WHAT PLACE IS THIS?
We arrive at Mehrabad Airport after hours and hours in the air. It’s sweltering hot, I don’t know, maybe 100 degrees or more? We walk from the plane, down stairs and into the terminal and get into a queue for passport and visa checks. Even inside it’s hot!
All the smells are different in the atmosphere, all except for the identifiable odor of human sweat. I’m excited, nervous, exhausted as we inch forward. Soon, we’re at the table where officials sit and a few stand behind, surveying the line.
Habib is ahead of me and hands the seated man his passport. A discussion occurs between himself and someone standing behind him. It’s Farci, and even though I had a tutor in the language for six weeks prior, I cannot tell what’s being said. What I do know is that there is a palpable shift in mood, ominous and destabilizing.
The man standing behind the table steps to the side, and beckons Habib. Again, In Farci, again I know not what they say. The rancid odor of sweat is replaced by the rancidness fear and I suppose, a bitter adrenaline taste. I ask Habib what is happening and the man answers, telling me in English they just want to talk to him, and they walk away from me.
WHAT COMES BEFORE
I’m frozen. But not for long. The man at the table asks me for my passport so I hand it to him. He checks it, stamps it and hands it back. I walk away from the table in an anxious fog and search the crowd across the wide expanse of Mehrabad Airport looking for Habib’s older brother, Nasser.
I’m sure if you were to ask his brother now he would admit to concern, maybe even fear, but at the time, he just looked a bit worried without a lot of expression. You learn to not give too much away in the Middle East. It could be dangerous if you do.
In what seems like only seconds, a suited man exits a door caddy-corner from the chasm between Nasser and I. The official is brusque, purposeful. Once over at the luggage area he grabs Habib and my luggage and returns to the unmarked door on the other side of the expansive room.
In an immeasurable flash, I feel terror. I know Habib has anti-Shaw literature in our luggage. We had a fight about it in DC, me saying he can’t take it, and him scoffing—that he has a friend at the airport to avoid any problems with officials, thus totally blowing my concerns off! Typical! After all, what did I know, it was his country!
BAD MOON RISING
Nasser and I lock eyes as he remains behind the roped area on the other side of the terminal. Oddly, I have no clear recollection of how long it took the same official to come retrieve me and ask me to go with him, probably only a fraction of a second but seemed eternal. What I do know now is that I was to have an unforeseen event that was to change my life, my marriage and my view of the world and everything in it.
There are points in a lifetime that challenge absolutely everything you thought you knew about yourself and the world you inhabit. In the fastest flash I knew I was alone, a single organism in an unknown place. So alone, the feeling was thunderous, instantly isolating at least for a time. It was destabilizing and disorienting yet somehow a perverse survival mechanism kicked in. I knew not whence it came.
When I think about this event now I realize how the animal reacts, thought seems suspended. You know to put one foot in front of the other, thoughts flash in a microsecond, responding as if programmed. But the heart pounds, the respiration quickens and you are on autopilot.
In your head, it is as marooning as being on Mars. You don’t dare deal with the emotional earthquake of fear that is going on inside of you. Instead, both physical and psychological survival takes over like the rabbit chased by a wolf. It’s only later when there’s time to reflect on the event that you can absorb more of it. Even then it’s limited in processing the residuals of the event as if you’ve still skipped too many frames of the film being replayed in your mind.
The official takes me through the door that I saw Habib go through. We enter the room he sits in with other officials nearby, three or four maybe? I recall them asking me my name, a few other details about myself but I have no recollection of what those details were.
Habib is nervous, completely still, with a look on his face I’ve never seen before. One of the men hands me some papers—in Farsi—and asks me in English if these are mine, asks what they say, did I bring them? I answer no, not mine, I don’t know what they say, I can’t read Farsi. It is clear to me this is incredibly dangerous territory. If not for me, certainly for my husband.
The sense of powerlessness and impotency that swamps you in certain situations is unexpected, sudden, as a westerner and particularly as a woman. That feeling (and knowledge) is to only grow over the next couple of months. It is also to alternate between impotence and a naive brashness, thinking I can go to the US Embassy and they will help resolve this. After all, US policy has changed. As President, Jimmy Carter has been pushing a policy promoting human rights issues on ally countries of which, Iran under the Shaw, is one of them.
Yes, I will tell Nasser to take me to the Embassy, that’s what I will do. The men subsequently let me go but, as night follows day, keep Habib. I leave the room and walk quickly across the remaining wide expanse of the lobby area to my waiting brother-in-law. I start to tell him what has just transpired and he tells me to wait until we get out of the airport.
We are in the car, Nasser and I, and I tell him what I want to do, to go to the Embassy. “No, you can’t,” he tells me. “It’ll only make it worse.” I realize I am trapped, just as much as my husband, but in a different way. The enormity of what is unfolding swamps me, as we whisk away from Mehrabad airport. My entire life, and my husband’s, has pivoted, spiraling into the abyss. Terror sets in. I am the rabbit, heart pounding, and it occurs to me I am in uncharted territory, a stranger in a strange land, trapped between heaven and hell, lost and alone. Powerless!