An American Making Friends in Iran
After waiting 30 minutes in the immigration line, it’s finally my turn. The officer sees my American passport and curtly asks me to step aside. Here we go. Filipinos, Indians, and Bangladeshis on visa runs all breeze through with no problem. But not me.
Once the hall is clear of other passengers, the officer summons me to a back room. In halting English, he asks me why I am visiting Iran.
An antiquated fingerprinting machine cracks his resolve — he’s now smiling and giggling while holding my hand and trying to use it. Explaining the concept of CouchSurfing only further lightens the mood. They have no idea what I’m talking about, so one of his colleagues makes a phone call to my host. Both laugh when they finally understand my plan to intentionally sleep on a couch instead of at a hotel. Minutes later, he stamps my passport with a resounding thud and wishes me a pleasant stay in Iran.
“Death to America”
Yet, despite these headlines and the adverse impact American policy has on the lives of ordinary Iranians, I somehow managed to make friends at every turn while in Iran.
“Our governments do not get along, but the people know better. It makes people want to get along even more.”
My host Masoud attempts to explain the difference between the Iranian government and people.
This feels like an apt description of my experience thus far.
Masoud is not exactly what you might expect when picturing a young Iranian man. Our first phone call ended with “see you soon, bro.”
He spent his teenage years calling American customer service 1-800-numbers, eager to hone his English. Via chat roulette, he made American friends across the world that he regularly calls but has never met. The man has watched more American movies in his 22 years than I will in a lifetime.
During lunch one day Masoud tells me, “After watching all four American Pies, I knew I had to go to America.” His favorite author is Stephen Covey and food is KFC. I begin to suspect Masoud is more American than I will ever be. On our last day together, Masoud insists we watch a Harold and Kumar movie together so I can explain pop culture references to him. I instead find myself asking him for clarification.
Despite limited civil service salaries, Masoud and his wife Mahboobeh go out of their way to demonstrate incredible hospitality. I quickly make my first Iranian friends, or “doosts”.
“My first American”
Masoud fetches a taxi when he heads to work. The driver, Reza, had never before met an American.
His first question: “So do Americans think all Iranians are terrorists?”
Taken aback by his candor, I barely manage to stammer out “of course not.”
His smiles and nods. “I think all people in the world are friendly. But I wish the news would not make it seem like people hate each other.”
He proceeds to invite me to stay at his house. After insisting I could not abandon my hosts, he finally relents, disappointed.
But before he lets me go, he insists I take a picture together to share with his wife and children. He then bids his farewell and asks me to invite more Westerners to Iran.
Iranians can be quite chatty. While standing on a pier watching Iranian tourists zip by on jet skis and banana boats, a couple who had just been parasailing approaches and insists I give it a try.
They tell me the local price ($30) and seem ready to negotiate on my behalf to ensure a fair price. While the price seems inexpensive by Western standards, it is quite expensive for Iranians given the devaluation of the Rial.
The crew of the boat seems excited to have Westerners on board. They cannot recall having any other American visitors. Much to my chagrin, they insist on blaring American pop music continuously.
While walking back from the beach and looking lost, an Iranian woman asks if I need help. I need to change US dollars into Iranian Rial but unfortunately cannot find a currency exchange. The woman ultimately packs up her two year old baby, older brother, and friend into a public bus. We drive across town to a mall with a currency exchange, conveniently located next to a knock-off Abercrombie & Fitch.
Every time I looked even slightly confused, someone would approach offering assistance; everyone seemed to be an unofficial tourist information volunteer. Many Iranians have traveled abroad, especially to Europe, and wish more people would visit their country.
Nightlife on Kish revolves around sprawling restaurants with live bands. I pick a restaurant that looks “hopping” and sit amid hundreds of Iranians, clearly standing out. While Iran holds a reputation of being devoid of all fun, the crowd eagerly dances at their tables and claps their hands to a raucous band.
The family next to me speaks no English but insists on sharing their food. They seem disappointed when I only take a few bites, already full from my own massive portion. Despite the language barrier, many warm smiles are exchanged.
While waiting in the airport security line, the man behind me starts talking to me. He runs an import-export business. We chat briefly; he casually mentions that Iranian news reports that the American economy has collapsed. Biased and negative reporting can clearly go two ways.
He proceeds to invite me to visit him in Tehran. It seems like a cursory invitation, until 15 minutes later he returns with his business card and earnest look. Over and over again I meet Iranians who are quite eager to show off their country.
Upon boarding the plane, the purser looks surprised to see me. He inquires about my nationality; I respond, “American”. He smiles and offers a warm welcome. I think nothing of it.
The same flight attendant is on this leg as the inbound. She approaches nervously and asks, “Was it… okay?” When I say that I had a great time, her face goes from anxious to beaming. She too extends an invite to Tehran and offers to be a personal tour guide.
Toward the end of the flight the pursuer comes back. He says the pilot would like to see me. I respond, “That’s nice, I will say hello after we land.”
He responds, “No, now.”
Am I hearing this correctly?
I remember visiting the cockpit of planes as a kid and being giddy beyond belief. There is something magical about looking forward out of a plane versus sideways. I thought it would never happen again. But like a kid in a candy store, up I went, almost speechless. The pilot told me he loved America and hoped to one day visit again. This was unquestionably my favorite flight.
Can you imagine an American pilot inviting an Iranian into the cockpit of a Delta flight?
Everywhere I turned I found Iranians who had a deep respect and love for America and Americans.
Despite harsh rhetoric between both nations, the visit served as a reminder that while governments might clash, people can still be friends. Nowhere else in the world have I met people so willing to offer their friendship to complete strangers. A sincere thank you to everyone who helped along the way. I only hope that I can one day return the hospitality.