Ten Days in Tehran: Day 0 – Boarding at Heathrow Airport

arzu

When I conceived of this blog a week back, I thought it would contain some observations on Tehran life under the increased threat of aerial bombardment and war from the Israel / US. The observations would be mine and those of friends, in-laws in my husband’s extended family and people I would generally meet in this metropolis of 8 (or seasonally 16) million people, on life, the weather and pollution, the state of the roads and of course the impact of the latest in decades of US led oppressive sanctions.

I didn’t think I would need to start soon after boarding an Iran Air flight on a cold October evening leaving London’s Heathrow Airport. SO15 – that’s the anti-terrorism branch to you and me – were so ubiquitous at the gate, travellers thought they must be an added layer of ground staff assisting with flight preparations. Indeed during our 10 – 15 minute ‘interrogation’, an elderly Iranian lady stood behind us and asked why they weren’t looking at her passport, thinking that these were boarding procedures and she was in a queue. Indeed they did dress in navy suits. My husband knew straight away they were police, where as I did think they were airline staff set upon us to harass us as is wont when there is a UK – Iran diplomatic crisis. A simple example – four years ago upon returning from Iran after the amnesty of UK marines who drew arms against Iranian Navy personnel in Iranian waters, our BMI flight’s passengers were greeted by passport checks at the door of the plane, followed by sniffer dogs on the bridge to the terminal.

This time – a new one – the harassment was on the way out of the UK. “Are you all travelling as a family… travelling as a family? Are you travelling as a family?” was the refrain I heard from the minute our boarding cards were scanned, and the four of us, myself, husband and two children aged 9 and 12 were ushered towards an enclave replete with table upon which sat ‘William’ as he later advised I should call him, although ,making it clear it was not his real name and that he didn’t have to give me his name (he did give me his warrant card number, which I had to try until I could access something to write it on.) Standing prim and proper, stood the stewardess like colleague who appeared to be more senior (she was more bossy at least). They focussed mainly on my husband: What is your name? Are you a British citizen (they had our passports in their hands, flicking through and taking notes as we spoke)? Are you Iranian? Are you taking any cash with you? Is it in your suitcase (yes they really did ask that)? How much is it? What is your address? Where will you stay in Tehran? Are you going for business or a holiday? My husband, I could tell was holding back the anger (he, like so many Muslim men has been regularly experiencing such harassment while travelling from and back to the UK). This time, his wife and kids were also being subjected to the same. “What is your job?” “I work for a human rights organisation.’ Palpable disbelief.

“So what do you do there?” “I am the chair.” More incredulity. “And how long have you been doing that?” “A long time, maybe 15 years.” William smiles, “So if I googled you, there would be a lot to read?” Somewhere around the time he was asked to repeat his UK address, I am not sure where in the above feigned repartee this came, my husband asked back, “Is this a Schedule 7?” followed soon after by “Are you police?” Yes to both and a sudden, confused stop in the barrage of questions directed at us. “Are you familiar with Schedule 7?” “Yes,” replied my husband, “I sit on the Schedule 7 accountability board.” Oh dear. A ‘Schedule 7’ is a power given to the police, customs and excise and immigration officers to stop anyone without reason or suspicion, and to question and even search for up to 9 hours. These powers derive from the Anti-Terrorism and Security Act 2001. IHRC is just one organisation that can recount cases reported to it of abusive officers, failures to follow basic guidelines, misrepresentation and harassment. Then of course there are the long, hours long, Schedule 7’s designed it seems (despite assurances to the contrary) to be fishing expeditions, and then there are the same again that seem to have no other purpose than to intimidate.

Questions frequently raised in such interviews include, “How many times a day do you pray?” and “Which party did you vote for in the last elections.” It was perhaps, bad luck for ‘William’ and his colleague that they were caught out. “You do know,” continued my husband, “that you are supposed to identify yourselves as police officers and state that this is a Schedule 7 stop?” Now the excuses start: If we tell people this is a Schedule 7 they won’t understand it… Normal people get scared if we tell them this is to do with terrorism laws… People will get worried if we tell them we are police. I am now in part having a conversation with ‘William’, who seemed amazed that I could speak English. I stop and listen to my husband reiterate the guidelines to ‘William’s’ colleague. “Those are just guidelines,” she answers, “They are not compulsory on us.” “No, I know what I am talking about and those guidelines are to be implemented.” “Well,” she answers, “That is not my interpretation of what the guidelines say.” Meaning, I don’t have to tell you who I am, or what I am doing. “I am just taking this passport now,” she soon says, “it’s standard practice,” and disappears, I think with my husband’s passport. She is much more polite when she returns, asking ‘William’ to write down the personal information contained in it, and flicking through mine and the kids for perhaps the third or fourth time.

“Cute picture,” she points out to one of the children’s photos. Funnily none of us are amused or charmed by this last minute friendliness. “I didn’t catch your name,” I ask my interlocutor, trying to see a name badge. I see his colleague’s ID tag is reversed (or maybe just blank) but it is at this point I notice the ribbon on her lanyard says SO15. If you didn’t know what that was, you would never know. My interlocutor says, “I don’t have to give you my real name, but you can call me ‘William’ if you like.” Like it or not, that is what I have to call him. We are allowed to go, two adults angry and upset, and two children unhappy and confused, as they repeatedly ask us, “Why were we stopped by the police?”


Arzu Merali is a writer and one of the founders of IHRC. She can be contacted via Twitter @arzumerali – You can read more of her blog entries here