An American in Iran

Imam Khomeini International in Tehran looks much like any big new airport, except that its long corridors bear posters declaring this the Year of National Unity and Islamic Solidarity, rather than ads for lipstick and perfume. Still, it does not take long for an American passport-holder to meet with deeper differences.

The immigration officers are polite, a little embarrassed, even, as they recall that you will have to be fingerprinted. An exchange of shrugs quickly establishes a degree of complicity. We will all, a few tired US passengers and bored Iranian officials, have to act out a tiresome ritual dictated by diplomatic tit-for-tat. But Americans are pretty rare here. A dozen flights arrive and depart before the correct forms can be found, along with a stapler to attach them together, a pen to fill them in, the key to a room where there might be an ink pad, and so on. When the sticky job is done, an officer helpfully flourishes a Kleenex to wipe away the deep purple stains.

Outside, a first flush of daylight silhouettes distant mountains. We follow signs for Tehran rather than Qom and faraway Isfahan, and merge into the six-lane Persian Gulf Expressway. The taxi driver pops in a cassette. His favorite, he says, humming along. Dire Straits is the band, and as their emphatic, twangy chords bring back memories of other wide-open highways, it dawns that this song, “Sultans of Swing,” dates to 1978, when the Islamic Revolution was nearing its climax. Past a toll station and off to the east, via an exit ramp, rise four soaring floodlit spires. Minarets! This is the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini, under whose rule pop music was banned.

That weekend I cross Tehran again to visit the tomb, thinking to see it on a traffic-free day, because the rest of the week, traffic is hellish in this hyper-urban mass of perhaps sixteen million people. But on the day I make my attempt the government has decided to celebrate the martyrdom of sixty soldiers from the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq war whose bodies have recently been recovered. (This is a macabre benefit of America’s invasion of neighboring Iraq: gangs around Basra, where there was bitter fighting back then, have built a lucrative trade supplying supposed remains of Iranian soldiers.) The downtown ceremony, attended by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad himself and busloads of black-shirted Basijis, or paramilitary volunteers, creates a massive traffic jam.

At last we reach Khomeini’s shrine. Its reinforced concrete dome and minarets stand beyond a big parking lot at the edge of the vast Beshesht-e-Zahra cemetery, where some 300,000 martyrs from what is officially titled the Iraq-Instigated War lie. A giant billboard at the cemetery’s entrance shows the beatific face of a bearded young hero, haloed by purple tulips, with touches of blood on his forehead and sleeping-prince lips.

But the mood here is more festive than somber, with families spreading picnics on the lawns, and clusters of friends chatting as they pass …

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