I’ve now returned to Paris (since around one week now; I had to leave once again last weekend for a short trip to Italy). My flight to Paris left Imam Khomenei airport at the incredible time of 6.45AM. I arrived on my connecting flight from Shiraz at around midnight.
Iranian domestic flights are almost completely filled with business travellers; our aeroplane between Shiraz and Tehran was a narrow-bodied Fokker aircraft (I don’t think I have ever flew in one of those before) and within an hour we had touched down at the Mehrabad airport, Tehran. I left the terminal building, picked up my bag which I’d left there one week previously, and looked for a taxi driver to take me to Khomeni airport. I prudently (or so I thought) went to the main taxi stand outside the airport where I was in some mysterious fashion allocated a driver. The other drivers pointed at me and pointed at my driver, a young man who spoke loudly with all the other drivers. He led me to his car which was unmarked — nothing too unusual in Iran — but I did notice that he had small model car stuck to the dashboard. A racing car?
It was now after midnight, and Tehran traffic had calmed a little although there was still a lot of cars on the road. Within minutes of leaving the airport I knew what kind of taxi ride I was in for — a very hair-raising one, even by Tehran standards. My driver overtook every single car in our path. I thought of Marc’s taxi driver who tried to reassure him by exclaiming “I am champion of Tehran rally!” I think I was frightened for the first time in a taxi in Tehran. I saw we were doing perhaps 120, 140km/hr, and in Tehran’s narrow crowded roads, that is a lot. At one point I saw my driver produce a very thick wad of Rials from a shirt pocket, grip the steering wheel with his legs, and start to count the bills, one by one. I touched his shoulder and suggested that he perhaps continue his calculations at a later time.
Within twenty (very long) minutes we had arrived on the edge of the desert, at Khomenei airport. I didn’t know quite what to expect, but IKA (as it is known by the international three word abbreviations) was bursting to the seams. It was around one in the morning and my flight did not depart for another six hours. I expected the airport to be empty. Instead, it was full. After walking around the crowded concourses for half an hour I could find no place where I could sit down in peace and quiet and (perhaps) work away on my laptop
In time-honoured travelling astronomer fashion I scanned the skirting boards for power sockets but without success. In the end I found one, at the other end of the terminal, underneath the stairs near to a very small cafe. In the entire aiport there was exactly one publically accessible power socket! Okay! Perhaps I can work here and write away on my laptop. I ordered a tea (no coffee in Iran, remember) and sat down down, thinking of the long hours ahead of me. But my chair was too far forward! I reached to move the seat, sat down –and when I next saw my hand I was amazed to see a large amount of blood welling from my finger. I had managed to chop off half of my fingernail as my seat cover was not actually affixed to my seat. Ouch! I showed my bleeding finger accusingly to the cafe-owner, who became immediately apologetic; a friend of his arrived and I packed up my computer with one hand and was taken to the first-aid station at the airport, at the other end of the concourse. Through the teeming crowds.
At IKA first aid a man with a very large pair of scissors cut off my hanging fingernail, bandaged my hand, sent me back to the bar, where they offered me drinks. And hour had passed! But it was still only 2AM in the morning, and now with my bandaged hand I certainly couldn’t type any more. It was still not time to check in. I went to change what little Rials I had left and was amazed to see Iranians in the other money-changing queue (reserved for Iranians) with enormous bundles of money — this I guessed were savings of many years which were being converted into dollars.
Now it was time to check in. I noticed idly that a check-in desk not too far to where I was standing offered me the possibility of a flight to Kabul. From the other side of the concourse, where the arrivals area was, I could hear the sound of a marching band, and I went to investigate. A large crowd has assembled in the baggage area, complete with red carpet and banners. Patriotic music was being played, which seemed slightly sinister to me. What was going on here? It was, somewhere explained to me, the returning Iranian volleyball team. A lot of people had come to IKA in the middle of the night to see them.
After check-in perhaps the longest ritual of the entire night: between 3AM and 4AM I stood in the line-up for passport control. There seemed to be one official carefully examining every single passport of every single person who was not Iranian and who wished to leave Iran; it was interminably slow. On the other side of the check-in counter I had noticed a large group of people in curious attire: all the men and women were dressed in brightly-coloured muslin dresses. I saw they we all traveling to Mumbai; the small dark lady of perhaps fifty years of age in front in the glacially slow-moving passport queue was part of this group and we started to talk.
“We are Zoroastrians” she explained to me. “We are here on a pilgrimage to Yadz.” She spoke perfect English with a faint British accent. She turned out to be one of the most intelligent and charming people I’ve ever met. She lived in Pune, which I knew from my travels to IUCAA. “So what does one do if one is a Zoroastrian?” I asked her. Zorastrianism, I remembered now, was the official religion of the Achaemenids. Unfortunately, all the Zoroastrian texts were destroyed when Persepolis was burned. She explained excitedly, “There are so many prayers, so many prayers!” A lot of complicated rituals. The dress that you wear, the dresses that I saw people wearing in the dress that is yours for life. The pockets of this dress have ritual and mystical significance. The pocket at the back represents the weight you carry for your entire life. But her flight was close to departing, so I gave up my place in the passport line to her; she disappeared into the crowds heading for the flight for Mumbai.
AFter passport control, the rest of my flight was uneventful; there were no vast crowds of people here. I certainly got the impression that IKA only half (perhaps less) of the people there were actually taking an aeroplane.
I arrived in Paris early in the morning. I took the bus from the airport and walked the streets to my apartment. It was cold and damp and my clothes were not warm enough. The capital seemed deserted, empty: after Tehran, Paris seemed like a small country town. The traffic was calm and unhurried and there seemed to be no-one in the streets. I saw for the first time in two weeks women walking the pavements with their hair uncovered. I looked for the first time at the perfume advertisements which are everywhere in Paris and saw bare shoulders and long legs. How was this possible? I felt a little perturbed; even though winter was approaching I felt a little hint of spring in the sensation that here people could wear what ever they wanted to wear without risk of official censure. I saw Paris differently now. I was happy to return home.