I took the overnight flight from London to Tehran, which arrived at 6:30 in the morning. Iran said it would only grant FOX News one visa. Usually I travel with a producer and a cameraman. This time, I was entirely on my own.
Since I am a U.S. citizen and America has no diplomatic ties with Iran, I figured going through the arrival routine might be a nightmare. I had arranged, at the cost of $100, to use the CIP service: Commercially Important Persons. I never thought a journalist (except maybe Barbara Walters) could be considered "commercially important," but apparently anyone with an extra Ben Franklin qualifies.
Watch Amy Kellogg's "Inside Iran" series on FOX News airing Nov. 21 to Nov. 29.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran it is the law that women cover their heads, so before disembarking from the plane I threw a headscarf and a long wool coat on. In some places the all-enveloping black cloak called the "chador" is mandatory, otherwise a scarf and regular coat will do. The problem is the coat stays on all the time — even in heated office buildings — until you are back in your home or hotel.
I was met on the ramp by a man in a suit with a sign, then was whisked through the bowels of Mehrabad International Airport. He turned me over to two men in uniform who kept me waiting for a while, and then led me to a remote room in a dimly-lit basement. They couldn't find the light switch in the room, so there we were, the three of us, searching the dark room for light. One of them then fished out a little-used vat of ink and rifled through some papers, as if trying to figure out what do do next. Since America apparently fingerprints Iranians at JFK, there's a tit-for-tat reciprocal arrangement in Tehran. I have never given my prints before so I figured a digit or two would do, then it became clear that all 10 were required. I asked if I could get some wet-wipes out of my briefcase to avoid reaching in with two inky hands later. I don't speak Farsi and they didn't speak much English, so a strange little pantomime ensued. One of my guards gave me a look as if to say, "I am so sorry I have to do this to you." He took the baby wipes from me, opened the packet, and got one ready. I was feeling a bit disoriented, weak, blinking through very dry contact lenses. Cleaning ink off 10 fingers is not easy, and suddenly the officials seemed in a huge hurry to move me along. I began to fumble with my bulging briefcase, trying to close it and find a garbage can for my grimy wet wipe. My scarf slipped off my head. A third man appeared out of nowhere and barked at me to adjust it...
From there I was handed over to my "fixer," the term journalists use for people we employ when travelling to foreign countries to help us "fix" our interviews and video shoots. I had been speaking to this man for months on the phone as the details of my visit were worked out, and felt I knew him already. I was very glad to see him, finally, in the flesh. He shook my hand heartily — he had warned me in advance that he would, so I wouldn't be taken aback. Men and women don't usually shake hands in Iran, but he was relaxed, friendly and raring to go. Time was of the essence.
It was the day Iranians mark the anniversary of the hostage taking of dozens of Americans at the U.S. Embassy in 1979, and we had to get to the demonstration on time. It had already begun. Before I knew it, I was right in the middle of a crowd of young people, burning American flags, chanting "Death to America," "Death to Israel," and I think "Death to Britain" was thrown in for good measure. We hooked up with a camera crew and then split up. Men to one side, women to another. In the middle of it all, up on a podium festooned with large, funereal flower arrangements, a student leader of the Basijis (the militant, para-military revolutionary group), a kid who looked like a young version of Iran's new president, was barking speeches over a PA system. He was jabbing alternately, his right hand, then left — first toward the men, then toward the women, for emphasis. As he carried on, he whipped the crowd of thousands into something of a frenzy.
There I stood amidst the young women all in chadors and trademark green Basiji headbands, some with incendiary placards. They gathered into small groups and by turn, just stared at me. One by one, the representative of each little group who could speak English would approach me and ask where I was from. "America," I said. And each time, I got a disarmingly warm smile in return —wide eyes peaking out from black cloaks. "America?" And then, "Welcome to Iran! How are you? Is this your first time here? I hope you will like it and your trip will be successful."
The irony of their warm greetings, given the circumstances, was surreal. In turn, each of them went on to tell me how much they dislike American foreign policy but how they like Americans. However one young woman told me, that if she had to, and the circumstances were right, she'd take hostages herself.
It's hard to judge to what extent these young Basijis actually believe in the party line. I've been told by some in Iran that by joining the organization, people are assured better grades in school and promotion opportunities in the workplace.
This crowd was bused in for the demonstration. It was by no means a spontaneous expression of rage. When it was over, they all got back on buses and dispersed like a puff of smoke. No after parties. No further bonfires.
My crew and I moved on to the bazaar, a teeming, roofed-in series of narrow alleys with stalls, grouped by industry. One section was just fake labels; Western labels, top-end designer tags, spools and spools of designer labels to be sewn into clothing. So much for "Death to America."
As the camera crew shot colorful video of Iranians shopping, trading, and going about daily life, my fixer invited me to see a carpet shop. I'm used to being dragged to carpet shops in the Middle East, but not by my fixer! "Oh, no," I said. "I'm just not up for that." I might possibly be the only person in the world who doesn't love Oriental carpets. I fully appreciate their beauty and workmanship, but they're just not me. Furthermore, I love to shop, but only if I am left alone. Carpet shops to me are aggressive, claustrophobic places, and take me beyond agita ... a hostage situation of another sort. I was in no mood to argue, however, so I let my fixer drag me along through the narrow bazaar warrens, where the crowds push and shove their way along and all types of carts and motorbikes creep up on you by stealth. If you're not wary, you'll simply get mowed over.
Once in the chosen carpet shop, whose owner was my fixer's buddy, the door instantly was shut and the show began...stacks of lovely silks dramatically unfurled on the floor before me. I was roasting in my coat, which I could not take off for modesty’s sake, and was dehydrated from my long-haul flight. It's hot and it's still Ramadan and therefore I'm conspicuously not packing Evian. The carpet salesman asks me if I want tea.
"Tea?" I ask. "But it's Ramadan, and the sun's not down yet."
"Yes, but you are a traveler," he replied with a wink.
Travelers, the very young, and sick are exempt from fasting. Of course, non-Muslims, such as I, are too, but it seemed insensitive to drink anything before the others who were also, I assumed, quite thirsty by this time. Eating, drinking, or smoking in public places during Ramadan is pretty much a no-no in Iran.
At first I thought, no, I can't enjoy tea while they suffer. But then, I thought, wait a minute, they're going to make me look at carpets, so I'm going to let them make me tea. Let me tell you, tea never tasted better. When Iranians actually brew it the old fashioned way, it's something else. Problem is, you look forward to that treat each time you're offered a cup and every so often you are let down by the do-it-yourself version of some hot water and a simple tea bag!
The carpet salesman asked me where I was from. I told him New York, originally.
"New York?!" his eyes lit up. "I have a friend from New York,” he added.
He dug out her business card from his records of clients past. She turned out to also be a friend of mine, a Japanese woman who lives in New York and whom I haven't seen for years. It's a minuscule world.
Suddenly, I thought, taking a long sip of tea, maybe everything's going to be just fine after all. And it was. The flag-burning Basijis in my experience were the exception to the rule.
The next day we stopped for lunch at a restaurant. We were greeted by a white-coated physician with authoritative white hair, whose role was to show everyone that hygiene in this establishment was taken seriously. It was a Disney-like place — talk about it being a small world — they had a huge display of miniature flags spread out right next to the sprawling salad bar.
The gentle old doctor pointed to me and asked my fixer, "Where's she from?"
Even with my headscarf disguise, I stuck out in Iran.
"America," my fixer said.
"Oh," he said, glancing forlornly at the flags. "I feel so badly. We don't have her flag."
"Don't worry," my fixer shot back. "She saw plenty of them being burned yesterday."
The doctor bowed his head and shook it. "I'm so ashamed."
Amy Kellogg is an international correspondent based in FNC's London bureau.