Tuesday, February 24, 2004

I came face to face with Iran’s labyrinthine and baffling bureaucracy this morning – but amazingly managed to come away with a result.

With my week-long visa due to expire at midnight, it was vital that I tried to get an extension. I had a flight booked to London via Dubai this afternoon just in case the authorities refused.

My first task was to get a letter agreeing an extension from the Foreign Press department of the scarily named Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

With that in hand I deposited 100,000 Iranian Rials (the equivalent of about 10 US dollars) into the bank and took the receipt to the Immigration Bureau.

The Immigration Bureau – or Police Department of Aliens Affairs as it’s officially known -- is located on a traffic-clogged street in central Tehran and on a windless day like today the pollution was even worse than usual. I went inside, my eyes watering from the exhaust fumes. I was immediately hit by another eye-watering stink – the overpowering sour smell of stale sweat in the waiting room. Crowds of shabbily dressed men, many of them Afghan migrants working in Iran’s construction industry, were waiting around forlornly.

Some looked as if they’d been hanging around there for weeks.

Signs on the wall in Farsi and English informed women that “TO BE IN ISLAMIC VEIL IS NECESSARY.”

My driver, Nader, guided me effortlessly through the paperwork. I’d have been lost without him. Two forms, a pile of photocopies and a couple of pictures were slipped into a pink folder and added to the mountainous pile of pink folders teetering in a heap behind the counter.

Nader spun the immigration official a line about how the application was very urgent because I was a journalist in a hurry and we took our seats alongside a haggered Afghan flicking worry beads between his fingers.

An hour or so later it was ready….a 2 week extension allowing me to stay in Iran until March 10th.


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