Last month, the Islamic Republic of Iran granted me an Iranian passport, bringing to an end a trying application process that lasted almost exactly two years. As I imagine must be the case when applying for citizenship anywhere in the world, the procedure was frustrating, humbling, and seemingly illogical, to the point where it was often impossible to imagine a positive outcome. But now that I finally have the longed-for permission to enter this ancient land, I’m looking forward to a visit to Iran some time this year.
Since it is probably not obvious why an American citizen would want to possess an Iranian passport, let me explain. I’ve been trying to get to Iran for the past two decades. My dad is from Tehran, and as a young adult I developed a strong desire to see and understand where he was from. In the eyes of the Iranian government, I am considered an Iranian because my dad was born there. The upshot is that if I wanted to go, I couldn’t simply go as a tourist; I had to go as an Iranian citizen. When I decided to write a cookbook on Persian food, it was the spur that I needed to prod my long-resistant father into helping me apply, and he finally relented.
There were many challenging aspects of the application process, but two stand out for me. One was not having any control over the situation. I’ve been told that I’m a control freak (I don’t deny it, but hey, I consider it part of my skill set as a chef). I’m used to asking direct questions and working methodically towards a goal. But here, I was given instructions in a language that I can’t read (Farsi), and had to return my completed forms via mail, not knowing when or from whom I would hear back. Although the staff at the passport office was kind, calling them for clarification of even the most minor points was an exercise in mutual misunderstanding. Just as it seemed that I had submitted all of the necessary birth certificates, passport photos, and fingerprint cards, suddenly another document would become necessary, and off I would run to yet another government records office.
At first, the uncertainty of my situation frustrated me to tears. By the end, when people asked me what I was going to do when I got to Iran, my response was that if I were ever lucky enough to be given the documents, I would put them on my little home altar, and just worship them for a few months. No plans–just being thankful for this gift.
Besides the application itself, almost as difficult was people’s failure to understand why on earth I would want to visit Iran, and the subsequent assumption that I must have lost my mind. On the one hand, my Iranian friends and relatives would return from visits to “the motherland” with photos of Persepolis, stunning handmade crafts, and stories of the amazing people they met. But the reaction of most Americans was along the lines of, “Are you sure it’s safe?” or, “Can they keep you there if they want to? What if they think you’re a spy?” Memorably, when I mentioned wanting to visit Iran to an older gentleman at a soirée a few years ago, he shook his head and repeated ominously, “Why go looking for trouble?”
I can’t blame people for seeing Iran in such a negative light. It speaks to our country’s great misunderstanding about Iran. Firstly, it must be established that Iran is not a war-torn country. Yes, there is certainly oppression, and all of the sad and terrible realities that go along with that. But it’s not a place where terrorists are dropping bombs or blowing themselves up in the marketplace. People go to work and school every day, go for picnics and hikes and skiing, and enjoy incredible food. I mean, yoga is really popular in Iran, and people do juice cleanses! Conversely, they eat greasy French fries and burgers at knock-offs of American fast-food joints.
The point is, Iran is far from a perfect place, but it’s a stable country, not a failed state. It is not, in other words, Iraq. Iranians are carrying on their lives, despite the economic sanctions. If only the images and stories that we see on television and newspapers were less sensational and more reflective of Iran’s daily human existence, we would see the country for the mix of good and bad that it is. As the Iranian American comedian Maz Jobrani has hilariously asked, why for once can’t they do a TV interview with a regular Iranian guy who is “just baking a cookie?”
In fact, now that President Rouhani has been elected and the country seems to be warming to Western overtures, visiting Iran has become a much sunnier proposition. I’ve been told that the new leadership is the reason why my passport finally came through when it did. And wow, the guys at the passport office were so nice on my final visit! When I went to pose for my passport photos, the friendly camera operator told me with a heavy Persian accent to “Get ready for your Kodak moment.” Everyone seemed genuinely happy for me to have finally received my documents, and they sent me off with big smiles and an Iranian calendar full of glossy photos of the country’s most magnificent sites. “Now all you need to do is buy your airplane ticket,” said the man behind the counter as he handed me a tourism guide.
When I do finally go on my long-awaited trip, at the top of my list will be seeing my sweet Aunt Meli (who is no longer able to travel), meeting the extended Shafia family, visiting Persepolis, and shopping for ingredients in Tehran’s Grand Bazaar. But for now, I’m planning to take a Farsi language course, gaze at my shiny new Iranian passport and birth certificate, and simply savor the sweetness of this victory.