Two years ago, when I came to Iran for the first time through the Islam Qala border, I was astonished by the scene of hundreds of wild Afghan men fighting to pass the border line, to quit their homeland and reach hope in rich Iran. But now, it’s not anymore the scene.
The Afghan-Iranian border in Islam Qala is quite empty. Iran has tightened up the visa approval for Afghans. Land crossing is no more permitted for ordinary Afghans. The Iranian visa from Kabul is mostly stamped “For Air Travel Only”, putting them to obtain roundtrip ticket only with Iranian airlines. In some cases, visa applicants need to spend at least 1000 dollars just to get the entry visa. Indeed, one’s passport determines his or her fate.
I arrived in Afghan immigration hall after 100 meter walk. People are sitting idly to wait for the officers come back from their lunch break. There are three officers behind the table. One is examining the passports, one is stamping, and the last one is noting down t he data before distributing the passports. All Afghans have to pay 10.000 Rial or 40 Afghani to the man who stamped the passports.
While the attitude of the officers is rude towards Afghans, they are very polite to me. One man honor me as ‘Agha ye akas’ – Mister Photographer, and did not even bother to see my Registration Card (which I lost in Kabul and I did worry that I have to pay huge fine).
Iranian immigration hall, some hundred meters further, is much more efficient. There is no more scenes of Afghans jumping through the fences to be the first to have their passports stamped. Now, everybody looks gentle and civilized. The tight visa has filtered what kind of people can come to Iran. Only the rich and patient ones can pass the hurdles of Iranian visa.
Health quarantine is built next to the hall. Everybody has to get the health form first before passing the border. The form asks nothing about health, instead we have to fill our name, father’s name, grandfather’s name (?), address, and purpose of visit in Iran.
After passport control, there is no other checking. I walk straight to get out the Dogharoon border zone to the taxi parking lot. There are many taxis, but not many passengers. I have to wait for more than an hour to find another three passengers to fill up my shared taxi.
“Two years ago was much better,” says an Iranian taxi driver, “There were many people crossing. Now there hardly some people cross the border daily.”
Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan always keep their borders with Afghanistan tight. Now Iran and Pakistan join the league. It’s much harder for majority Afghans to get out anywhere outside their country.
But the drivers not only concern about the decreasing number of Afghan passengers. The oil price hiked from 800 Rial to 4000 Rial last year. Check points are set up everywhere and they still have to pay 100,000 Rial to the traffic police daily. The result is, the taxi fare from the border to Mashhad jumped from 30,000 Rial two years ago to 70,000 Rial now.
“Everything is getting expensive, and you know who to blame,” says a driver, refused to be named due to sensitivity of talking politics in this country, “but, we always love Afghan people. We are from Taybad, and we are also Sunni – as most of our Afghan brothers.” Religion and politics are always hot topics in Iran. Iranians like to query further about one’s faith, from religion until sect and school (madzhab). Being the only Shiite country – the minority in the global Muslim world, religion identity and classification means more.
I arrive in the Holy Shrine of Imam Reza, after a shared-taxi trip from the terminal. A middle-aged engineer from Tehran coming for pilgrimage insists me to read more books on Shiism and on the beloved Imam Reza. “I have read many – not some, but many – books about Imam Reza. I also have read many books about other religions and talked with people from different faiths. I believe if you do the same, you will be a faithful lover of Imam Reza. All that you are searching for, you can find the answers inside Imam Reza.”
Sky darkens. Prayer call is heard. Afghanistan has turned to be a memory, but it’s not completely fade out.