Skip to main content

It’s slow going when
 you are the entertainment.

[[{"fid":"6171","view_mode":"default","fields":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"passports","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"passports"},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"default","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"passports","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":"passports"}},"attributes":{"alt":"passports","title":"passports","class":"panopoly-image-original media-element file-default","data-delta":"1"},"link_text":null}]]

By Babs Ryan ’81 / Iran

N
ov. 4, 1992. Wherever we went, people pointed and stared. We would never pass this way again—in a British double-decker bus, built in 1958, reconstructed into a camper. The top deck had been converted to bunk beds; the bottom level had a kitchenette among the seats. There was no toilet or running water. The world was our toilet. Under a bridge, behind a bush, behind the bus. Eleven of us were on the overland journey from London to Kathmandu in our diesel double-decker “hotel.”

On this November date, we crossed the border from Turkey into Iran. Ayatollah Khomeini had been dead for three years. Four years earlier, fathers and sons had stopped dying in the Iran-Iraq war. The previous day, Bill Clinton had won the U.S. presidential election.

While in Iran, I met no other Americans. I have dual citizenship and was using my British, not America, passport. So technically, I was a Brit. There were a Canadian and two other Brits, and the others were Kiwis from New Zealand or Aussies from Australia. Iranian people were warm and welcoming to all nationalities.

The warning from the U.S. Department of State was: “Persons who violate Iranian laws such as those concerning proper dress, may face penal- ties that are, at times, severe.” Iranian law dictated that only a woman’s face, hands, and feet could be exposed. Showing any hair was also forbidden. Some women gripped the chadors scarf in their teeth to keep them from falling off their heads, accidentally revealing hair.

Our “hotel” was often stopped because of curiosity. In this instance, the border guards asked us to exit the bus. We women gathered up our billowing chadors, scarves, and abayas, robes, in our free hands as we awkwardly descended the curving staircase from the top deck, being careful not to trip. It was our debut in Islamic dress. We felt incredibly silly as if going to a Halloween party; we didn’t want to be disrespectful of our hosts’ culture. We sat in a waiting room with stale green walls and pictures of a couple of ayatollahs on the wall while our paperwork was processed.

“What were they doing?” I thought. There appeared to be no other work for the checkpoint guards to do; yet after an hour, they hadn’t begun checking our vehicle. We soon realized that we were the entertainment. Once we left, the day would dissolve into just another humdrum day of men driving delivery trucks through the border. It wasn’t every day that a double-decker bus full of Westerners landed at this border crossing station.

“Passports, passports,” called the Persian commander. As we walked to the passport control room, out a sliver of the window we saw a group of uniformed officers entering the bus and others looking underneath the vehicle. They went through our luggage, not really looking for contraband, but simply interested in what we brought with us. Underwear, books, and magazines, underwear, toiletries, underwear, whatever.

Our passports were all handed to the commander together. Our visa photos were in Islamic dress, our passport photos were not. The Persian fellow behind the desk lifted a corner of his mouth and looked up directly at me. I knew why he was looking for me. I’d made a bad decision in the 1980s.

When I got my British passport in the 1980s, glamor photos were the rage. A professional makeup artist and hair stylist had made me up to look like a movie star. With dangling earrings and heavy makeup, my sultry portrait was taken against a starry backdrop. Not being photogenic, I decided to maximize the opportunity by having passport photos taking during the same sitting. Minus the dangling earrings and fuchsia organza wrap, there I was with the same sultry look. A bad idea I’d have to live with for the next 10 years.

We must have been boring, along with the contents of our luggage, be- cause within three hours, we were on our way. This part of Iran was fairly desolate. Our bus driver, “Rowdy” (he wasn’t), would drive for hours without passing through a town.

Many hours later came the first police patrol car. The police stopped the bus and stepped inside saying, “Passport, passport.” We women, again hurriedly adjusted our headgear, while Rowdy handed over the stack of passports, which were kept together since they were requested so often. They asked us to exit the bus, while they filtered through the contents of our lug- gage. Underwear, books, and magazines, underwear, toiletries, underwear, whatever. They stared long and hard at the pictures in the women’s passports. Soon bored, they got in their car and left, laughing.

A few hours later, we were stopped again. Part of the problem was that all the bunk beds were on the same floor, which meant that unmarried women and men were sleeping in the same quarters. I’m certain the Iranian officials imagined that the “promiscuous” Westerners were having wild parties because we noticed that after nightfall, our bus was stopped more frequently. Sometimes Rowdy would drive through the night and sleep during the day when we were touring the sights. We always had to sleep in our Islamic clothing for the periodic visits from uniformed men.

At 2 a.m. on the way to Esfahan, Rowdy was pulled over again. The women were nestled, all snug in their sleeping bags, when out on the door- step, there arose such a clatter, we prayed they’d be tired and just scatter. No such luck. “Passport, passport.” We all pretended not to be awakened by the commotion. We knew not to turn our faces to the window, or they’d see us and wake us up to check our identity. So we always tried to stay absolutely still with our eyes shut, feigning sleep. The officers would walk inches from us, ensuring the women were properly covered, and I’m sure wondering what kind of nuts would travel across Asia in a double-decker bus.

Passports in hand, the police climbed the stairs, and I knew one of them was eyeing my glamor shot photo. I heard my name as it appeared in the passport being called from the bottom of the steps: “Barbara, Barbara.” I was being singled out. Suddenly, images of trying to outrun two Iranian police- men, in my abaya robe, flashed through my mind. At the top of the stairs, one officer began to check each bunk, trying to match the face with the passport photo. “Barrrbarrra, Barrrrbarrrra,” he whispered. I was quickly learning the advantages of being “under cover.” He was so close I could hear him breathe. His face was close. He was definitely in my personal space. “Barrrbarra.” My eyelids didn’t utter. I didn’t inch. Neither did my fellow travelers. My glam- our photo passport could have been any of us. Without makeup, covered up, we blended. No one stood out. No one was different. No individuality. Like bits of mercury that collect and soak up debris then blend into a seamless mass, we were indistinguishable. We all looked the same. The police, maybe they were all the same too. Not enough to do. Probably looking for excitement by digging through baggage or preventing others from traveling for- ward. Not knowing what they were looking for, and not finding it.

Babs Ryan is a 1981 graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management. She worked in senior leadership positions in Fortune 100 companies prior to starting her own business, Sparks Worldwide LLC. She has traveled to 81 countries and authored the book America’s Corporate Brain Drain.