The Emirates flight left Osaka at 11:05, ten minutes ahead of schedule. The waiting room was fairly empty. There was a variety of races including Japanese, Middle Easterners, South Asians, Caucasians and even Koreans. I reminded myself that Dubai is an international hub and these people aren't necessarily going where I was.
While boarding I was greeted at the hatch by two tall blond stewards that looked to be Scandanavians. There's that hub again. The 12 person cabin crew on this flight could speak English, Arabic, Japanese, Polish, Afrikaans and French. I got an entire center row to myself and slept for most of the flight, occasionally waking to the baby crying 2 rows ahead of me.
We arrived in Dubai at 6AM local time. The Dubai airport is an amazingly posh building, with all the brand names you could imagine and impeccably clean.
The waiting room for Emirates Flight 917 to Tehran was packed, mostly with Middle Easterners but a large percent were Western businessmen flying first class. I thought I recognized someone from the US State Department, but I could be wrong. There were a few chadors but on the whole the women, both Middle Eastern and Western, were bare-headed.
The flight was short and smooth. This time the Emirates crew could speak 7 languages. I had changed my seat with the father of a family who wanted to sit together and ended up in 11G. On my right across the aisle was an Aussie business man, and on my left in D and F there were two rugged looking men that could've been Afghani. I couldn't believe it when halfway through the flight they started drinking Heineken!
On our final approach the head steward gave a warning about Ramadan, and the strict restriction on alcohol. The stewardess came around and collected all the cans of beer and the women on board started to put on their veils. We had only 5 minutes to touchdown in the land of the Islamic Revolution.
Once in Tehran...
Mr. M, my hotel contact, was waiting for me right at the arrivals exit. He seemed so excited, just waiting to get his hands on the laptop I brought to him. He grabbed us a taxi and we headed to the Hotel.
In the cab we talked a bit about computers, Japan, HTML coding etc. He wants to learn how to make good web pages. He has been in the hotel biz for ages and his English is not bad.
We got to the hotel at 10:30AM. I went up to my room and and unpacked. The room consisted of a small single bed by a tall window, a small TV, fridge, bedstand, phone, chair, carpet and shower. The (squat) toilets were down the hall. There was a green sign on the southwest wall with Arabic writing denoting the direction to Mecca. On the bedstand there was a little felt pouch with a picture of the main mosque at Mecca. Inside was a tiny, engraved stone used for prayer. I guess this is the equivalent of a Gideon bible in a western hotel.
Mr. M was gracious enough to let me connect my computer directly to the net. So I wrote up a few mails including this one to everyone:
Just wanted to let you all know that I made it to Tehran no problem. The plane was empty when I left Osaka, and all the stewards were from Scandinavia... weird considering I was flying Emirates. This is my first time in the Middle East and I have already seen Saddam Hussein like 10 times. In fact four of him were sitting behind me on the plane from Dubai to Tehran!
Just arrived at my hotel a few minutes ago. The hotel manager has been super friendly (especially since I gave him a laptop computer for free thanks to XXXX and PCs4Peace)
Alrighty, I am off to change money and visit the Canadian/Japanese embassies. Talk to you later.
After doing my email I decided to go to the bank and change some money. Mr. M told me he would walk me there.
After about ten minutes of walking we got to the bank. Unfortunately the foreign exchange had closed. It was noon. I was screwed. But the ever-gracious Mr. M lent me 20000 toman. I tried to offer him some US dollars but he said “No! You can come here tomorrow and exchange and pay me tomorrow. For you, this is no problem.”
The Embassies and Fred
Mr. M helped me get a taxi from the bank to the Canadian Embassy. This was when I really started to notice the traffic, and the lack of red and green lights. Tehran is full of traffic lights: the top and bottom lights blink alternatively with the middle light, and all three lights are yellow!!
After about 20 minutes of near-demolition derby the driver stopped and pointed out the Canadian flag on top of a nearby building. I got out, paid, and headed to the front of the building. Around the side of the building is a window and a long line of Iranians waiting for visas. The side facing the street has a large wooden door and a small intercom. I stepped up to the intercom and told them I was a Canadian national and wanted to register. They told me they were closed and to come back tomorrow before 12. This was strange since the sign next to the door said they were open until 2:30. Oh well...
My next challenge was to try and communicate with the security guard standing in front of the embassy and get directions to the Japanese embassy on my extremely vague Lonely Planet map. This was not working. I speak only a handful of Farsi words, and he spoke less English.
All of a sudden from behind me I hear a "Where do you want to go?" in English. I turned around to see a well-dressed young Iranian man walking towards me. I showed him the map and he conferred with the security guard and gave me directions in very fluent English.
I started walking, following the directions given to me. Heading up the hill towards the Japanese embassy I saw the Indonesian embassy. This area seemed packed with travel agencies and embassies.
After not 10 minutes of walking I hear a "Hey!" from behind and it is the English speaking guy again, this time on a motorcycle. "I can give you a ride if you like." I hopped on and we weaved through traffic towards the embassy. "Fred" as he introduced himself, is an Iranian studying in Virginia. He is back visiting his family. Once at the embassy we exchanged numbers. He seemed really friendly and showed me his Virginia ID card to try and prove to me that he wasn't lying or anything. Hmmm... not sure what to think.
Anyways, I got into the Japanese embassy and met the impeccable K-san. I stammered out an introduction and asked him if it would be possible to meet with a PR officer to learn about Japanese activities in Iran. He kept asking me why I was in Iran and what I was trying to do. I told him I was just interested in foreign communities in Iran, how ex-pats live, and also the relations of Iran and my two home countries Canada and Japan. His reply was, "This is Iran, and you know what happened to that other Canadian that was wandering around asking questions. Are you sure you know what your doing? All I am saying is be careful." I gave him my contact information to pass onto the PR officer (a Mr. M if I am correct) and left.
Back at the Hotel
I got into the taxi the embassy called for me and headed back to the hotel. Once back in my room I made a few phone calls and got ahold of I-kun, my Japanese exchange student contact. We made an appointment to meet tomorrow, at an unspecified time and place. I also ate a granola bar. I was starting to feel a little dizzy from hunger. Maybe coming to Iran during Ramazan wasn’t a good idea.
Mr. August and the Gate
I finally got ahold of my Iranian guide contact Mr. August. I had tried earlier in the morning but to no avail. The phone was busy.
August picked up and we started blabbing to each other in Japanese. He told me to give the phone to the guy at the front desk so he could give directions for a taxi. August wanted me to meet him at the Tehran University Japanese Department, a bloody hike away. Mr. M wrote down the directions and called a taxi for me.
Tehran University is a sprawling complex and is covered with greenspaces. Everything is kind of brown since this is November, but I assume that it is quite beautiful in the summer time. The taxi took me around to the north (?) gate where we were stopped. There was a bit of a commotion between the taxi drivers and the guards, then one of them jumped in the cab and we were off again. A couple of hundred meters away we stopped in front of a building with a sign in English saying “Faculty of Foreign Languages.” The guard jumped out and ran into the building. The taxi driver looked like he was waiting for something so I sat quietly and waited. Ten minutes passed and the driver was getting impatient. Finally the guard returned and told the taxi driver to wait a bit longer. Grumbling to himself he sat. I gave him 3000 toman (the price was supposed to be 2700) and told him thank you. He said something in Farsi to the effect of “Thanks but I can’t go anywhere, yet.”
Finally a well-dressed Iranian man came out and introduced himself to me as Mr. M, a Japanese-language professor. I asked him where Mr. August was and he replied, “Back in the classroom.” They took off again and we were forced to wait.
Finally Mr. August made his appearance, apologizing to everyone. The taxi driver seemed peeved so we gave him an extra 500 toman for his trouble. Then the guard started talking and Mr. August told me that there was some trouble and that I would have to follow the guard back to the gate while he went and got his briefcase.
The guard led me back to the gatehouse and told me to sit. Looking out of the barred windows at the students passing by I thought to myself jokingly, not even 12 hours and I am already in a holding cell.
Mr. August came and got me after 10 minutes and explained that the guards were being wary of unannounced foreigners cruising onto campus grounds looking for teachers. He said that Doku Bene (our mutual friend from Japan) had no problems when he was here earlier this year, and it seemed that they were getting strict.
We left the university and started talking. August was at the university practicing for a Japanese speech contest. He will be speaking about Aikido, which he teaches in addition to being a tour guide.
I told him my goals in Iran: to learn about ethnic minorities, learn about Islam, and see a football match. Turns out he is Azeri and is from close to the Caspian Sea. He said he had an Armenian friend who could talk to me about the Armenian Christian minority, and he has a contact that is a sports reporter and could give us some info about football matches.
This guy is amazing!
The Tour Operators
We took a long cab ride way up to the northern part of Tehran (I think). Stopping in a very quiet neighborhood we got out and went up to a large whitewashed metal gate. August opened it up and we headed in. I didn’t have the foggiest. There was a small open garden and a building. We went in and climbed up the stairs. Ah! This is the school where he is taking his Tourism class!
Arriving on the second floor I saw a number of Iranian women standing in the hall chatting. There was an office to the left, and small classroom, and a kitchen with a small table for eating. I waited in the hall being stared at while August went into the office to talk to the teacher. He came out with a smile and told me that the teacher said it was okay if I hung out in their class tonight. I thought this was pretty cool as I’d get to see an Iranian classroom.
With me in tow August headed into the kitchen where three of his classmates were seated at the table drinking tea. I was told to sit down, was served a cup of tea and a cookie. One by one they introduced themselves and shook my hand. One of the three started a conversation. His English was surprisingly fluent. Turns out he went to high school and university in Wisconson. He is a pilot, teaches at the Tehran Aviation Center and is the managing director of a tour agency. I asked him why he was studying at this school considering his current credentials and he replied, “It’s never too late to study. Plus, it is in the same sort of field.”
August sat down with a bowl of steaming water and dumped in the ramen I brought him for omiyage. He tried to get the others to try a taste but to no avail. I had a little, it was the first thing I ate besides the granola bar I had in the afternoon.
At 6 everyone rushed into the classroom. I grabbed a desk near the back against the wall so I could get a view of all the (female) students. The teacher greeted the class and went through a role call. Then he turned to me and in very fluent English welcomed me to his class and apologized that he would be teaching in Farsi, mentioning that most of the students knew other languages such as English, French, Spanish and Italian. I gave a little self-introduction and went red at being stared at by all the women. Iranian women have the most powerful eyes... they bore right through you.
The class continued with the teacher sitting at a desk at the front and occasionally standing to write something on the whiteboard (usually in English). There was a light atmosphere with a rapid back and forth between students and teacher and lots of laughing. It was refreshing after being in Japanese classrooms for so long.
The average age of the students was probably somewhere in the late 20’s or early 30’s. There were younger students that looked in their early 20’s, and older students that could’ve been in their 50’s. The class was naturally segregated with women sitting together on one side and men on the other. August explained that in the universities this is no longer the case and men and women will sit together. The times they are a-changing.
I sat and went through my Farsi phrasebook, watching the goings on the class. I started to feel pretty tired, I had been on the go straight since before 6AM local time.
The class ended at 7:30 and everyone packed up to go. Once outside August apologized that his sports reporter friend didn’t attend tonight. Ah! That’s why we were here!
We got a taxi and headed to Argentina square. I think August wanted to get something to eat, but realized that I was pretty tired. We took the metro back to Imam Khomeini Square, picked up a sandwich and some water in the station, and headed back to the hotel. August checked out my room, gave his approval, and left. I took a shower, wrote a bit in my journal, and then had some well-deserved sleep.