I work in Saudi Arabia and had to visit Pakistan to attend a meeting. Whenever I come to Pakistan, I always apply for Iran’s visa. You must be wondering why?
Well, my wife is Iranian and since Iran does not have an embassy in Saudi Arabia and vice versa, I take advantage of my visits to Pakistan and apply for a visa every time I come.
This time too, I decided to visit my family in Iran before leaving for Saudi Arabia. Elections were scheduled for a day after my arrival. During a conversation with some of my friends in Tehran, I found out that the coronavirus had started to spread in the country but the government had kept the news under cover due to "political reasons". As soon as the polling came to an end, news of the outbreak was revealed. Alas, the information provided by Iranian TV channels such as Manoto and Iran International was proven to be true.
It took me a few hours to plan my return to Saudi Arabia and I ended up booking an Air Arabia flight bound for Riyadh via Sharjah, which was scheduled to leave the next day.
I spent the day anxious about how I'd manage to take my family back if the situation deteriorated.
The next day, I left for the Imam Khomeini Airport six hours before my flight because I thought there would be strict security checks. However, I was surprised when I, along with several other passengers, was able to enter the check-in area without any scanning.
After two hours, the check-in counter finally displayed the number of my flight for Sharjah and people began making queues. I was feeling optimistic about the situation and called my family to inform them that my flight would be on time.
But then came two hours of inactivity at the check-in counter, and people started getting anxious. Upon inquiring, we came to know that the flight from Sharjah had been cancelled. What was surprising was that while passengers of Indian and Emirates' airlines were being asked to get on board their planes, several other flights were being cancelled.
The anxiety and fear of visitors was apparent. Many international passengers, who did not know Persian, were running around, trying to get a seat on a confirmed flight. Some failed because credit cards and ATMs were not working in Iran at the time while others were worried because there were no flights scheduled for their destinations. Yet others were out of money.
A while later, we were ordered to leave the check-in area and I had no option but to exit the airport and head to the taxi stand.
After a couple of days, I was sure leaving Iran would not be possible any time soon. But thankfully, unlike other passengers, I did not have to worry about shelter or food. In fact, while I was stressed about missing work, I was happy I was getting more time with my family.
Somehow, my daughter Jaanan realised that I had to go somewhere soon. Several times a day, she would ask me: “Baba, where do you have to go?”
The window in my room opens in a garden where some tall trees seem to be waiting for spring. I like the breeze that enters my room through this garden and often, I leave the window open during the night.
There is not much to tell about my daily routine in Iran. I spent most of my time with my daughter, Jaanan, and the remaining hours would be spent feasting and chatting with my family members. When Jannan would insist on going out, I had to make several excuses to make her stay home. The innocent soul was unable to sense the danger in the air outside.
My wife was optimistic about the situation getting better soon. Meanwhile, I booked another flight to try to make it to Saudi Arabia but the thin hope I had vanished when a day later I received an email informing me that my flight had been cancelled.
The only positive during this time was that my boss, who was constantly in contact with me, told me not to get too stressed about the situation. Thanks boss!
When I contacted the Pakistani embassy in Tehran for guidance, I was told that the Taftan border would open on March 10. I had no other way of leaving Iran so I booked a flight from Tehran to Zahidan. On the morning of March 10, I bade farewell to my family with a lot of apprehension and as soon as I boarded the plane, I realised that the coming days will not be easy.
On my way from Zahidan to Mirjaveh, I struck a conversation with the taxi driver and found out that the Iranian people were unhappy with their government's delay in making the coronavirus situation public as well as the measures taken to prevent the disease from spreading.
As soon as I arrived at the border, the poor sanitary situation took me by surprise. Administrative arrangements were not satisfactory either. Passengers were standing by the immigration window, in complete oblivion about their fates. Covered in dirt and fatigue, it was obvious they had arrived at the border after days filled with agony.
Upon inquiring about the reason behind the administrative mess, I was told officials were demanding five passports to be submitted at the window counter at once. Why though? No one could tell.
Somehow, my passport was handed over at the counter. I don't know who received it because the window was narrow. I asked some students, who had come to Iran for higher studies, if the situation had always been this chaotic. The answer was no.
Half an hour later, I got my passport back. Inside, I was shocked to see a paper — signed and stamped — stating that I did not have the coronavirus. The person who issued the certificate had not even seen my face!
Before advancing to the next counter, a doctor, who looked like a security guard, checked my temperature to make sure I did not have a fever. When he gave me a green signal, I went ahead.
I thought that the next window would be the last immigration counter but all they did was take my thumbprints. That's all. God bless my wife who had given me a sanitiser, which I had kept in my pocket since I left home. After leaving the counter, I applied it all over my hands.
As I moved forward, I found out that many people had been fined because their visa had expired and they had to pay in order to get through the last stage of immigration. I had some Iranian currency in my pocket, which my wife had wrapped in a plastic blag before giving it to me just in case. She told me to wear gloves before handing it to anyone. I knew it wouldn't be of any use to me for at least a year or two, so I distributed it among the people there.
I had now arrived at the last immigration counter and within 10 minutes, my passport had been stamped by officials. Surprisingly, when I arrived in Iran, my passport was not stamped. I was told since I had a biometric passport, there was no need of a stamp.
I took off my gloves and mask and threw them in a bin before putting on new ones as I stepped out of the building. I was happy that I had followed all of my wife's directions.
As I stepped outside, I saw the Pakistani flag flying high in all its glory, just about four metres away.
To be continued.