Flying from the United States to Iran is taxing under the best of circumstances, but when flying with an eight—month—old baby, it is an altogether different experience. Especially if one is traveling with enough suitcases for an extended stay, a Cadillac—size stroller, and a Barcalounger—size baby car seat; and especially if that baby is accustomed to organic and natural foods that must be transported in bulk to one's destination, for god forbid that he consume what other babies do; and especially if his mother insists on bringing the water filter, weighing some pounds, along with its multiple cartridges, from our home in New York, where the quality of the tap water, just like Tehran's, is boasted about by its residents (but not this mother, who believes that fluoride is a poison, even if only applied to the skin). I was, in the past, accustomed to the mild culture shock of boarding a KLM or Lufthansa flight to Tehran in Amsterdam or Frankfurt—-it's as if one were already in Tehran, okay, a nice part of Tehran—-but my wife, Karri, wasn't. She was nervous as we waited in line at Schiphol airport to board our flight to my hometown, surrounded by Iranians, the Farsi language, and women in various states of Islamic—friendly dress, from head scarves already firmly in place to shawls draped over the shoulder, ready to be summoned for duty sometime before landing. Besides the suitcases we'd checked, we had the stroller, a baby in arms, and as much hand luggage as would ordinarily serve my baggage purposes for a four—week solo trip. Karri asked me if breast—feeding in public was taboo in Iran or among Iranians abroad, for she would be feeding our son on the flight, and I had to confess that I didn't know.
A short while before embarking on our trip, we had attended a friend's birthday party at a New York restaurant. As soon as everyone was seated, he had announced, only half—jokingly, that the party was in fact not in celebration of his advancing age but an intervention designed to persuade us to refrain from moving to Tehran for a year. He had insisted that it was too dangerous an endeavor for me, let alone with an American wife and child in tow. I had laughed it off, but now I wondered if his words had had any effect on Karri. To be fair, she mostly kept her apprehension hidden from me and anyone else who wondered about her wisdom in acquiescing to my crazy plans. Her family was certainly nervous and had made their concerns known, but they hadn't told her to refuse to go to Iran under the threat of divorce. My own father, better equipped to understand Iran, implored me to reconsider. I hadn't even told Karri or my father about being stopped at Tehran's airport the last time I flew there, for I was almost certain that if I had, Karri would have refused to go and would insist that I never set foot there again, and my father would have threatened to disown me. So here we were, six or so hours away from Tehran, and Karri and I were equally nervous, for different reasons. I was uncertain whether going through passport control would be the promised breeze: perhaps the Intelligence Ministry officers had been lying, or perhaps someone higher up would decide to detain me anyway. Although I was not particularly frightened of another round of questioning, Karri would in all probability—-how to put it—-freak out if her first experience of the Islamic Republic was her husband being carted off for questioning while she tried to soothe a crying baby in a country where she didn't speak the language, didn't have a phone, and hardly knew a soul to call anyway.
A typical flight to Iran is loaded with expats going home for vacations or to visit family, along with a smattering of actual residents of Iran returning from trips abroad and perhaps two or three non—Iranian businessmen, always in business class. Once on board, Karri checked to see who was drinking alcohol and who was looking at her, an obvious Westerner sitting in coach with an obviously Western baby, occasionally breast—feeding him. She, along with quite a few of our traveling companions, had wine with dinner.
When we landed, she adjusted the scarf she had worn around her neck to cover her head, just as most of the other women did. We followed the other passengers into the arrivals hall without speaking to each other, preoccupied with our thoughts and with keeping our son, who had been awakened at an ungodly hour for him, as quiet as possible. At passport control, when it was our turn, I handed over our Iranian passports—-mine a few years old, and Karri's and our baby's brand—new.
The officer, to my relief, seemed as bored as they usually are and smiled when he looked first at the baby's picture and then at him, in my arms, with a just—woken—up sulking expression on his face.
"His name is Khashayar?" he said, mildly surprised. "And he's American?"
"Yes," I replied. "We call him Khash, too." (Khash, at least in the Yazdi idiom, means "happy" or "pleasant.")
"What a fantastic name! It's a real man's name, not like what they name their kids these days," the immigration officer said disapprovingly, referring to a recent trend among middle— and upper—class Iranians—-ones he encounters at the international airport—-to pick made—up or non—Iranian words as names for their children. "Can't even tell from the name if it's a boy or a girl!" He stamped our passports without another word, and we were officially in Iran.
My heart had raced when he had scanned my passport, but now I felt relief—-no instructions to report to a ministry, no questioning, and no worries, I thought, at least probably not, until we're ready to leave Iran. As we got on the escalator to descend to baggage claim, I could see my friend Khosro and my cousin's husband Ali Khatami through the glass partition, and as soon as Khash's stroller came through on the conveyor belt, I told Karri to take him outside, past customs, to wait with our welcoming party while I collected the rest of our luggage. I watched them greet one another through the soundproof and presumably bulletproof glass, a little horrified as Karri not only shook hands with them but also kissed both men, and Ali's daughter, on both cheeks. Head scarf: check. Modest clothing and the obligatory manteau (a coat, of any fabric, that covers a woman's behind and extends to the knees): check. Not shaking hands with and not embracing men (one of them a former president's brother and someone who is carefully watched and monitored) in public: definitely no check. It would take time, I knew, for Karri to remember all the rules, and I suspected that she would never quite adjust.
Excerpted from The Ministry Of Guidance Invites You To Not Stay, by Hooman Majd. Copyright 2013 byHooman Majd. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday.