“Journey Into Iran’s Literary Landscape,” an excerpt by Meghan Nuttall Sayres

“Journey Into Iran’s Literary Landscape,” an essay by Meghan Nuttall Sayres is about finding like minds and an abundance of imagination among artists at Iran’s First International Children’s Book Festival.

My plane touched down in Tehran during the same week in February 2005 when American newspaper headlines warned, “Iran Plans for Possible Attack.” These were referring to threats of US and Israeli air strikes on Iran’s uranium enrichment facili- ties. I was traveling there to speak at Iran’s first International Children’s Book Festival— an event sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance—because I had written a young-adult novel about nineteenth-century Persian nomads.

I had met no Westerners on my flight between Istanbul and Tehran, except for a German man. My blondish hair, blue eyes and accent must have stood out because he asked me, “Are you American? Aren’t you afraid to go to Iran now? Are you alone?”

His questions echoed those from people with whom I had spoken before leaving the United States, as well as others en route, most of whom held images of Iran painted with unrest: martyrs with bombs in backpacks; streets full of bloodied, self-flagellating young men; and women smothered in black cloth. Yet I had been invited to visit a nation of people whom I felt I could trust based on friendships I had made with Iranians at home, on the friendly and professional e-mails I had shared with editors and translators in Iran before going, and on previous experiences I had in the Middle East.

Filled with anticipation, I slid my passport under the glass window to the Iranian customs official, a man in his mid thirties with circles beneath his eyes. He flipped it over, saw the United States emblem on it, and quite literally jumped from his seat. With my passport in hand, he kicked open the door to his cubicle and shouted something at me in Persian, twice, after I apologized for not understanding. He took my passport across the room to a desk full of officials. Meanwhile, someone in the customs line beside mine asked me if I spoke English and kindly translated that the officer wanted me to go sit on the bench behind passport control. I found the bench and sat. I wondered, had the US bombed Iran in the time it took me to fly to Tehran from Istanbul? I watched as the line of tired travelers, it was about 3 am, inched their way through and toward baggage claim and freedom.

An unusual calm spread through me. I sensed I would not be deported or questioned or detained. Too many synchronous events took shape to bring me here. The invitation came as a complete surprise about three months after I had stopped trying to devise ways to go to Iran on my own. It seemed a gift of grace, and something I could trust. After a while an older man with a professorial air walked over to me and asked, “By chance, are you American?” I nodded. “Don’t worry,” he said, “it’s all for show.”

A half hour lapsed and the room had emptied before a different young man sporting a tightly trimmed beard approached. “Hi,” he said, in his best New York twang. Then he laughed. I could tell he was trying to put me at ease. I followed him to the desk of officials. There seemed to be lots of shy smiles and paper shuffling happening. Then the young fellow led me back to the same customs official who had sprung from his seat an hour earlier. This man ruffled through each page in my passport and found a place to stamp it. “I am very happy to have been invited to your country,” I said. This time he welcomed me.

 

About the Writer

Meghan Nuttall Sayres conceived and edited this anthology. She feels privileged to have met many of its contributors and hopes to meet them all in person. Please visit her at: www.meghannuttallsayres.com.