We approached the busy border town of Jolfa, my mind overwrought with contrasting emotions. On one hand, I was already missing Iran, recalling fondly the architectural treasures I’d seen over the past nine days with my government-required guide and driver, Ahmad. Visiting sights like Esfahan’s majestic Naqsh-e Jahan Square and the ancient ruins of Persepolis were experiences I had only dreamed of; though it was the friendliness and welcoming spirit of the local people that I will miss most. I was also filled with the anticipation of entering a virtually unknown land – Nakhchivan, a little-visited exclave of Azerbaijan, separated from the mainland by a swath of Armenia, Azerbaijan’s sworn enemy.
The road to Jolfa, lined with towering mountain scenery and virgin landscapes, lifted me out of these consuming thoughts. A short, but stunning, detour along the left bank of the Aras River, the natural border between Iran and Nakhchivan, brought us to the unusual sight of the UNESCO-listed Armenian monastery of St. Stepanos. It felt bizarre – I was still in Iran, a staunchly Islamic country oft-alienated from the world, and at the border with Azerbaijan, the arch-enemy of Armenia; yet there I was, visiting an internationally-protected, Christianity-affirming, Armenian monastery. It was already shaping up to be not-your-typical border crossing experience.
We drove back along the Aras and into town. Ahmad stopped the car in front of a modern pedestrian mall, lined with shops and restaurants, leading directly to the border. “We are here,” he said and got out to help me with my bags. Aside from a quick evening metro ride back to my Tehran hotel, this was the first time I would walk around unaccompanied in Iran. It should be no problem, I thought; with all the months of planning, waiting, and anxiety I endured to secure entry into the country, surely exiting would be a breeze.
I said “khoda hafez” (goodbye) to Ahmad, my guide / driver / friend, and promised that we would keep in touch. I walked towards the border and looked back to see Ahmad drive away. The all-too-familiar feeling of being alone in a foreign country rose to the surface instantly; an unexplainable mix of adrenaline, fear, excitement, and uncertainty. I thrive on that feeling.
Being in Iran, the feeling was weighted towards uncertainty, though I had no reason to expect any issues. In fact, I was mentally well-prepared for entering Nakhchivan; my guidebook forewarned me that this crossing is not often traversed by foreigners and that anyone entering here is likely to be suspected as a spy by paranoid border control officials.
As I passed under the last of the border market’s monumental concrete and steel canopies, the customs building came into view and I noted the scarcity of travelers inside. The scarcity of foreign travelers was even greater—I was the only one. My bags were screened, and I stood in line behind a young family who had so many parcels, it was obvious they had crossed the border to take advantage of the customs exemptions of Jolfa’s “Aras Free Zone.” Their passports were quickly stamped, and they continued their journey home.
“Salam,” I said with a smile, as I handed my passport to the border guard. He glanced through it, and then picked up his phone. After a few words, he walked over to a white, unmarked door, and handed my passport to the man inside. He came back to the booth, and gestured for me to have a seat.
I moved out of line, wondering if this was just standard procedure for foreigners. The guard continued to check other travelers’ documents, quickly sending them through. After fifteen minutes or so, he gestured again for me to sit down. I obliged, took a seat in one of the red airport-style seats nearby, and looked through my pictures of St. Stepanos while snacking on some Persian candies I had bought a few days earlier in Zanjan.
Fifteen more minutes passed with no word. I was concerned, but continued to wait patiently. Another fifteen, and with my comforting candies now gone, I started to worry about the driver waiting for me in Nakhchivan. Soon, the man inside the windowless room appeared. I breathed out an inaudible sigh of relief as I stood up, waiting to be called forward. He briefly spoke with the guard and then returned to the room, leaving the door ajar. Still holding my passport, I could see him typing into his computer – then, as if he could feel me peering inside, he abruptly rose to shut the door completely.
Over an hour had now lapsed and fear officially set in. Not one word had been spoken to me about the current situation. My mind began racing. Was there a problem? Was this routine? I would have been more at ease if something, anything, was communicated.
I decided to call Ahmad. With no phone service, and no Wi-Fi, I searched fruitlessly for friendly-looking people with a mobile phone. Clearly sensing desperation in my voice, a security officer finally allowed me to use his phone. Ahmad answered, and I explained that I was still at the border. He was almost to Tabriz, over an hour away, but promised to call the border police in Jolfa. Skeptical, I asked him to at least call my guide in Nakhchivan and ask him to please wait for me.
More than two hours of silence had now passed; the only communication was Ahmad’s calls to the security officer’s phone to periodically check on me, and me, in turn, apologizing to the officer for the calls. The man with my passport came in and out of ‘the room’ numerous times, never acknowledging me, and never again forgetting to shut the door behind him.
With no one else to talk to but myself, my mind reeled with regrets, prayers, and worst-case scenarios. “I should have never come to Iran!” “Please God, just get me out of this country!” “Will I be arrested and thrown into Evin Prison?” “Did they somehow know I rode the metro alone in Tehran?!”
As the end of the third hour approached, the man opened the door once again, and walked to the booth. The border guard gestured for me to come forward, stamped my passport, and let me through. Just like that. No words, no explanations. I walked quickly towards my freedom, and into the no-man’s land between Iran and Nakhchivan.
Relieved and exhausted, I arrived at the Nakhchivan post, no longer mentally prepared for a troop of suspicious officers accusing me of espionage. I handed my passport to a young woman, and braced myself for questioning. She looked up, smiled, and said, “USA.” Clearly a novelty, my American passport attracted her colleagues, who hovered to take a look. The English-speaking supervising officer came out to talk to me. “Why do you come to Nakhchivan?” “Just traveling on vacation,” I replied. He seemed bewildered, and then asked, “You are alone, single?” “Yes, I am alone.” “Not married?” “No, single.”
This peculiar conversation transpired as more officers had come out to inspect my bags and curiously look through my things. He continued, “You are single…the girl, she is pretty, she likes you,” as he pointed to the young woman who first took my passport. I looked over and she smiled shyly, turned away, and giggled with the other officers.
I started laughing; this reception was both hilarious and completely unexpected. He continued asking me personal questions, including if I had time to go on a date with the girl, who he said wanted to marry me. At the same time, one officer was going through my sketchbook, and another one found my travel-size pack of baby wipes, actually pulled one out, and asked me in a thick accent “What is this?” Still laughing, I tried to explain, while the other officer began scrolling through pictures on my camera.
As much as I was enjoying this border cultural exchange / match-making service, I explained to the English-speaking officer that I was just detained on the Iranian side for three hours, and my driver was waiting for me. I really needed to go. He handed my passport back, shooed the others away, and shook my hand, welcoming me into Nakhchivan. “Have a good time,” he said.
I glanced outside to see a car in the parking lot, eager to finally get to it. I walked to the door, and before exiting, turned to wave goodbye to my could-have-been wife. Chuckling to myself, I wondered if all of that really just happened, anxious to share the tale with my very patient driver.
No other experience of mine could have better reinforced this old adage: “Believe half of what you see, and none of what you hear.” It is the essence of why we travel, to experience things first-hand; to see things for what they are, not what we are told they are. The Nakhchivani border officials were curious, not paranoid; friendly, not intimidating. In fact, they were an accurate reflection of the exclave itself.
As for Iran, my fears at the border were exaggerated, even unjustified – solitude and a lack of communication can turn normal human emotions into a fear-infested anxiety. I’m almost certain the delay was due to two simple facts; I was an American at a rarely-visited border. Though I saw nothing, fear compelled me to believe my most dire thoughts.
The truth is, I would go back to Iran in a heartbeat.