Across the World in Forty Hours
At Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport you come out into the arrivals hall not through an opaque set of automatic doors but down an escalator. You can see the people waiting expectantly below, watching as you descend. When I returned to Tehran last month, however, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, the airport was empty. I tried to imagine the hall crowded, as it should be. Of the few people I saw, most were wearing facemasks. My suitcase had been wet when I took it off the carousel. ‘Is it raining?’ another passenger asked. Then we saw a man in a red and yellow uniform spraying the luggage with disinfectant.
My journey from Toronto had lasted forty long hours, through deserted airports in North America, Europe and the Middle East. Before that I had spent fifty days alone in a deserted city where I knew no one; the only person I had known in Toronto was killed in January.
My cousin Negar, a student at McGill University, had been a passenger on Ukraine International Flight 752, shot down three minutes after taking off from Tehran on 8 January. Her husband, her sister-in-law and her five-year-old niece were also on the plane.
I went to Canada in February with my uncle, to help him collect his daughter’s belongings. The first cases of the coronavirus in Iran were identified on 19 February. As we arrived in Toronto, the first cases in Canada were being identified, including a woman who had recently travelled from Iran. But my uncle and I had other things on our minds.
We finished emptying my cousin’s apartment and were wrapping up what needed to be done with her belongings. My uncle got a visa to visit relatives in Britain in mid-March. It was time for me to go back to Tehran alone. It was hard to think about going home to a country where more than 100 people a day were dying of Covid-19. And it was hard to find a flight. Several European airlines, including Lufthansa and KLM, cancelled their flights to Tehran and suspended all flights over Iranian and Iraqi airspace after PS752 was shot down. The shadow of my cousin’s death haunted me as I tried to book flights. After almost fifty days of lockdown, on 1 May I was finally able to secure a ticket on Qatar Airways from Frankfurt to Tehran via Doha. Ramadan was starting and I really wanted to get back home.
My first interaction with a physical human being after fifty days of solitude was with my Uber driver, Murat from Istanbul. I waited for him to help me with my heavy suitcases. He stared at me without moving. Other passengers didn’t want drivers to touch their stuff, he said. I hadn’t sat in a car for more than a month.
There were very few passengers at Toronto airport. The information boards showed only five flights. One had been cancelled. There were two to Frankfurt, one to London and one to Algiers, all operated by Air Canada.
It took me only fifteen minutes to get out of my Uber, check in my luggage, go through security and duty free, and find my gate. At the gate there were several East Asian travellers wearing white gowns and goggles. I had only a handmade fabric facemask that a friend in Atlanta had made and sent to me in Toronto. The shipping cost thirty bucks. The Air Canada Boeing 777-300ER, which can carry more than 368 passengers, had about seventy of us on board. I guessed they were mostly international students hoping to return to their families.
As the plane was about to take off, I couldn’t stop thinking about Negar, who only a few months earlier had taken off from the same airport to visit her family in Iran for a few weeks before returning to Canada. She had been coming to visit us, to visit me, and we spent those weeks in each other’s company laughing and talking. It was hard to remember how it had felt. I thought how much the world had changed since she left Toronto; how much we have changed since she left this world.
The flight attendant announced that the regular food service had been suspended and meal boxes would be offered as a replacement. I hoped the box would have a vegetarian option. I was fasting for Ramadan. A few hours later, we were given water bottles and meal boxes. There was a turkey sandwich with a cookie and a small bag of chocolate. I looked out the window. The horizon and the sunshine were about to disappear. I broke my fast with some Persian dates I had brought with me from Toronto.
We landed in Germany in the early hours of the morning. I needed to find a prayer room before the sun rose. Frankfurt airport was totally empty. All the shops were closed. Only McDonald’s was open. It took more than an hour to go through security. I asked the security official if a prayer room was open. He said no.
I was stuck at the airport for twelve hours. The first headline on the TV news said that Germany had banned Hizbullah from carrying out any activity on its soil. There were two prayer rooms and a chapel, all closed. There was a balcony for people who needed fresh air but it was closed, too. I tried to find an employee who could speak English. He told me in German that the balcony was closed. I tried to tell him I needed fresh air. He couldn’t understand me. I pointed to my mouth behind my mask, sure I wasn’t making sense to him.
At the gate for my flight to Doha I heard several people speaking Persian. I began to feel more at home. I smiled at a child who was playing between the seats. I couldn’t tell if she could see I was smiling behind my mask. I smiled wider in the hope that the edges of my eyes would curl up to show her I was smiling.
Before boarding we were handed forms from the Iranian Ministry of Health and Medical Education. Everybody travelling on to Tehran had to agree to be tested at the airport on arrival and to self-isolate for fourteen days afterwards.
On the plane from Frankfurt to Doha, the in-flight service operated as normal, though passengers still wore masks. Doha airport was another ghost town. I couldn’t find a working water fountain. The only flight on the information boards was the one to Tehran. I asked at the information desk about the prayer room. All prayer rooms were closed, I was told, but I could pray in my seat.
I had left the apartment in Toronto on Friday afternoon. It was now almost Sunday morning in Doha. Airport employees shouted ‘Tehran! Tehran!’ as if we were at a provincial bus station. There was no need to announce the flight on the loudspeakers. We were transferred to the aircraft by bus. As I stepped out of the terminal, the humid breeze, smelling of the sea, touched my face. I wanted to drink in the air. The wind was coming from the Persian Gulf. Across the sea was my home, Iran. I tried to walk slowly, savouring the wind on my face, but the bus was full of passengers waiting for me. Everybody was wearing a mask. The tags on their bags showed they’d flown in from Sydney, Vancouver, London, New York. We had all come this way because it was the only way to get home.
We boarded the plane for the short, sweet and final flight from Doha to Tehran at six in the morning. My cousin’s face appeared in my mind. Flight PS752 had taken off at this time of day from Tehran. I closed my eyes and told myself the airspace would be safe.
There was less social distancing on this flight. Some rows were full and some were half full. As we were landing, we were handed another copy of the form about being tested on arrival. The aircraft’s doors were opened and a group of men in masks asked us to line up, observing social distancing. They filmed us leaving the plane and sprayed us from top to bottom with disinfectant as we walked through a tunnel. A nurse told me that the most accurate test samples came from the nose. He shoved the cotton swab deep into my nostril. I felt it in my throat. He put it in a pink liquid in a glass test tube with my name on it. Everybody was asked to self-isolate for fourteen days until they got their results.
I collected my luggage and stepped outside the terminal. The breeze touched my face and I heard birds singing. I could see through the windows that the airport prayer room was open.