Conspiracy at Desert One
By Bernace Charles
January 6, 1980
Nezar Hindawi presented a grizzled, weathered face with deep, searching
eyes. He lived in the small apartment to the side off the gated home. Its
owner stood before him. Before moving to the apartment, Nezar lived in
the Darband Hotel. The move came at a favorable time with the hotel no
longer being tolerable. Its management allowed it to turn to a state of
unendurable deterioration. The hotel went back to the years it housed foreign
visitors seeking refuge from Tehran.
Now, those affording it moved out of Tehran and to Darband to escape
Tehran's smog, heat, and traffic. Hindawi, a crafty and clever survivor
also worked with the Americans through World War II. He worked with Iran's
Highway, Engineering Department. At that time, Russia invaded from the
north, and the British came from the east to prevent the Germans from driving
into the country for Persian oil. The two countries kept the Persian Corridor
open for the supply of war materials to the Soviet Union that flowed from
the United States. Nezar had been part of the effort.
Now, Hindawi stepped out onto a narrow porch of the apartment. He watched
Laleh as she slipped her left leg over the motorcycle gas tank and walked
his direction. Nezar's sight fixed on her blue jeans. Hindawi knew it wasn't
the appropriate choice of clothing. Iranian women were beginning to wear
the Islamic dress.
As Laleh walked in his direction, she saw that Hindawi wore clothing
much like the man who sold her the motorbike. He wore a heavy coat, corduroy
pants, and scuffed shoes.
Laleh reached him, took the scarf from her head, and said in Farsi,
"Hi. I'm Laleh Sanders. The property was past to my parents following
my grandparents' deaths. I am here to see to its sale." A realtor's
sign stood against the wall outside wall of the open gate.
Nezar silently studied the woman for several seconds. He struck a match
on a porch post and lighted a pipe. Nezar knew The Raven passed the American
out of Istanbul. He didn't know the purpose. She would also pass to a man
with the code name of Mashhad without the woman knowing it. Karim Sa'edi
and he didn't know the true reason Laleh was in Tehran.
After lighting his pipe, Nezar took its stem from his mouth as he said,
"I'm glad to meet you," while handing Laleh the house keys. He
added, "I had a woman come in yesterday. She cleaned the house and
made it livable. She stocked the refrigerator." The upscale home sat
a further 40 meters to the northwest and to the front of the smaller apartment.
Nezar continued, "Most students coming to the city stay with relatives
or friends. They have overtaken the hotels. Most all westerners have left
the country. The students want to be near the American Embassy. You pick
a difficult time to return to Tehran."
As with the man selling the motorbike in Qazvin, Nezar knew the right
code words. Laleh had called the property service in Tehran to ask that
the home be livable and ready it for sale, informing them that she would
be staying there. She took the keys and said, "Thank you." A
sense of security came from Nezar living on the property. She asked, "What
did the cleaning woman cost you?"
"You owe nothing. It's the least I can do for living in the apartment.
I am not certain I earn it." Nezar asked and looking toward the motorbike.
"Do you want me to put the bike in the garage?"
Laleh looked toward the motorbike. "Thank you . . . but no. I will."
She walked to the bike, straddled it, and restarted it. She drove it toward
a home setting fifty yards off the street. Around the home was a seven-foot
high wall of mortar and cinder blocks that reflected the day in its white
paint. Nezar painted the wall the past summer. His care for the house paid
the rent for living on the property. Before he moved into the small apartment
a caretaker and his wife who served as the larger home's house cleaner
lived it in. Hindawi reentered the smaller structure to take up a Tehran
Laleh was tired from the ride, and her face, hands, and legs were nearly
numb. She needed to walk. First, she wanted to put the bike in the garage
and see the house she remembered spending time in when young. She had spent
many nights with her grandparents learning the history of the country.
The home was quiet and removed from downtown Tehran. She would begin photographing
the city the next day. She would do so until the hostage crisis was over
or any rescue-effort attempted to penetrate Iran. She would do so until
ordered back to Langley.
She stopped the motorbike in front of a garage. There, she got off the
bike, found the key, unlocked the door and pulled it open. After pushing
the bike into a garage once occupied by her grandfather's BMW, she exited
with her purse, camera, and bag. She closed and locked the garage door
behind her and walked down a rock walkway to a home with arched entrance
and inlaid green tile. After stepping onto a narrow porch, Laleh thought
of the difference between American homes and homes of the Middle East.
The home had a bare, ground front except for the Tabrizi trees. There was
no lawn to mow. The open air space was an inner courtyard more than thirty-foot
square. Men bulldozed the space of ground holding the home out of the low
mountain. There was no back yard because it sat against the mountain. With
the home being in a canyon, it didn't offer a view of Tehran.
Laleh found the key for the front door, opened it and entered through
the arched doorway. She closed it, locked it behind her, and walked to
a room holding a long sofa and two sofa chairs. The room also held mats
in two corners for those visitors who preferred sitting on the floor. The
room was the way she remembered it the day she left Tehran after her grandparents'
Placing her camera, luggage, and purse on a sofa, Laleh walked to a
window over looking the inner courtyard. The courtyard held several willow,
cherry, and khormaloo trees. Beneath them, a lawn had turned brown for
the winter. In the center of the courtyard a pool that once held different
species of fish sat empty and dry. Dead leaves lay across its dry concrete
floor. But, as the wall squaring the property, Nezar had painted the walls
of the home facing the inner space a soft blue-green. Laleh realized he
must have painted the entire home and was thankful there was no neglected
look. The home was as she remembered it from her youth. Laleh knew the
man painted the apartment and the stones lining the drive a clean white.
She turned away from the window, took up her bags and walked to climb
stairs to the second story and go to her grandparents' bedroom. Reaching
it, she found the bed made and the room clean. After placing her bags on
the bed she crossed to the terrace, glass-doors, and opened them to a long
terrace looking down onto the inner courtyard. As she stepped onto it,
she remembered summer nights that she slept outside and looked on the stars.
She returned inside, closed the patio doors, made a trip to a European
style bathroom, and returned downstairs. There, she went to the kitchen,
walked to the refrigerator, took out a cherry drink and went outside. Moments
later, Laleh retied her scarf, wrapped it around her neck, and buttoned
the Pustin jacket. She left the house for a walk to get the blood circulating.
Laleh headed down the drive, passed through the gate, and turned down
the street toward Darband Road. She wanted to walk off the stiffness in
her body before returning to the home to find sleep. As she moved through
the late cold day she thought of Roya, and she thought of Fred Southgate.
Dusk lay across the lower slope of Touchal Mountain. Winter's hand held
the late evening in a cold hand. The traffic moved in a hurry to reach
the warmth of homes. Laleh knew that Tehran endured a change. She could
sense it as cold and repressive. It now worried her that she did.
The next day Laleh slept until nine. As she pushed out of bed, the air
of the room was warm. After dressing in a robe, that she found in the closet
she descended the stairs to the kitchen where she turned on an electric
burner before running water in a teapot. Laleh returned upstairs and took
a quick shower before dressing in clean Levis and heavy sweatshirt.
Soon, Laleh locked the door of the home behind her and walked to the
garage. She wheeled the motorcycle onto the drive. Laleh wore her jacket,
scarf, and jeans. Starting the bike, she was soon on her way to Darband
Road and traveling south. Instead of driving straight downtown, she drove
to JAdeh ghadeem shemiram and drove past the Soheil Catholic School for
girls where she attended first through eighth grades. As she passed the
school, Laleh slowed the bike and looked toward the school buildings. Reaching
her thirteen birthday and her confirmation into the Catholic Church, her
father had allowed Laleh to transfer to the American Community School.
Five minutes later, Laleh drove toward Tehran's city center. There,
she would begin her photographic effort. As she drove, Laleh hoped the
vibration of the motorcycle hadn't damaged the radio's battery and its
connections secured inside the gas tank. She had memorized how to turn
the radio on and how to both send and receive through it.
After she reached Roosevelt Avenue, Laleh steered the bike down the
wide street. As she rode, Laleh studied the students. At the embassy compound,
she turned the bike to the curbing. There, she turned the engine off, and
got off to walk the sidewalk. She soon brought a thirty-five-millimeter
camera up and began taking shots of students.
Khosrow Ehsan, Karim's friend of street fighting approached and pointing
an AK47 at Laleh. He said, "Stop! Who are you?"
Laleh took out her passport and visa. Khosrow took them and studied
them. He asked in an angry voice, "Who do you work for?"
Laleh answered with a strong assurance in Farsi, "I work for a
publisher in New York City. I'm to do a pictorial essay of the revolution.
I arrived yesterday. Your new government approved it"
Khosrow looked on her. He ordered, "Come with me."
Laleh followed Khosrow Ehsan down the sidewalk where he pushed her before
a young man in his mid-twenties. The young man also carried an AK47. He
was several inches taller than Khosrow, firm and trim, and with black hair,
dark eyes, and smooth skin tone. Laleh thought he carried the intent and
handsome face of an Iranian male.
Karim Sa'edi looked at the paper and handed it back to Laleh. He said
angrily, "We don't know who are spies trying to find how many guards
are before the walls. The Americans are going nowhere."
Laleh answered, "I'm here to do a pictorial essay of your revolution."
"Good. That is good. Maybe your country will understand our anger.
Maybe your pictures will help."
"Can I take your photograph?"
"No. Take photographs of those on the streets. Take none before
the embassy compound. Do not take any of those guarding it."
Laleh turned to focus the camera on the street. Karim added, "Don't
make the mistake of trying to get over the wall and take photographs of
the Americans. If you do, someone will shoot you."
Laleh held the palms of her hands out facing Karim as though to reassure
him. She said, "That's not the reason I'm here."
"That's good. Feel free to take photographs of the streets and
demonstrations. Also, those at their prayers."
Laleh lifted her camera to the street, to a truck loaded with students
riding in the truck bed shouting anti-American slogans. As the truck passed,
she kept photographing as the automatic advance of the camera spun the
film of the camera. The truck drew out of camera range and she brought
the camera down and said in Farsi, "Thank you."
"Where did you learn to speak our language?"
Laleh pushed loose hair back beneath the scarf and said, "I was
born here. My father was with the embassy and taught at the university."
"And now you have come back to photograph our revolution?"
Karim said, "Be careful. Some believe the Americans remaining in
the country are with your Central Intelligence Agency. Many young men want
the girls and women to wear Islamic dress. I studied at Harvard and received
a degree in law. I can afford to be more tolerant. I am Mashhad."
"Is it your given name?"
The young man was certain the woman recognized the name's origin. He
answered, "No. My father's family was from the city of Mashhad. My
uncle moved northwest of Tehran. They have a house near "The Valley
of the Assassins." If you have trouble with anyone tell them to send
for Mashhad. Can you remember that?"
Laleh remembered the night she and Fauzieh Nassan drove to the petrol
station before the valley. She knew the code name probably linked the young
man directly to the student revolutionary council. She repeated the name
and said, "Mashhad . . . Iran's holiest city . . . I've been there
. . . I'll remember. Thank you." Laleh studied the younger man's face
and he knew it. Laleh turned her eyes to the street.
Karim said, "As all Iranian's aren't stupid . . . I know all Americans
aren't. Your president made a stupid mistake allowing SHAHA Mohammed Reza
Pahlavi into America. It was a very dumb thing to do."
Laleh wondered if the Iranian really thought it was fair or wise to
be holding Americans hostage over the issue. The SHAH had cancer. Doctors
were giving little hope of him surviving it. She wondered if putting the
SHAH before a firing squad would solve anything as she turned back to the
motorcycle, got on, and started it. Before leaving the curb, she waved
to Karim. Karim didn't wave back but only watched Laleh direct the machine
down the avenue. He checked a wristwatch. Laleh's first trip to the compound
ended at ten-thirty a.m.
Laleh turned the motorcycle toward the Bagh-e Meli Gate. As she passed
through it, she kept the machine in low gear to allow her to study the
street and those on it. Traffic included the yellow taxis she remembered
from her youth in the city. Nevertheless, there was a difference in the
women and their dress. Iranian women had fought for equal rights through
the past seventy years. They were now becoming second class citizens. Many
wore the hijab. All but a few covered their hair.
After she left the city center, Laleh turned the motorbike west, and
returning the direction of Shahreza Square. There, Laleh followed the Asian
Highway to the west and to the edge of the city. Five miles outside Tehran,
Laleh turned off the highway and drove on a graded road. She turned into
a section of arid foothills. Turning the engine off, she checked her watch
and saw it was a few minutes until eleven a.m. She needed only a few minutes
to prepare for the signal and test the transmitter's battery.
In the world of secure communications, Laleh knew Morse code was the
most basic, a code easily mastered. All she needed to know were a list
of code words. She would be sending few out of Tehran. Never was she to
be on the air more than a maximum of thirty seconds. And with the motorcycle
making the transmitting and receiving any signal possible from different
parts of the city there was little worry about the signal being tracked.
Flipping open a cover of a sprocket cap, Laleh pushed the motorcycle's
left break handle inward while turning it counterclockwise.
The simple movement caused an antenna to rise from inside the strut
of the fork. The antenna was multi louvered and reached six feet into the
air. Laleh flipped open the second tube of the front fork and pulled from
it an earpiece to push into her right ear. After repeating the motion with
the right clutch handle, she squeezed the handle to tap the word "Khoy."
It was the name of a village to the south of Mirand. It was the single
word sent to tell David Rice in Istanbul that she reached Tehran.
Listening, she kept her eyes to the south. Several seconds passed before
she heard a reply. It came from the safe house along the fishing harbor
of Arnavutkoy on the European side of the Bosphorus. The single word of
"Narrow" came back to her.
After taking the earpiece out and replacing it, Laleh closed the false
welded top. She pushed the left brake handle in to turn it clockwise. The
telescopic antenna retracted and she closed its metal top and reversed
the procedure of the clutch handle. Laleh started the motor and turned
the bike off the hill and back to the road leading to the Asian Highway.
If sighted, she knew she was to excuse any tour outside the city as getting
away to view parts of the country she remembered in her teens. >>>
Go to Chapter Thirty-Five
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