|My cousin drove me past my old friend Azadi Square because he knew how much I missed it.|
One of my fondest memories of my summer long trips to Iran when I was little was the arrival. It all started with the initial approach into Tehran. Shortly after midnight, Lufthansa flight 600 would fly over a Tehran glowing with lights. I loved looking out at the city and unsuccessfully trying to find my aunt's house. Once we flew over Azadi Square, I knew that the final landing into Mehrabad Airport was only seconds away. As soon as the wheels hit the tarmac, the plane would break out into applause, and everyone would get up and take their belongings out of the overheads, only to have the rightfully annoyed German flight attendants insist that they remain seated until the plane came to a full stop and the seatbelt sign turned off. What the flight attendants didn't understand, though, was that we were all very anxious because we knew what beast awaited us next: gomrok, customs. People would claw their way out of the plane trying to be the first to get on the bus that took us to the terminal. Once we arrived at the terminal and the doors of the bus opened, it turned into Wal-Mart on Black Friday. You needed a strategic plan- one person would take the carry-ons, the other would run for dear life and save a spot in the seemingly never-ending customs line that moved at an absolute snail's pace, then you'd find each other. Then there was the task of finding your suitcase while someone else got a bārbar, porter. Our suitcases were then completely searched while the eyes of the giant portraits of Imam Khomeini and Khamenei gazed over us. When that was all over at least an hour or more later, we'd look behind the glass wall at hundreds of excited Iranians holding gerayol, sword lilies, and eagerly awaiting and searching for their guests. And then I would finally spot them- my aunts, my uncles, my grandmother, my many, many (many) cousins... and they'd run their way over to the Soul Train line where we came out.
It was always that initial step out of Mehrabad into khāke pāke Tehran, Tehran's pure soil, that did it for me. There was something comforting about the smell of the the dry, warm air mixed with a hint of gasoline and dust that made me realize I was in Iran. We'd make our way to the parking lot, pile the suitcases on top of my uncle's orange Paykan, pack ourselves into the car, and go to my aunt's house. We'd immediately go to the roof where my dear Khaleh Parvin had the mattresses all laid out and ready for us to sleep in. Under the cool Tehran sky, I'd fall asleep to the sound of my mom, aunts and cousins all whispering and catching up. In the morning, we'd awake to hot tea, the best fresh barbari in the city, and moraba albaloo. That was Iran in the 80s.
Gone are the days when the bus took you to the terminal. The catwalk leads you directly there where there are people welcoming you. Gone are the days when the eyes of the Imams greeted you. Now there are posters of Iran's beautiful tourist sites (but just in case you forgot where you are, the tiny 8x11 frames of the Imams are waiting for you at baggage claim). Gone are the long lines at customs. It took all of 2 minutes. Khānom Fallahi? (Baleh.) Khosh āmadid. Ms. Fallahi? (Yes.) Welcome. (Did he really just welcome me too?) As I went down the escalator to baggage claim, I noticed a smiling lady handing out fresh red roses and a Padideh advertising pamphlet to everyone. (Where was I?) After sending my luggage through screening, it was all over. 20 minutes is all it took?
Gone are the days when my entire family was waiting at the airport. My frequent visits, the ungodly arrival and departure times of international flights, and the fact that the airport is so far from the city now just aren't worth their trouble. Gone are the days when Azadi Square was the first monument to welcome me to the city. Now as you exit the airport, there is a giant billboard welcoming you instead. And Khaleh Parvin has long since sold her house, so no more sleeping on the roof (though that wouldn't have been feasible in the middle of winter anyway). So much has changed. But one thing that remained the same was the smell... cold air this time, mixed with that familiar subtle smell of dust and gasoline greeting me like an old friend. And even though my family didn't pick me up, they left fresh barbari and my other favorite, morabā haveej, carrot jam, on the table for me at home because they knew I'd be famished at 2am. Welcome to Iran.