Conspiracy at Desert One
By Bernace Charles
Exiting the Londra Hotel on Mesrutiyet Caddesi in Istanbul's Beyoglu
sector, Laleh Sanders stepped into the exhaust-laden air of an avenue once
known for its plush Victorian splendor. It was Laleh's third day in Istanbul.
She had taken up a home at the inner city hotel. The hotel was one worn
thin by the ravages of time and neglect. She stepped into the cool, crisp
air, wearing blue jeans, a dark sweater, leather flats, and a bomber flight-jacket.
She carried an expensive thirty-five millimeter camera and a camera bag
that held various lenses. In her right hand, she carried a leather-bound,
legal-size notebook. As she walked past a bus stop, her sight turned to
several Muslim girls in their school dresses and scarves. Laleh paused
long enough to take a photograph of the girls.
Laleh hailed the first chequered taxi she saw. She quickly learned the
taxi sign announcing the cab as a single carrier. Laleh knew to avoid the
people's buses or Halk Otobusler and the Dolum or stuffed taxis. She entered
the taxi and gave the driver directions in Ottoman Turkish, "Take
me to the Grand Bazaar."
As she enter the cab Laleh reviewed orders that she was not to contact
the Office of the American Consulate. If the Americans were to try a rescue-effort,
Fred would inform her by coded postcard to go to a CIA safe house located
near the fishing harbor of Aranavutkoy. It would send her there or return
her to New York.
The man driving an old American Chevrolet serving as a single carrier
taxi half turned to the woman who spoke perfect Turkish. He nodded and
said, "To the Grand Bazaar? My pleasure."
Laleh didn't answer but watched the street. She turned back in the direction
of the hotel and looked to see if there was anyone hurrying to catch a
cab or entering a car to follow. Not seeing anything suspicious, she turned
back to the avenue. It was early morning and the city was waking up.
Several blocks later, after crossing the Galata Bridge, the taxi pulled
up near The Grand Bazaar. Laleh checked her watch and noted it was eight-thirty.
The bazaar opened at eight and she knew a crowd would be there at the early
hour. Tourists and locals would turn it into a sweltering mass of people.
The shear mass of humanity, moving like an undulating sea through the Bazaar,
was an ideal place to lose anyone following her. Paying the carfare in
lira, she left the taxi.
Leaving the taxi Laleh entered one of the eight gates to the Grand Bazaar.
She pushed her way into a sea of people already meandering through narrow
passages lined with hundreds of booths and shops. Laleh walked and thought
of the hundreds of generations having passed into oblivion since the Ottoman's
established the market. Now, it was a meeting place; it was a point of
contact for an improbable agent in Tehran. Fred informed Laleh that all
sources out of Tehran had dried up. After an hour of browsing the shops
and taking multiple photographs, Laleh moved the direction of the carpet
As she walked past the cramped shops, Laleh listened to the pleas of
their owners offering the best carpet deals in all Turkey. She soon came
to a particular shop with a neon sign. The sign glowed in the smoke filled
light that entered the bazaar's glass ceiling. Laleh paused. She entered
the shop to look over carpets that were on shelves where a man pulled them
out to display to an interested buyer. Stepping to the counter, she started
to speak to an old man sitting on a high stool from where he watched the
passing crowd. Before reaching him he called out in Arabic, "Best
carpet. Best prices." He turned to the woman standing before him.
Studying her he asked, "Are you looking for a particular carpet?"
Laleh didn't answer but moved to a stack of carpets to run the flat
of her right hand over a hand-knotted Turkish prayer rug in bright red.
Beside it was a brown rug and on its opposite side a green one. The position
of the carpet was as Fred said they would be. Laleh asked, "Do you
have others of this style?"
The man studied the woman for several seconds, surprised that a woman
would know the signal. He said as he slipped off the stool, "Follow
me please. I have others in the back. My nephew will show them to you."
After he opened a low door, Laleh stooped to follow. Upon reaching a small
office, the old man pointed to a chair, "Please, sit here. My nephew
will be here shortly."
Laleh knew the man attempted to make her feel at ease. He left her to
return to the front of the shop. No one would notice her disappearance
from the crowded, narrow street. Though she spoke six of the languages
prevalent in the city, Laleh knew it didn't assure acceptance; an American
was an American.
Nevertheless, the students held Americans in Tehran and a possible contact
came to the city. Revolutionary and religious zeal running loose in Iran
didn't prevent the need for carpets or information. It was for information
that Laleh flew to Athens, Greece, before taking a winter cruise ship from
the port city of Pericles. She was to stay in Istanbul and meet the young
man from Tehran. If the hostage crisis dragged into months, she might have
to penetrate Tehran itself.
Now, as she sat at the desk, Laleh thought about her daughter who remained
in the States with the child's supposed grandmother. She lied to her former
mother-in-law about going on some assignment that didn't involve danger.
She reminded the woman several times that there were aspects of working
for the CIA she didn't particularly care for . . . aspects she couldn't
tell her about for reasons of security.
Yet, Laleh was the top linguist for the Middle East Section, and Fred
Southgate didn't want any communication errors on information she might
attain. It was Laleh's first field assignment since joining the agency
and it gave her a sense of melodrama. Through internal restructuring, the
Director of Intelligence assigned Fred Southgate the Middle East Section
four years past. Laleh's reason for being in Istanbul had its urgency,
and it was laying a heavy hand over the American public. But Laleh also
knew that Fred chose her for the assignment because any Iranian male wouldn't
believe the Americans foolish enough to send a woman to do a man's job.
The patronizing air of Tehran reeked of insult.
Hearing the opening of a door, Laleh stood and turned to see a young
man dressed in a gray, western suit. Mustafa Liddel was unshaven and presented
a questioning and hesitant expression. Since the revolution took over Iran,
he had stop shaving. His beard was as thin as his body. To Laleh, he looked
thin and ill. As Laleh looked at him, the young man sensed her concern
and spoke in his native Farsi; "They imprisoned my father and me the
first month after the fall of the monarchy. We were freed with nothing
connecting my family to the Shah's government."
When Laleh spoke, she asked in perfect Farsi, "Do you know why
The young man, not certain of himself said, "Only that the Americans
need information on the hostages. I have friends who are part of the student
revolutionaries within the American Embassy. They saved both my father
and me from execution. They didn't know my father worked for the Americans.
I'm afraid it wasn't wise for your country to allow Shah Reza Pahlavi into
Laleh wasn't interested in a critique of American Foreign Policy or
the history of its involvement in Iran. Everyone with the ability to read
knew the American CIA brought the Shah's claim to power in 1953. It was
the least expensive of all covert activities the agency accomplished. Laleh
said, "I need to know all the points guarded by the students, both
inside and outside the embassy compound. Can you get information about
Mustafa Liddell's answer was one of certainty. He said, "Yes, I
can get to the inside. I deliver food to the students and it puts me in
their favor. Many received their education in the west. Some are my friends.
As I said, they saved my father and me from execution. I humiliate myself
by carrying food to them."
"How often can you travel out of Tehran?"
"Once a week to buy carpets for my father's company. As long as
I don't buy from anyone known to associate or do business with America,
I'll be safe. They'll watch me, but they've relaxed their guard by allowing
me to come to Istanbul for prayer mats. The crowds plundered my father's
import company before the city could control them. Now, he's a respected
Muslim selling prayer mats. Life goes on."
"No one suspects you for buying outside Iran?"
Mustafa Liddell stared at the American with dark hair and deep green
eyes. He studied Laleh and he couldn't help but fantasize about what a
sexual encounter with the woman might be like. Laleh leaned against the
desk with the boy taking a seat on a stool facing her. "No. As long
as I buy from Muslims it is safe."
Laleh said, "I need the position of the guards and what weapons
they have. I need to know the quietest time on the street . . . other than
calls to prayer. I need to know if the people of Teheran will pour out
into the streets if there should be a rescue-effort. It's very important
that you not discuss any of these questions with anyone. I'll meet you
here each Saturday."
"I can do it."
Offering a partial smile Laleh hoped the boy wasn't trying to impress
her. She said, "Good. Don't return to Tehran with more carpets than
you think you'll sell in a week. Keep your numbers to a minimum but make
certain it appears you are working to make a small profit . . . no greedy
capitalism. If I can't make the meeting on Saturday, I'll leave a chalk
mark on the southeast gate off Beyazit Square. It will be in yellow. If
I don't feel it's safe to meet with you again . . . it will be in red.
Each week I'll change gates, beginning with the southeast gate and going
clockwise. If we need to meet elsewhere, it will be on the second floor
of the library at Istanbul University. For a meeting at the university,
. . . the mark will be blue. Don't write any of this down. Can you remember
Mustafa repeated the directions boastfully answering as though insulted
by the American woman's question. "I can do this. They executed a
friend's uncle. Those following the mullahs are blind by power. Someone
must stop them. Why would I risk failing?" He continued to stare at
the attractive face of the American and thought about how many women of
Tehran were now covering their hair. He was certain the revolutionary council
would soon be demanding the women do so by law. It was a practice ended
and he knew there were young women who resented such presentation. Sophia
Liddell, his sister, was one of them. She had marched in protest of the
dress. She and other young women received violent beatings by a mob of
demonstrators for their effort. Religion was in power and its fever guided
Tehran. The Ayatollah threw common sense out the window claiming he didn't
control the student revolutionaries holding the American Embassy.
Laleh thought Mustafa too young to be carrying information out of Tehran.
It would take only one mistake to put any rescue-effort back on the shelf.
She didn't know if the military services were planning such a mission.
She assumed they were. It would be the reason Fred chose her to travel
to Istanbul while leaving the local station chief out of the picture. It
would mean certain death if the boy leaving her were to be discovered giving
information to the Americans. The game was crossing too many lines and
Laleh knew it.
When Laleh was back on the street, she listened to a cacophony of street
sounds rising from Beyazit Square. Above the sounds, she could hear the
amplified Islamic call to prayer. Istanbul was a complex city with a history
as old as man's attempts to civilize himself. For these reasons, Laleh
felt a sense of excitement from being in the city. By using the cover of
coming to the city to do a pictorial study for Putnam Publishing Company,
she was free to explore it. She could explore the sectors of Istanbul and
Beyogu on its European side, and its Asian sector of Uskudar.
She would remain in the city unless ordered to go to Tehran or return
to New York. As she walked south toward Millet Caddesi, Laleh decided to
go to Sancta Sophia and spend the morning photographing its splendors.
She hailed a chequered taxi. To cover her days she could view a city that
continued to attract its European travelers though the infamous Orient
Express made its last run to Sirkeci Station three years earlier. The hotel
she stayed in no longer carried the intrigue of days past. Still, a direction
of serious intent harbored Laleh Sanders' reason for taking up house there.
As Laleh entered the taxi, she wondered what information and how many
plots passed through the city. It was a city where east met west. The flux
seemed to boil over into a caldron of human stew of mass proportions >>>
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