Persian vs. American hospitality

Posted on Aug 11, 2008 in Uncategorized

above: although deceptively written in Farsi, the above manual is actually used to train staff at JFK immigration & customs in NY, USA.

I am back in the US.  Not without a bit of a to-do at both Iranian and US customs on exit & arrival, but i think that my stories of both will illustrate some of the differences in our customs of hospitality.  Leaving Imam Khomeini airport, the female immigration officer noticed that my place of birth was in the US so she sent me over to a separate department for further approval.  Due to insane lines at the airport, there was only about 20 minutes left till my plane was scheduled to leave so i had to hussle.  Like several countries in that part of the world, many times, even when people do not know what you are looking for they will try to be helpful, and send you somewhere.  So i was directed from one end of the airport to the next looking for the 2nd immigration office while the clock was ticking,  Unable to find it i had to return back, a bit bothered & annoyed that this woman was making me do this at 4AM, and for what really?  It has been a long time since i worried about Iranian immigration not letting me in or out of Iran so i felt confident making a bit of a stink to expediate the process.  Which it was easily.  The immigration department wrote down my visa number on an old receipt and i was off.  

Normally i do not write about things like this, but I was able to ride in Air Emirates new Airbus Superjumbo jet A380 between Dubai and JFK.  I was told it is the largest plane in the world, and it was only it’s 6th flight to NY since it began running on August 4, 2008.  It is a double decker plane seating up to 600.  Downstairs is for the coach folk, while upstairs is business andfirst class fit out with individual 26 inch plasma screen TVs, a shopping ceter, lie-flat beds, showers, spas, a wet bar, and lounges.  I was not allowed to go up stairs to check it our but the entrance alone looked like an entrance to a fancy spa.  Really nice warm hardwood floors, flowers, aromatherapy burning, & an reception area full of smiling gracious Air Emirate personnel, who also graciously serve us downstairs in coach.  I am not sure if any airport is really set up to handle such a large plane- at JFK we had to wait a while while they figured out how to connect the “airgates” double decker style.  Once getting off the plans there was a major people traffic jam in the air gate- we were only inching along- there were simply too many people.  Luggage had to be dispensed from 2 luggage carousels; one for 1st class & business the other for us in coach.  It took a while- there were just too many bags.

I was happy to finally get out of the airport after such a long journey from Dubai, however my usual good luck quick pass through customs did not happen this time.  Although i have been through US customs over 100 times, never ever being stopped or searched, this time they made quite a not so nice fuss about me and the fact that i had written down that i was in Iran.  This fact (which i did not even need to tell them really, since i travelled to Iran on my Irish passport) seemed to change the customs folks’ demeanor from aloofly efficient to angry and seemingly personaly insulted.  It was strange.  The first man i spoke with irritably asked me if the US had given me “permission” to go to Iran.  Silly man, I know enough to know that that is not necessary, and that he was trying to intimidate me, which did not work.  He then sent me over to a 2nd area where every inch of my bags were searched, including searching the luggage for holes, and whatever was inside such holes (smuggled 10 cent gasoline?).  A woman officer asked me all about my career, who i met with in Iran, again why I was there (they do not seem to get that there is tourism in Iran), how i could possibly travel alone in such a country, what sort of money was spent, etc-.  She then found a bunch of books i was bringing over for a friend- written in Farsi.  She questioned what these books said and did not seem fully convinced when i said that i cannot read Farsi.  AFter having such a great time in Iran being treated like a member of the family by everyone i met i had to ask them:  Why is it so wrong that i went to Iran?  What are you looking for?  and, why don’t you like Iran?  I guess b/c i know my friends back in Iran cannot speak so freely i was really pumping my free speech muscles by asking her so many questions in gest.  I know this irritated these people, but i just could not help myself.  THey had no answers for me except a quick “Hey, were the ones who attacked us.”  I cringed with embrassment for this lady- for myself, as an American that there truly are people here (& this is NY!) who are still so ignorant and misled about the 9/11 terrorist attacks & who pertpetrated them.  I quirped back correcting her that most hijackers were from Saudi- who the US does much business with– but she did not seem at all interested.  By the end they acted as if i was invisible, ignoring my questions, not making eye contact- and leaving my bags a mess, so that i had to repack everything. 

I guess you really cannot change people.  They have to experience things first hand.  Still, it is really disheartening- that people here can be so rude and suspicious while a supposed “den of terrorists” is so welcoming, friendly and sweet.  You really cannot believe anything you see on the propaganda machine.  Believe you me, Iranians see their fair share of propagana yet the people there still appear to be more independant-minded and further along the path of enlightenment than America is.     


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  1. Lena
    August 21, 2008

    Thank you for publishing these “procedures”. Though I am not surprised to read about how you were “investigated” upon your arrival back in the US it is once more proof of the ignorance that so many people in the US and, mind you, in probably most of the western European countries as well, have towards those countries once declared to be part of the “axis of evil”. Yes, there is very much single-mindedness and simple plain prejudice within too many people. Simply because they don’t know and don’t care to know more. Someone is looking “different”…uuuhhh s/he must be a terrorist or trying to smuggle something etc. Such a shame, really. I wish more people would open there eyes to notice the richness and variety of the people from “those” countries – what is it that they seem to lump e.g. all Iranians together??? I believe that we desperately need a change of attitude in that respect in order to help making this world more peaceful…no?

  2. Goudarz
    December 6, 2008

    Just for your information: The picture you have shown is the cover of a film script about the Algier Revolution. It in fact shows French Gutine that was used to execute the resistance.

    Thank you so very much for writing about your trip to Iran and trying to correct the misconsceptions.

  3. Reza
    January 5, 2009

    Hi Mrs.Michelle May,
    i was very exited When i read your stories Which are about your travel to my country and i think you enjoyed a lot from that trip to Iran. i like some people like you who are interested to see some beautiful places of the world like Iran. i read you story on that was about your trip to Baluchistan. you know, that region is not very safe for any one whenever Iranian or foreign people. Anyway, i hope you will have well trips in your life.

    good luck

  4. Mohammad
    January 6, 2009


    thank you for your well written trip stories. wish more people would travel the world to see it first hand :) good luck on your trips


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