left me with a group of women and told me to follow them. I had been expecting some kind of segregated party, so I was dressed in a fancy Arabic dress, evening sandals and chador. It turned out to be a procession for about a mile in the sweltering heat and humidity. By the time we reached the mosque, my feet were rubbed raw and I was limping. I followed the women inside where we all drank fruit juice, and a mullah came and lectured in Farsi. Salimi, who had been sitting with the men’s group in another part of the mosque, took several pictures of me with his camera and dropped me back at the hotel.

The next day, I asked Salimi if he would show me the small ruin of a palace, the gazelle park and the aquarium. He said it was too hot and he preferred to show me the air-conditioned bazaar. It was a modern type shopping mall and unfortunately there were no handicrafts, but I did take note of a photo studio. I wanted Salimi to process the photos he was taking so I could carry them with me. He promised to come back at 5 p.m. to show me the other places.

He was an hour late, then told me to sit and wait because the police wanted to talk to me. I exploded — I had been sitting around the hotel the past five hours, why couldn’t they have come then. Sensing that he just didn’t want to take me sight-seeing, I stormed out of the hotel, told him if the police want to talk to me I would be at the aquarium and hopped on a bus. Within ten minutes I was at the aquarium, and looked around at the few displays for another twenty minutes. Nobody came after me. I stopped at the nearby gazelle park just for the sake of eluding my “keeper,” then returned to the hotel.

Salimi had left and I spent the rest of the evening in the hotel. I was ordering room service by now, since I was sick of trying to eat in a chador. Kish is close enough to pick up several Arab TV stations , including the Dubai English channel. Oddly enough, I noticed that documentaries and quiz shows came in crystal clear. American soaps like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place were all distorted. Makes you wonder.

The next day, I put on the chador as usual and snuck out of the hotel, following an Iranian couple and blending in. Now was my chance to engage in a bit of “guerilla tourism” and defy my “keepers.” I took a bus to the bazaar and bought a small disposable camera, being careful to only speak Arabic. Iranians don’t normally speak Arabic, and wouldn’t notice my poor grammar. I then took buses all over the island, stopping at interesting locations to take pictures. I avoided taxis, since I was afraid they might work for the same company as Salimi and tell him an Arabic lady was running around taking pictures. I finished the film and went back and processed the photos. Back at the hotel, I stitched the negatives into the lining of my purse and put the photos — all innocent tourist shots — in a pocket. I was half expecting the police to storm in and arrest me for tourism in the first degree or something, but nothing happened. Salimi called and said he would take me to the airport at 6:30 the next morning.

For once, Salimi was on time and he gave me a video cassette made by the tourist office to promote Kish, but not the photos he took of me. He promised to send them later. I’d be holding my breath. I was taken to the airport and my passport returned, but not my cameras. I immediately started kicking up a big fuss, speaking in Arabic so the Emiratis on the flight would understand they were trying to steal them. Everyone started chattering at once — the airport was in an uproar. The officials slammed the door on me. The flight was called and I refused to budge. Finally, one policeman, looking extremely disgruntled, took my camera bag and said I would get it after passing security. I followed him through, grabbed the bag and checked that all the equipment was there. Thankfully, it was. Once again, I was thoroughly searched. The video and photos were challenged, but I said that Salimi had given them to me. Everyone else had boarded by now, so I quickly grabbed my things and ran onto the plane, ending my hair-raising adventure. I was now one step closer to my goal to see every country of the world by hook or by crook, friendly or unfriendly, good or bad, but in this case, definitely not indifferent.

Nuria Tahan was born and raised in Southern California. She is an inveterate traveler, having traveled to every country in the world except Libya, Lebanon and North Korea. Currently, Nuria resides in Dubai where she owns and operates Gypsy Tailoring, and designs belly dance costumes. She performs frequently in Kuwait, and plans new and exotic adventures around the world.

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