after what seems like months of planning and preparation, i finally arrive in tehran's mehrabad international airport late on a thursday night. as the plane descends, the passengers begin bustling about; the men rummaging for their cell phones and passports, the women dutifully donning the mandatory hejab (usually a mid-thigh overcoat and head scarf) that will cover their hair and bodies from now until the they're back on a plane to wherever they came from. the packed flight consists mostly of iranians (with the exception of a german couple, a group of african businessmen, and the french wife of an iranian man on board) and as we deboard the plane and climb into the shuttle bus that carries us to the terminal, each turns to the person next to her and strikes up the kind of conversation you would hear between distant acquaintances.
once inside the terminal, the crowd simmers down to a hush, all nervous for the next stage of the journey: passport inspection. even though the government has made it much easier in the past few years for expatriots to come spend their foreign currency in the country, the sour queasiness - a learned reaction to facing any government official of the post-revolutionary regime - never truly fades away. i avert my eyes and smother a smile as my iranian passport is inspected and scanned (it is obligatory for any person born in iran or born of two iranian parents to be a citizen in order to enter the country). relief! i make it through without a hitch, and just in time to snatch up my luggage, now greasy from the multiple transfers during the 16-hour trip, and wheel through customs. "do you have any gifts, food, electronics?" "no, no, no," i lie, and i'm through.
the way the mehrabad airport is designed, as a passenger approaches the exit, they are encased in a glass hallway that widens into glass doors that are perpetually open and lead into the main airport lobby. i don't know how international visitors are greeted in any other place, but here, EVERYONE comes to welcome you home. there are rows of bodies, ten layers deep, pressed up against the glass and swarming the exit doors. as i part the crowd with my baggage cart, i'm struck by a strange sense of familiarity. most of the men resemble my father and the women all echo my mother. just then, i spot my uncle blowing kisses at me through the last bit of glass and i see my aunt waving a bouqet of flowers at me from the back. i push past the anxious greeters, all disappointed that i'm not someone else, and am encricled by no less than nine of my family members (the number is "small" because my last visit was just over this past summer). they bustle me out of the airport and package me, my bags, and five cousins into a prideB (think, hyundai's poor little brother) and send us on the path to my uncle's house. along the way, the cousins (all within range of my age by five years) roll down the windows and blast a mix cd of black-eyed peas, tupac, and the latest in LA persian pop. they hang out of the windows, singing and dancing to announce my return. but wait a minute: didn't we in the US hear about a crack-down on "western" music in iran? won't we be stopped by the morality police and questioned on our religious sensibilities?
no matter, the american cousin has arrived!