How an Oscar-nominated director getting caught up in Trump’s travel ban recall lessons learned on a strange trip to Iran

Asghar Farhadi
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, in Los Angeles on Jan. 10, before the Trump administration’s ban on travel to the U.S. from seven countries, including Iran. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The border guard took my passport and grunted. Two more guards arrived, eyed me, inspected my papers and led me to a room. The door closed. Never a good sign.

It was around 3 a.m. in Tehran’s international airport and my presence had disrupted the calm of a winter’s night. Whispers, asides, a commander was summoned.

Days before I landed in December 2002, the Iranian government had ordered that American journalists be fingerprinted and questioned on entering the country. The decree was in retaliation for “American officials’ insulting behavior toward Iranian nationals.” I sat beneath a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini. A man walked into the room with a fingerprint pad, ink and paper. He took my hand but seemed confused; the guards pressed in closer, watching.

The man rolled one of my fingers over the pad. Too much ink. The print smudged. He grabbed a second finger. Another unreadable blur. The commander grew agitated. Bursts of Farsi crackled around me; the guards appeared to be giving advice to the man with the ink. The man yelled back. No one was sure of the procedure. What had begun as menacing slipped into farce. The commander sighed and, wanting to regain control of the situation, ordered tea.

The man with ink handed me a tissue. I wiped my stained fingers. The guards laughed. The tea came. Silence fell. We were an American and four or five Iranians with no common language. We nodded and gestured, men caught up in the politics of their governments, stirring sugar and sipping tea in the strange circumstances of the night.

I was reminded of that moment on Sunday when Iranian director Asghar Farhadi announced that he would not be traveling back Los Angeles next month to attend the Academy Awards. His movie “The Salesman” is nominated for an Oscar for foreign language film. Farhadi’s decision came after President Trump’s executive order to suspend the U.S. refugee program and temporarily prohibit entry to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim nations.

Farhadi could have applied for an artistic waiver, but like Taraneh Alidoosti, the star of “The Salesman,” he decided to take a moral stand. In a statement directed at Trump and Iran’s religious conservatives, he said:

“For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hard-liners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears….