I don’t care that IranAir has old planes, broken toilets and no AC in the middle of the summer. I recommend flying to Iran on the country’s national airline. You might learn a thing or two about Iran and Iranians.
It’s sort of like a bootcamp on Persian norms and ediquette before arrival.
On my trip to Iran: Persian culture on display
I’m on a 25-year-old Airbus A330 going from Frankfurt to Tehran and I’m about to witness an amusing replay of the Iranian cat and mouse.
It’s ten minutes after takeoff when suddenly there’s a chime. I look up. The pilot has just remembered to flip on the seat belt signs.
That’s when several bearded brothers get up and head down the aisle. The plane’s still in an upward incline. The men are both walking and tumbling toward the tail.
I turn and wait for the flight attendants to say something.
Disregard for airline rules part of flying in the Middle East
I’m not that surprised. Twenty years ago, I saw disregard for the rules on Pakistan International Airlines. If only phones could shoot video back then. I saw throngs of men who looked like tenant farmers drag huge sacks of cargo into the cabin and shove them into every crevice of the 747 before and during takeoff from JFK. During the flight, passengers had to squeeze by waist-level cargo to get to the bathrooms.
The Pakistanis completely ignored the pleas of the female flight attendants. It was as if the women were invisible.
On IranAir, things are going to play out differently:
The black beards quickly climb back into their seats, looking dejected.
I can’t stop smiling when I figure it out: instead of wasting their breath on morons, like their Pakistani colleagues, the IranAir attendants had simply locked up the bathroom doors.
Flying IranAir is like I’m already in Iran
The cat and mouse, of course, is a perennial Iranian theme, if not the national preoccupation. On the roads, in the offices, people race to either circumvent the rules or avoid the consequences of earlier evasions.
Flight to Iran: Lack of amenities but great food on IranAir
And like in Iran, the toilets are bad; the food is great.
One toilet is broken and permanently locked. Another is already in disarray and the sink is clogged even though I am one of the first to get in there. (How is that possible?)
The food, of course, has to be great. Iranians won’t have it any other way.
I gratefully stuff myself with chicken kabob over saffron basmati rice and what’s left from Saeideh’s sabzi-polo (green herbed rice) with lamb.
Flying to Iran: “Strangled” with No AC on IranAir
There was no AC before takeoff on this early September afternoon. I got antsy. I asked a flight attendant, who surely was also suffering in a tight headscarf and a long black manteaux.
She threw up her shoulders and a sharp glance at a couple of male colleagues, looking relaxed in short-sleeved white shirts and free of the obligation to cover up.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess they’re trying to strangle us.”
Complaints about IranAir? See Uncle Sam
I think she meant people higher up the chain. I certainly don’t blame any employees of IranAir for the shortcomings.
Exactly how do you run an airline – and maintain international routes too! – with much of the world bent on strangling your economy?
Please direct bad toilet complaints to the United States Treasury Department, whose sanctions deny Iranians even critical medicine. Half the country’s aircraft are grounded because Iranians aren’t allowed to buy spare parts.
My recommendation on flying with IranAir
To the Iran-bound tourist, I recommend flying on IranAir, not just for the joy of riding with the underdog.
The food and the check-in luggage allowance – a whopping 40 kg – easily beat the competition. You fly directly from Europe to Tehran and don’t lose time connecting in Doha or Istanbul or Dubai.
Flying to Iran: reminders of Persian norms
Within minutes of getting on board, I’m getting reminders on the Persian norms I’ve forgotten while I’ve been away.
For example, in Iran you don’t demand service like you’re at Starbucks. You ask politely, bordering on obsequiousness. And the same level of politeness is almost always reciprocated. (Unless, of course, you’re driving in Iran. Then you’re lucky just to get home alive.)
Also included is the infamous Persian stare, furtive and yet intrusive, appraising you up and down in a matter of milliseconds.
Or their ceaseless inability to queue and not push.
Or the incredulity of realizing that every single soul in the pre-board area, even the old lady pushing the old man’s wheelchair, is hauling carryon way over the limit.
The ploy with luggage allowance on IranAir
There’s a bit of sleight of hands with IranAir’s luggage allowance.
The 40 kg check-in is for the quick sale. Wow, I hit the jackpot.
Until you notice the senseless 5 kg carryon limit. “My empty carryon alone is 3 kg!” Saeideh moaned.
But no worries. At boarding, the staff merely frown at the carryons so the passenger too gets the thrill of getting something for nothing.
More than a good deal, the Iranian mind relishes the tail bonus.
Flying to Iran: Hijab not enforced
During my IranAir flight, most women – except for the flight attendants – didn’t wear wear any headscarves.
Close to landing, women started to hang something on the neck and bare arms and slip into their manteau – in anticipation of disembarkment into a land where hijab is mandatory.
This is the case with every flight into Iran, not just IranAir. You are required to put something on after you exit the plane.
Same with alcohol – on airlines other than IranAir, which doesn’t serve alcohol. Plenty of alcohol on Qatar Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Emirates and GulfAir, all airlines of supposedly Islamic nations. But on approach to an Iranian airport boozing gets shutdown.
For me, the best part came waiting to board in Frankfurt. I practiced on fellow passengers sneaky glances of my own, hunting for older faces, of my own pre-Revolution pedigree, especially the ones who are obviously living in Iran.
My thoughts went back to when at 15 I passed through this very airport on my exit from Iran, away from Iran burning with revolutionary fever.
I ducked the draft into a horrific war. Growing up outside Iran was easier on the body and mind.
But then today I’m not nearly as tough, resourceful and patient as these creased men and women before me. That’s why I look up to them. I admire them.
My God. Compared to the Iranians who survived in Iran, I’m an embarrassing spoiled brat, ceaselessly judging (like this whole blog!) and demanding my space, my rights, kiss-ass customer service. The Western lifestyle inevitably spoils.
What didn’t kill them made them stronger, something that Iran’s technologically superior enemies often fail to consider.