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Non Fiction

Real Argo

Manijeh Badiozamani

October 15, 2015

As always, I wake up to the National Public Radio alarm. With closed eyes and still in bed, I listen to the news of the day: “Kennett Taylor, the Canadian diplomat, passed away at the age of 81. He was Canadian ambassador in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis.”

The mention of “Iran” makes me open my eyes and sharpen my ears. I listen carefully to what follows: “He harbored six American citizens in his home after the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979.”

Now I sit upright and listen to the rest of the news: “The story of the Americans and their hiding in Tehran and their eventual escape was captured in the 2012 movie, Argo.” But something makes me ponder when I hear that “Mr. Taylor had dismissed the movie as fictional.”

Oh, really?

* * *

October 21, 2012

I’m visiting my sister in Florida. We are having a grand time together, getting bargain chocolates from Russell Stover’s candy store. Needless to say, sampling some as we walk through the aisles!

After dinner, we go see the movie “Argo” with Ben Affleck playing the lead role. I’m particularly curious to see if I recognize any part of Tehran shown in that movie – if indeed it was filmed in Tehran. I’m not sure, just assuming it was.

When the movie is over we walk out to the lobby. There is a knot in my stomach and I’m shaking all over. My sister puts her arms around me, as I’m about to cry.

She gently asks, “It reminded you of the incident, didn’t it?”

The film touches me at the core and, unwillingly, I’m taken back in time, remembering an unpleasant incident that happened to me and my husband at the Mehrabad Airport in Tehran in May of 1993.

* * *

May 1993

The 1979 Islamic Revolution and the regime change followed by the Iran-Iraq war prevented me from travelling to Iran for almost twenty years. The last time I saw my parents was in 1974.

Now it is May of 1993. I’m done with the course work and data collection for my doctorate research. I feel the need for a break and the urgency to see my aging parents. Mother tells me Dad is sick.

Fifteen years have passed since the Islamic Revolution.

Gingerly, I approach the Interest Section of the Islamic Republic at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington D.C. I want to inquire about necessary travel documents to visit Iran, and also make sure it is okay for me to go since I’m a U.S. citizen. I’m assured there is no problem whatsoever.

My husband and I arrive in Tehran without incident. But when Lufthansa lands, my heartbeat increases. I’m excited, nervous, and scared all at the same time.

Seeing my parents after all these years reminds me of the passage of time. We are all getting older. But the major changes are what I observe in the streets of Tehran. Women are now required to cover their head; men do not wear ties, do not shake hands with women, and most display facial hair. I see more bearded men and clergy in the streets. The eight-year war with Iraq and the estimated one million casualties have left the population in a somber and melancholy mood. It is clearly noticeable - no one smiles. My father advises me to wipe the smile off my face when I’m out of the house.

My two-week trip to Tehran has its ups and downs, what with dealing with my father’s sickness and family issues, adjusting to a new social order, remembering to cover my hair when I step outside, plus a myriad of unpleasant experiences.

Still, that is nothing compared to what I am about to go through at the Mehrabad airport when I want to leave the country to return to the U.S.

My sister and her family live in Germany and I’m to stop in Frankfurt and spend a couple of weeks with her, while my husband continues on to the U.S. Lufthansa usually departs from Tehran around 2:30 a.m. My husband and I arrive at the airport at 10:30 p.m. just to be on the safe side, because we don’t know what to expect. Rules have changed and we must pass through several check points before boarding the plane.

First stop is to show our Iranian passport and travel documents to a tiny young man sitting in a kiosk at the airport. He has extremely dark lips, and is wearing a kakhi uniform. We do so, and as I get close to the opening of the kiosk it reeks of heavy cigarette smoke. He looks at our passports casually, and with half-shut eyes looks up at us without saying a word and gives back our passports.

Thank God, he did not fuss about our U.S. citizenship, as it is indicated in our passports.

I’m a little less nervous. We take the escalator up to the second floor, order two cups of tea, and sit and wait until it is time to go through security.

Two lines are formed: one for male passengers and one for female passengers. I stand separated from my husband, but I can see him – his line is moving faster.

All of a sudden, I notice the officer – the same tiny uniform-clad young man in the kiosk – is checking my husband’s briefcase. The officer takes my husband´s American passport and waves him to go through without it.

Oh, my God. His U.S. passport is being confiscated.

I can hear my husband making objections. “But I cannot enter the U.S. without my American passport!”

The officer says, with a smirk on his face, “That is your problem, not mine.”

Oh, Lord!

It is my turn now. My line has moved forward. I am bodily inspected by female guards. Then I reach the same officer who is supposed to wave me through. But he stops me and asks for my American passport.

I lie! “I don’t have my U.S. passport with me. It is in Germany with my sister. But I can give you a copy.”

“Well then, step aside. You cannot leave.”

After two weeks of dealing with my father’s illness, and the unpleasant and depressing social changes, right then and there I totally lose it. I scream and wail at the top of my lungs, as if I’m having a breakdown! I don’t care who sees or hears me. I’m not ashamed of getting hysterical.

While the officer is waving other passengers through, he tries to push me aside, as I’m standing right next to him.

He frowns and waves his hand. “Go and cry over there.”

“No, I won’t! I’m staying right here!” I’m belligerent and give a loud, shrill cry near his ears.

By this time, my husband has been sent to see the “big boss.” He is trying to reason with them, pointing out that we have checked with the folks in the Interest Section in Washington and have been assured there won’t be any problem getting in and out of the country. However, I’m totally irrational and reacting emotionally – my wailing continues. All the passengers, foreign and domestic, are wondering what is going on as they go through the big double door to board the bus to get to the plane.

Lufthansa officials are about to close the door. While they cannot interfere and won’t deal with the airport security guards, they look at me and keep asking, “Are you coming or not?”

Finally, the young officer with dark lips says with disgust, “Okay, you can go.”

“Not without my husband!” I scream, now hiccupping because of the intensity of my wailing.

Right then, my husband shows up accompanied by another security officer. The two officers exchange glances. To save face for the first officer who has decided, on his own, to prevent us from leaving, the new officer gently says, “The Colonel has approved for them to leave.” He hastily adds, “Of course it is your decision to let them go!”

The officer with dark lips gets the drift. He gives back my husband’s American passport and since he has already permitted me to leave, we are free to go.

The two Lufthansa officials practically shove us through the big double door – just like the way it was in Affleck’s movie – and we are the last ones to board the bus.

By the time I get into the plane, I’m drenched in sweat from head to toe under the scarf and the body cover. I sit in my seat, take off the scarf, look up and pray, “I hope this baby takes off!”

So when I hear some say Mr. Affleck’s movie was purely fictional, I ask, “Really?”

Author’s note:
This episode happened in 1993. The Iranian government has made changes and improvements to make it easy for the Iranians who are U.S. citizens to travel back and forth to visit relatives. My subsequent visits to see my parents were smooth and without incident. It is my belief that the young, inexperienced officer had acted on his own in order to exercise his newly-granted authority without actual respect for the law.