This is life on an ostracised passport

Iran: When your passport locks you in, with Selda Shamloo (episode 23)

Isabelle Roughol
Isabelle Roughol

I keep my passport in the drawer just beneath my keyboard. I’ve often reached for it as I was writing to you this past year, thumbing the pages as others might squeeze a stress ball. The flaking cover, stiff pages warped from water damage, ink running on too many US stamps, the digits punched in, so long memorized, are as familiar to me as any object. It soothes me. My passport is a symbol of my wanderlust and a badge of my freedom. It proclaims me to the world, allows me entry into it and protects me from it. There is no greater privilege than it.

It was a punch to the gut when in late January, the French government banned expats outside the EU from entering the country except in emergencies. Never had France kept out its own citizens, not even in war time. Never had my passport not been a guaranteed laissez-passer to my family. That did not stand. Last week, the Conseil d’Etat (think Supreme Court) invalidated the decision. It was disproportionate, the judge said, to deprive citizens of their fundamental right to come home to avoid a small number of Covid-19 cases. The power of the passport is not so easily dismissed.

But that power, like all power, is unequally shared. If you’re from any number of poorer or diplomatically ostracised countries, your passport is no shield and no skeleton key. It is your cage.

My friend Selda Shamloo is Iranian. She’s British too now, but her mother Shirin isn’t. Iran ranks 193rd on the Passport Index, ahead of just Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Iraq and, dead last, Afghanistan. If you’re from these countries, your wanderlust is assumed criminal. Only four countries currently let Iranians in without a visa. Many that require one, simply won’t grant it. On top of the usual assumptions that giving tourist visas to people in poorer or undemocratic countries leads to unauthorised immigration, British-Iranian families have to deal with a tense diplomatic context. This week, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, detained in Iran since 2016 and released a week ago without her passport, faces a second set of charges in revolutionary court. Tehran may hold as many as 30 dual nationals or foreign visitors in what is now dubbed “hostage diplomacy.”

Selda makes the trip to Tehran once a year. She’s not particularly worried for herself, she said; she doesn’t have a high-profile job, she’s not political. Her concern is mainly the crossfire. For 15 years, she’s been fighting for her parents to be allowed to see her on her own ground too. For the commonplace joy of showing off the flat she bought and her bright central London office, of introducing friends and partner and seeing the glint of pride in a parent’s eye at the life she built. For the opportunity to connect more deeply than she can in a single rushed annual trip.

Thrice the UK has denied Shirin a tourist visa. “I think in a way the default thinking by the Home Office is that everyone hates living in Iran,” Selda told me. “They're going to come to a Western country, get amused by everything, and then they're not going to go back – which is really not the case.” Now Selda is taking the Home Office to court for her right to a family life. She shares her story in the latest episode of Borderline.

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In her own words

Below are extremely condensed excerpts of my chat with Selda Shamloo. For the full story or if you need help along with the audio, read the transcript.

On the bittersweetness of taking on a new nationality
It felt good, but at the same time it felt strange. I think it felt strange because it felt good, you know? I didn't want to feel good about having a different passport. I was very proud of being Iranian. But there were so many limitations that would come with an Iranian passport that it makes you happy when you actually get a British passport. It opens so many other doors. You don't have to plan a two-week trip to Italy four months in advance. You don't have to plan little things or deal with so much documentation, preparing all the evidence to show that you're a legitimate traveler when you go into a country. And that was really the only angle of it that made me… relieved.

On the wall you face at the Home Office
They basically tell you that they're not satisfied that you have enough reason that you'd go back to Iran. And as long as the person in charge of your application is not satisfied, that's it. Basically they say, "I'm not convinced with what you've given me," even if everything that you've given them is legitimate, backed up with all the right data. You have to just keep proving it to them. And next time you apply, you have to actually mention that you have been rejected. The more rejections you have, the less likely you can get a visa next time. And it's not just for the UK: If she wants to apply for any other visit visa to any other country, she would face the same situation.

On the emotional toll of separation
It's been devastating, especially in 2020 when you really needed each other. I only could go to Iran once a year, and that's never been enough to connect really deeply together. You (don’t) get the chance to experience those little moments together. Things like shopping together, sitting down, having coffee and just asking "How are things with you?" The two weeks that I would spend in Iran were really to make up for a whole year that I wouldn't be there. So I would run errands for her, anything that she might need help with, and I wouldn't really get a chance to connect with her deeply the way I really want to as a mother and daughter.

That's a very heavy thing to carry. I sometimes forget that it's there, but it affects you. And then I just suddenly realize, I'm really short tempered. I feel like I'm carrying a lot but I can't really pinpoint what that is. Things that are not being fulfilled, things that you need to deal with, but you really don't get the chance. And it's heavy on your shoulders. I'm sure it's the same for my Mum, but again, I don't really get the chance to ask her.


Isabelle Roughol Twitter

Journalist, podcaster, media consultant. Telling stories & building better newsrooms. Writes The Lede. Ex- LinkedIn News, Le Figaro, The Cambodia Daily. 🎓 Mizzou '08, Birkbeck '25.