The sun was setting as the Iran Air Jumbo Jet taxied gently down the runway of Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates. I admired the view of Dubai’s modern architecture as we took off into the clear sky over the Persian Gulf and banked eastwards. I was flying to Tehran a day ahead of the rest of the tour that I was scheduled to join. The female passengers and the stewardesses on the flight were wearing chadors. The men on the flight apart from me were smartly dressed and Middle-Eastern in appearance. I leaned well back into my seat and tried not to feel too conspicuous.
Ninety minutes later I headed down the steps from the plane, wearing a t-shirt and with a rucksack on my back, into the warmth of the Persian evening. I could hear the whirring of crickets in the surrounding greenery and smell the faintest whiff of bougainvillea. I headed past the oil tankers and baggage carts on the apron and walked into the arrivals area clutching my hand-baggage with a slight sense of trepidation. Customs officials in certain other Middle Eastern countries had been very suspicious of my cameras, lenses, and the number of films I had with me.
Passengers had to get their baggage before they cleared passport control and customs. Half a dozen smallish men in light-green overalls were hanging around the luggage carousel. One of them, around fifty years old with a receding hairline, a pencil moustache, and with the complexion of a chestnut, approached me and started saying “One dollar, one dollar” whilst bouncing up and down on his toes. I assumed he was asking for baksheesh and waved him away.
As I stood by the carousel, the same man came by with a trolley and said “Bag, Bag, One dollar,” and motioned placing a large suitcase onto the trolley he was pushing. “One dollar,” I said, and mimicked his motion. Mr One Dollar nodded vigorously and again moved up and down on his toes. Some of the other men in light-green overalls were listening to us. I thought it would be petty not to hire someone. “OK,” I said, “One dollar,” and drew a 1 in the air with my index finger. Mr One Dollar beamed and immediately started pointing at the bags as they went by; he was keen to earn his money.
After a minute or so, my red holdall appeared and I indicated to Mr One Dollar that this bag was mine. He pushed the trolley closer to the carousel, grabbed the handles of my luggage and pivoted around to place the bag on the trolley with a practiced coordination that I could never achieve. He smiled at me as though to say, “I have done that before you know.” He motioned me to follow him and we headed towards what I hoped was the exit. One of the wheels of the trolley was emitting a high-pitched squeak which made me cringe with embarrassment, as I felt it would draw unnecessary attention to me, which I didn’t think I needed.
We then encountered a long queue of people holding their passports. At the head of the line was a large overweight gentleman in a grey tunic sitting on a wooden chair similar to the ones we had used at school in the UK twenty years ago. The customs official’s hair was thinning and combed backwards, though he had a fine walrus-like moustache. He was slowly checking passenger’s paperwork, whilst smoking a large cigarette. Mr One Dollar wheeled the trolley past the queue, which concerned me, so I indicated to him that we should join the queue at the back, rather than pushing in at the front. He shook his head and smiled.
As we drew level with the official, Mr One Dollar said something to him in Farsi. The official looked at me over a distance of about 5 metres with an expression that reminded me of a languid bloodhound. He blew some smoke in our direction and said, in perfect English with a rather fierce tone, “Where are you from?” “The UK,” I said, brandishing my passport and smiling. He glared at me, “Do you have a visa for Iran?” “Yes, I do,” I replied and started to leaf through my passport. He waved his hand imperiously and said, “OK, you can go, please.” I stood there and stared at the valid visa on the page. After a few seconds Mr One Dollar tugged at my sleeve and beckoned me to continue. He smiled, raised his eyebrows, and said, “One dollar, one dollar.”
Bypassing most of the passengers in the passport control queue meant that when we squeaked into the baggage check area, there was an official ready to search my luggage. He was even larger than the passport control man and was wearing the same standard issue grey tunic. Mr One Dollar heaved my bag onto the counter and the baggage checker looked me straight in the eye, stroking his chin with a large clammy hand that had been stained by too many cigarettes.
Again this official spoke perfect, unaccented English. “What have you got in your bag,” he demanded loudly and slapped his hand on the holdall. I opened my mouth to start telling him the contents of my bag, but before I could begin, he pointed his finger at me and continued with a deliberate tone, “You have toothbrush…you have razor…you have toothpaste.” He really emphasized the ‘paste’ for some reason. I nodded my head a couple of times and said, “Yes, yes, that’s right, and some clothes and…” He interrupted me, “You can go.” I gazed at the official open-mouthed. Mr One Dollar laughed, placed my bag on the trolley, and wheeled it away, beckoning me to follow. I was half expecting hordes of police to drag me back to the passport control, but none were around. I shrugged my shoulders at Mr One Dollar. We walked on for twenty metres and then he stopped the trolley and pointed at an open doorway. “Tehran,” he said and grinned.
I nervously poked my head through the doorway. This wasn’t an Iranian version of “You’ve been framed.” I was outside. I walked into the calm night air. No-one tried to arrest me. Mr One Dollar wheeled up the squeaking trolley and held out a hand. ”One dollar,” he said. I shook his hand warmly and gave him a five dollar bill. He smiled and his eyes glowed with pride. He bowed to me and hurried back into the terminal building to try and help another passenger.
I heard shouts of “Sir, Sir, Taxi.” I turned around. “Taxi?” said four men almost simultaneously. I got out a piece of paper with my hotel’s name written on it in Farsi and showed it to one of the drivers, who nodded as if to say “I know where this is.” “How much?” I said. I shouldn’t have asked because the answer came back, of course, “One dollar.”
With the moon shining brightly, the taxi hurtled towards the city centre with the driver chattering away. I leaned forward in my seat to see the shadowy mosques and minarets as they passed us by. All I could think of was Mr One Dollar, his complexion, and his smile. I was so grateful. Without him I would still be stuck in the passport control queue.