All morning different revolutionary groups had been fighting over the National Iranian Radio and Television station, the next hill over from where we were at the Hilton. Each Group knew that whoever captured and controlled the station could go on the air waves and claim authorship of the revolution.
The employees were taking a break from the lines and the filling out of paperwork for the out processing by going to the lunch room where the Hilton had set up a nice buffet. I asked my boss “Neil” what we were going to tell the employees about the imminent attack. He said:” Nothing! We will welcome the revolutionaries with open arms and make them feel at home, that is our best strategy!”
I was amazed once again by Neil. He was so smart beyond his years. I remember studying in Anthropology about how the sedentary Pueblo and Hopi Indians would set up huge feasts before the attacks of the warlike nomadic Commanche Indians so that instead of offering resistance they would welcome them home like heroes and give them such a party they would forget about making war.
Neil couldn't have been 24 years old when I knew him and he was the head of an entire department of employee relations which included a travel agency. I remember that I was three years older than him. He had very cold hands and pale skin and dark hair and he spoke Farsi very well indeed. He was very reserved, aloof and unemotional, almost British, when you first met him but once you got to know him he had a wicked sense of humor and loved theatre and we would often make up completely on the spot fantasies just riding on a bus for example.
We would pretend to be whispering out loud bank robbers plotting our next heist just to see how the passengers around us would try to studiously ignore us while they died of curiosity inside, we liked to imagine. Once I got to be friends with Neil, I understood a lot of his superficial reserve was his defensive coloration for being gay. The security gorillas had once tried to plant dope in his desk and get him shipped home after one of the young Persian drivers had complained about him making unwanted advances.
All that scandal was well before I came on board and I always try to let bygones be bygones as they say but Security had a permanent “Hard On” for him, being homophobes from East Texas. Neil subtly taught me, often by unspoken example, many things about human nature, about public relations, about corporate politics, about bravado, about overcoming fear and taking risks, about keeping a positive attitude and optimism and all about life's infinite possibilities. All in all he was a wonderful human being, whom in retrospect it was my great privilege to know…and I am left wondering how someone so young had gotten to be so wise….
At any rate on this particular occasion on the eve of our being taken hostage he imparted an incredible calm. I don't know where people find their courage but I have come to learn that each of us has a different capacity for courage and some of the most courageous people of all do not fit the stereotype…the archetypal God of War, Ares not….
About an hour after lunch, we started to hear that characteristic sound of many people outside the hotel clapping, it sounded like they were applauding a speaker but it was not applause it was automatic weapons fire. The bullet holes started appearing in neat rows across the glass curtain wall of the ball room we were working out of. I ran out of the room, across the lobby and headed for the front door but it was under siege. There was a shoot out going on between two groups over that front door. I ran down stairs to the kitchen, to search for another way out. It occurred to me that there might be a food delivery chute but there wasn't.
I went to the laundry room to see if there was a laundry delivery chute. None! Then I found a hall that led to a fire tunnel exit but it was locked. Shit! I was determined not to get caught but unbelievably there was no way out except by the front door?!! I tried to open the windows on the ground floor but they weren't even designed to open. The Hilton was on a hill top and so there was a considerable drop, too far to jump down, to the ground from the first story windows, which is probably why they weren't meant to open. In retrospect I could have taken a fire axe from it case in the hall and broken open one of the windows but when shit starts happening, you try to cling to what you know and smashing windows just wasn't something that I had ever had to do in an emergency so it didn't even occur to me now.
Finally all that I could think to do was go into an adjacent ball room that wasn't being used and keep the lights turned off and sit on the carpet in a corner under a table in the hope that if I remained quiet enough that I would escape notice until I could somehow find an opportunity to escape later after the siege was over. At least this would buy me some time to think. As I sat quietly in the dark listening to my own breathing, I began to become aware of some other breathing and then the snuffling of weeping. It was a woman's weeping.
I said quietly: “Who is there?” “It is Mahaste” came the reply. She was one of our Iranian staffers from our head quarters building. Then: “My husband told me not to come to work today. It said on the radio that the revolutionaries would be capturing the main hotels, he was right, I shouldn't have come…O boohoohoo…” I said: “Please Mahaste Khanoum, don't make noise or they will find us, please stop crying…”
The very next minute two armed tuffs had opened the door and flipped on the lights and then herded us at gun point into the main ball room where everyone else was sitting on the floor with their knees up and with there hands folded behind their heads and elbows up in the air in that classic prisoner formation as if we were waiting to do sit ups in a gym class. Everyone was quiet and numb in the shock of disbelief. Our captors frisked us for arms and took my walkie talkie and eventually all the walkie talkies.
Next they rounded us up into a line and started marching us down the stairs into the fire tunnel. It was at this point that one of our captors said in good American English: “We have nothing against the American people but we do not like the policies of your government.” I remember thinking that most of us had no idea what the policies of our government were especially the classified ones of the CIA that these revolutionaries found so offensive. They went on to apologize for having to use us to make a political statement. I noted that they were all very young in their teens.
About half way through the tunnel, there was a sudden commotion, a ripple in the crowded line and then we stopped moving like a traffic jam in rush hour. Another group of revolutionaries had forced open the fire tunnel door from the outside and were proceeding towards us. Thinking that we were trying to escape, since they couldn't see our captors who were behind us, they started pointing their guns and prodding with bayonets at us to stop us from moving forward while the revolutionaries in the back were prodding to keep us from going backward.
It was like some kind of a scene form Dante's Inferno like poor damned souls being prodded by devils with little pitch forks in a dark throat of hell mouth. We told our captors to please make up their minds which way they wanted us to go and finally they decided to take us back to the main ball room and return us to the fetal sitting position with hands behind heads again.
It was about this time that being good Iranians, even if they were our captors, that they decided it was time to be good hosts and feed us even though we had all just eaten lunch. So they raided the hotel kitchen and brought us up all kinds of food: chicken and rice and cucumbers and barbari bread accompanied by the usual: “Bokhor, bokhor, eat, eat!” I tried to explain we had already eaten but it was useless. I mean like who has an appetite anyway, even if we hadn't just eaten, when one is taken hostage anyway, right?
I heard the security officers muttering to each other that if only they could wrestle a few guns away from the revolutionaries, they could take back the hotel for us Rambo style. I remember thinking: “O God, if anyone is going to get us killed, it is going to be these baboons!” Just then I looked up in time to see Neil with a white revolutionary head band like them, walking full stride up the middle of the room to the front where he proceeded to bark out orders to our captors.
I thought to myself: “What the Hell is he up to?” Then it struck me, it was brilliant, brilliant like Neil and I wish I could have had this segment on film. He told me later that he had noticed a dearth of leadership among the young revolutionaries, so doing what he did best which was people management; he had decided to take over.
I watched in utter amazement as they began following his orders. He had figured out that as long as we were all herded together in one big room, all 800 of us, that it would be too easy for our captors to just eliminate us with sprays of automatic weapons fire or else herd us en masse to a prison or former military base and hold us there for ransom.
Neil talked the revolutionaries into letting us go back to our rooms individually which would make it harder for them to shoot us all or move us all together to a prison. He had us form a single file while the revolutionaries frisked each one of us again before sending us off to our rooms. I noticed that there were also one or two gun moll type, really attractive revolutionary women with bandoliers and Uzis accompanying the young tuffs and it was said that they made love to the Mojaheddin guerilla fighters as part of their support for the revolution but I don't know if this were true.
Only a few of us had cleared the inspection when suddenly there was a flurry and in strode my assistant Jamshid with two revolutionaries prodding him in the back with their rifles. He said he had come to help us. I was scared for him because he had been a former Savak and was married to a Christian Armenian girl and he shouldn't have come here.
At one point he spun round on his heels and started screaming at the two revolutionary guards who were bird-dogging him: “you, quit sticking me in the back with those bayonets understand, why don't you just shoot me and get it over with!” About this time Neil and I jumped Jamshid simultaneously and literally shoved a sock in his mouth! We whispered in his ears that we had things under control and he needed to get calmed down. Eventually we un-gagged him and he took to sulking. The revolutionaries went back to frisking us one by one and sending us back to our rooms with Neil issuing directives all the while.
Then only perhaps ten minutes after this there was another little flurry of activity and suddenly, totally unexpected on my part, in sashayed my friend Pouran with two gunmen carrying Uzis at each side. She caught my eyes with hers and made straight for me through the crowd. There were armed revolutionaries backing up in front of her with their guns aimed at her and her entourage, as she trudged forwards un-phased by them.
When she came up to me in the line, she stopped and with a swagger planted her feet splayed apart in front of me and crossing her arms barked out at the revolutionaries: “This is Rasool, he is a Moslem, he is a friend of my family and he has nothing to do with these Americans and we are taking him away from here right now. Any of you who try to stop us we will shoot it out right now!”
Instantly I grew quite pale and rasped out: “Pouran, we had things under control here, what are you trying to do, get me killed?”
She turned on me almost venomously and hissed: “You shut up! I know what I am doing.
Do you really think they will die shooting it out over the likes of you dear?! Don't flatter yourself!”
I felt stung but she was right. Our adversaries took one look at me, then at her automatic sub machine guns and then at their own semi automatic rifles and without a word they all fell back a few steps and made room for us to pass. Pouran giving me a satisfied look, then stopped and barked at them once more: “And furthermore, not only are we taking him out of here but we are going to stop by his room and collect his things on the way out!” What she knew and I didn't yet was that as we were being held hostage down in the main ball room, the revolutionaries were sacking our rooms. I found out later that one of them had come across one of our female employee's bras in the drawers of her room and spreading them out over her bed had ejaculated over them.
Anyway, after collecting my things we took the elevator back downstairs and strode through the lobby, the four of us unopposed. A group of American employees, who knew me casually, who were still being held called out to me as we passed by: “Where are they taking you? Are they letting us go now?” I had this sudden mental image of someone yelling fire in a movie theatre and starting a stampede or a drowning person grabbing hold of a swimmer and pulling him under too, so with words that sprang from my chest unpremeditated and yet strangely familiar as if rehearsed I shouted back: “No, I am being taken out for interrogation!”
That immediately stopped any thoughts of charging towards the front door which they might have had as we quickly passed out into the sunshine and my hours of being hostage were suddenly over as if they had never happened. Kids were playing kick ball in the street outside. Women were shopping for flowers with laden baskets in their arms. Old men were drinking tea and reading the paper as if nothing at all were any different while inside the hotel about 800 – 1 (less me) people were still being held hostage.
One of our gunmen brought a big SUV JEEP around and we all piled in and drove over to the next hill to the Dumas apartment tower where she lived. When we got inside her apartment, it was all I could do to thank her, when she launched into her next mission of the day which was apparently to go with her hired guns over to Gasr political prison and help liberate it. I had heard that the prisoners were locked underground and the approach to the electronic door had been mined by the retreating guards. The door was like one of those bank vaults which were programmed to only open on a certain day at a certain time.
I told Pouran that I doubted if the revolutionaries would take too kindly to an American showing up at the prison and besides I had had quite enough excitement for one day.
Pouran got angry at me then. She had had a lot of therapy and in the past she had often launched into long rambling soliloquies about how her parents were slowly poisoning her and her sister was poisoning her. The supposed motives were very complicated and convoluted and I could never sort them out but it had something to do with their trying to gain custody of her little girl.
Now that I wouldn't go with her to help liberate Gasr prison, she quickly turned on me and began accusing me of poisoning her as well. I began to realize that where she had found the courage to do what she had just done for me was in her madness and I felt bad for her. She left her apartment with me in it. Ranting and raving, she motioned her gunmen out the door and slammed it behind her and although I didn't know it at the time that would be the last that I would ever see of her.
I sat there for a few minutes merely trying to digest everything which had just transpired. Here I was in the peace and quiet of her luxury apartment with a view above the clouds from the top of our hill looking down Jordan Avenue towards down town. The sky was light blue and sunlight sparkled in the reflector pools from the hidden walled gardens of Tehran. I could see pigeons and starlings winging about down below me. Quietly a little voice inside me started wondering about my friends like Neil, Charlie and Jim who were still being held hostage in the Hilton. Finally I couldn't ignore that voice any longer and I called the Hilton.
As if nothing at all were going on, the hotel operator transferred me to the front desk and the front desk had Neil paged for me. Amazingly, Neil was actually able to come to the phone. I had rehearsed a little speech in the mirror before I called and now I tried it out: “Hi Neil, I guess you must be disappointed in me for abandoning you guys but I figured being taken hostage wasn't in my job description. Anyway I'm sorry…”
“Yeah, you're right it was a shitty thing to do!” he replied and the started snickering.
“What are you laughing about at a time like this Neil?” says I.
“Well, do you remember how the three security pigs were trying to go Rambo on us and take back the hotel?”
” Yeah! What did you do to them Neil? Tell me!”
“Well, I told the revolutionaries that they were CIA agents and they have them locked up in the basement sitting back to back in a circle on the floor tied elbow to elbow.” And with that Neil started laughing mischievously again. “They are going to be taking General M and his wife and our three” CIA agents” down to Khomeini headquarters for interrogation and I'm going along to act as interpreter.”
The next day it was in the local paper that the revolutionaries had captured three CIA agents. Neil told me that during their interview with Khomeini they had been separated from seeing him directly by a black lace curtain reminiscent of a Roman Catholic confessional. “So what did you guys talk about?” I wanted to know.
” Well, I asked him what they intended to do with all of us now that we had been captured and his reply was: ‘O nothing. You are welcome to be our guests in Iran and if you insist on leaving we will offer you armed escorts to and from Mehrabad Airport if you like!'.”
And that is exactly what they did. Everyday when we got all our employees and their dependants loaded into our buses and mini-vans, the revolutionaries on motorcycles and packed into Paykans and Iran Chevrolets would ride with our convoy waving their weapons around for the benefit of the spectators. They also set up a collection point in the lobby of the Tehran Hilton for the return of our looted stuff where we could go and identify it and collect it. Suddenly they became very anxious to keep a good reputation.
But I digress. I spent the night alone in Pouri's apartment. She never did come back that night and by the next morning I was feeling guilty and starting to miss my friends at Bell Helicopter. So believe it or not I decided to go back to the Hilton where they were being held. No sooner had I stepped back inside the front door of the Hilton lobby than a gunfight started between our revolutionary guards and some snipers on a hill across the way. In that instant, I couldn't believe how stupid I was for coming back for more of this.
Without a moments hesitation and knowing from bitter experience that the front door was the only way in our out, I spun on my heels and ran back out the door as bullets ricocheted all around me and I ran all the way down the hill just as fast as my little legs could carry me weaving from side to side to make me into a more difficult moving target.
Once I got down to Pahlavi Blvd, I hailed a cab and went home. By the next morning I was feeling like a buffalo in stories I had heard about the American Wild West. Even when a buffalo had succeeded in escaping from its stampeding herd, it would inevitably re-enter the fray because without its herd it was at a loss for what to do. So I went back a second time. I made it inside and as far as the main ball room this time and studiously went back to work helping to out-process employees. Looking at the passenger list of the next group scheduled to go; I saw my name at the very top of the list. I went to Neil and asked him what the hell that was all about. I had no interest in leaving.
Neil replied: “Well I can't get any work out of you. Every time the shooting starts, you run away. So I might as well send you back to the US.”
” Well I'm here now aren't I?” I got his point despite my protest and ironically I ended up being the last employee to leave Iran, having stayed even after Neil left the circumstances of which is another story in itself.
About this time a platoon of regular infantry from the US Army Hospital showed up looking for our help to be evacuated. I can still see them in their olive drab combat fatigues and camouflage suits armed to the nines with all kind of ordnance and walkie talkies hanging off their web belts and we told them that before we could do anything to help them that the revolutionary guards would be collecting all their weapons. This must have been very humiliating for them but it was not negotiable.
That night what a picture it was to see an entire platoon of US Army sleeping in their sleeping bags on the floor of the lobby of the Tehran Hilton because we had run out of rooms, where only a few months before, Touss and I had been lounge lizards and the prior spring uncle Mamdahli had taken us for an “all you can eat” and drink, caviar, champagne and fillet mignon New Year's dinner at the elegant Chez Michelle restaurant in there. The American soldiers were very appreciative of our help actually. I believe that it was during their brief stay on the lobby floor that Conrad Hilton died of a heart attack in the news and I remember wondering if the Tehran Hilton, being changed into a detention center had anything to do with it.
During the months of December 1978 and January 1979 we managed to evacuate over three thousand employees and dependants out of Iran from our staging area at the Hilton. We also managed to smuggle out a few British subjects including one colorful, blow hard quack named Michael Pelham, who claimed to be a movie producer and also a few Iranian nationals who had life threatening reasons to want to leave. Neil and I felt good about that like we had earned some “Brownie Points” somewhere on the big score board up in the sky.
Meanwhile on the national scene beyond our microcosm, the Shah's pick, poor Sharpour Bakhtiar's government had come and gone and Mehdi Bazargan who was Khomeini's pick was trying it on for size. Some dirt bag from the University of Miami bearing the same last name and claiming to be his relative showed up at our offices at Jordan Avenue looking for a job. The revolutionaries had let a group of about 5 of us from Bell Helicopter move all the company and employee files to a single building there which had been our head quarters and from which we worked.
I knew that the owner of this building was in prison, having been one of the Shah's generals and so whenever nobody else was around I was on the phone calling long distance to school friends in Italy, the USA and Tokyo talking for hours, yucking it up. I knew that the billing system had been totally messed up during the revolution and I would probably be long gone by the time it was sorted out esp with the owner in jail….
At anyrate, “Miami” Bazargan Jr. was given the assignment of trying to collect some of the company assets in various bank accounts around Iran. He headed down to Isfahan and that was the last we ever saw of him. Several months later his sister and his mom were in my office crying their eyes out and claiming that it was all our fault and that we must do something to help.
I managed to get them calmed down enough to explain to me what was happening. Apparently the revolutionary committee down in Isfahan had allowed “Miami” to withdraw all the Bell Helicopter money from our corporate accounts there but then the temptation proved too great for the revolutionaries, for the minute he was in possession of several million dollars in his attaché case they nabbed him, accused him of grand theft, slapped him in jail and confiscated the money in the name of the Iranian people and in jail he had been now for months with no prayer of reprieve.
The American knuckle head they had left in charge of the skeleton crew which was now five of us had no clue what to do to help. I went back to talking to mom and sister and together we decided I should write a letter on Bell Helicopter letter head, get it notarized and explain in it that he had been authorized to act on our behalf as our power of attorney in fact in disposing of these funds. I'm not sure what happened because I left country without hearing anything more however at least mom and sister left dry eyed with my letter and a thin ray of hope.
Very strange situations arise in the aftermath of revolutions, in the aftermath of mass civil disobedience and the break down of law and order and infrastructure such as police. The jails emptied out during this time of both criminals and political prisoners. Caviar and opium and automatic weapons were traded and flowed like water since all regulations broke down. People laundered money, sold traveler's checks, forged passports and smuggled in goods normally subject to tariffs in their cars everyday from Iraq and Turkey for a living. Ever resourceful, all kinds of new enterprises sprang up like the auctioning off of the contents of rich people's houses who had either left country, been executed or were rotting in jail. Sometimes the revolutionary auctioneers would forget to invite anyone and back up a truck at official closing time to freeload the stuff for themselves.
Our Iranian lady office manager at our head quarter's building had worked for us for 20 years and received a $35,000 severance check which the revolutionaries got wind of and jailed her, at which point we complained to another revolutionary committee who in turn got her released and jailed the group that had jailed her….”these were the best of times and the worst of times!”
Then there were the “Laissez Passer” bunch I would have to help out. These were usually Vietnamese or Thai women and children in laws of some Bell Helicopter employee who did not have US citizenship or even residency yet and whose white immigration booklets had expired during the chaos before they could get out in time to use them to enter the USA. The “Catch 22” was that these booklets once they had expired could only be re-issued from Wash., D.C. So, Oh dear me what to do, what to do? I don't know how I figured it out, maybe one of my US Embassy or Counselor friends told me but I would send them to the German Embassy to get a one time travel document called a “Laissez Passer” which allowed the bearer to go from country A and to country B once with this document.
Once they were able to get to Germany, they could register with the US Embassy and wait for Wash., D.C. to send them a new one via the Embassy's diplomatic pouch but at least they were out of the “war zone.” Of course it was always dicey trying to get the custom's officers at the Mehrabad Airport to accept this form of document as a valid Passport and allow my charges to board. I would always hold my breath when they would stand in line to get these papers stamped with exit visas. I got way too much experience explaining what they were to these officials, who only felt comfortable with little booklet shaped passports not flat sheet of paper equivalents…
I spent days shredding documents and photos for a group of Bell Helicopter die hards hanging out in Athens waiting for an opportunity to sell the revolutionaries on a new contract to at least properly store and maintain the 2000 aircraft helicopter fleet if they weren't going to fly them. Apparently aircraft have to be stored properly with special oils and so forth and can't be left parked out on airstrips immobile for long periods of time. We even set about trying to re-establish contact with all our Iranian counterparts who had been trained as helicopter mechanics and pilots so we could rehire them if our delegation were successful.
By this point in time Khomeini was embarrassed by all the foreigners leaving even though he had invited them to stay and so he decided that in order to save face that they should all leave. They were not interested in Bell Helicopter's offer, they were not interested in showing any need for foreign assistance in their own affairs and in fact the newspapers panned the Bell offer and criticized the Shah for “spending the Iranian people's money on aging American military hardware.” This of course was not true since these aircraft were state of the art and some had been specially designed and developed for high altitude and rapidly changing altitude for Iran which is quite mountainous in certain regions.
The arduous task of documenting all the employees' claims coming in from back in the USA for lost wages, vacation days and personal assets and household effects had finally come to an end. So too the documentation of corporate bank accounts that the revolutionaries had frozen. I was to later learn that any contracts between the government of the United States and a government of any other nation which were to be subcontracted to private American companies were insured by the US government with a certain % of money held in escrow which in the event of revolution or expulsion could be used to pay claims of losses from these subcontractors on a first come first serve basis which is why they were in such a hurry to get the documentation done.
I remember trudging to work at the H.Q. on Jordan Avenue in the snow and then spending the day working through the file cabinets with long lists of telex messages trying to match up names and employee numbers with their files and then trying to glean enough info from within them to either corroborate or deny their claims.
We had some comical exchanges with the revolutionary guards who had been assigned to our building. I remember arriving one day in time to see our young guard at the desk in the lobby hide away a Playboy magazine and then proceed to proudly inform me that he had arrested a young couple he had caught making out in their car in our parking lot the night before. I told him they were only doing what he wished he could do! He didn't like that much. Then another day, two guards came to me and asked me what all the boxes were in a certain store room.
I went with them to look and to my surprise, it was wall to wall Christmas boxes of fruitcakes from Texas, which what with the revolution coming, the employees had not bothered to collect this year. The boxes reached almost to the ceiling and when you opened the door you were confronted with a solid wall of them. I explained that they were a special kind of cake that Americans ate on our Christmas holidays. I went back to work and about an hour later I passed by the room and found the two revolutionary guards had opened one and were eating great pieces of it unaware that it was rum soaked. I had a good chuckle over that one…
One day Neil finally decided to leave. I went with him down to a former Savak office where the former Savaki agents told us that in order to get an exit visa he needed documentation that he had committed no crimes against the Iranian people and owed no taxes and this should come in the form of a letter from our former Iranian sponsor. Well, we had a problem with that because our former Iranian sponsor was the late General Khosrodad, chief of the army avionics, whom the revolutionaries had executed.
It was in the tabloids just to prove to the masses that he was really dead. He had had a handsome physique of which he had been very proud and for which he had worked out in the gym on a regular basis making him look like a man in his thirties rather than his 50's despite the white hair. He had been cocky and full of life and arrogance, strutting like a peacock, bragging in public addresses about his philandering. Now his body lay there on the ground in the photo pumped full of bullet holes like a Swiss cheese. He and a friend had been captured while trying to escape piloting their own small plane. I'm not sure what his list of crimes had been, I had heard he had helped put down an insurrection in Azarbaijan once killing thousands of people, who knows…anyone from the Shah's regime was a target because the people were so afraid that if they left any of them alive they would plot to overthrow The revolutionaries and bring back the King.
It was understandable that violence begets violence especially when it had been repressed for 50 years and had been simmering like a volcano all this time only now erupting…still it was horrific to see photos in the tabloids of people I had been to picnics with like Dr. Said Said, speaker of lower house of parliament. A gracious man whom I had once had a picnic with, with his friends and family, near Dezin, composed only of romaine lettuce heads for each of us with our own little bowls for dipping in honey vinegar dressing, now in the tabloids lying dead on the ground pumped so full of lead, looking like a bad case of measles. I would fight to hold back my tears as I would overhear the list of executions each day on the drive in to work on the car radio while my fundamentalist driver relished it all…Strange world it had become rather like the Reign of Terror in post revolutionary France I should imagine.
Anyway regarding our late Iranian sponsor, ever resourceful Neil thought about it for all of ten minutes and then told the former Savakis: “I'll be back with your documentation tomarrow.” He turned to me and said:”Come on!” We hopped in his car and I said nothing as he drove us up to the far northern end of Tehran to the Army Avionics Base near Niavaran which I believe was called Lalezon. Somehow he managed to talk our way in almost like using Jedi mind tricks. Then he proceeded to find his way to the office of a colonel, who had once been the General's aide de camp. I don't know how Neil used to do this stuff. He was uncanny. He had never been to this base before and yet it seemed like he could find his way around it, sleep walking. Neil had an intuitive ability to deal with bureaucracy no matter of what stripe.
We got to the colonel's office and Neil explained what he needed and in no time at all, the colonel's staff produced the letter that he used to leave Iran. He turned to me and said: “Pay attention to what we just did, because you may have to do the same thing yourself by the time you leave.” We had stayed on for Bell Helicopter at our own risk by now and they had us sign waivers that they were no longer able to guarantee our safety. I ended up actually being the last American Bell employee to leave and probably one of the last Americans to leave Iran.
When I walked down Takht-e-Jamshid Avenue crowds of children would encircle me staring as if I were an alien from outer space which I probably was. Once I started speaking Persian to them, they would tell me all kinds of anti-cleric jokes and swear that one day they would hang all the mullahs from the street lights and drag them behind the bumpers of cars. That was 22 years ago now and I am still waiting.
One joke they told me went like this: One day Khomeini and prime minister Bazargan were flying in a helicopter down to Qom. Khomeini turned to Bazargan and said:” Mehdi dear, are you feeling cold?” ” No your holiness, I am just fine, thank you for your concern.”
” Don't be shy to tell me if you are actually feeling cold!”
” No, your holiness, I am not just being polite, I assure you I am quite comfortable. But again I thank you for your kindness your saintliness.”
” O.K., Mehdi, if you insist you are not cold I accept, but if you change your mind, we can always turn off the fan so don't be shy,” he said pointing up at the propeller.
Finally the day came when I had no more work to do for Bell and foreigners were being asked to leave. I had seen many amazing things in those four months after the revolution, like the 20,000 modern Iranian women who had been the first to march in protest against the mullahist regime. Hooligans on motor scooters had come along side and jabbed at them with pen knives until Khomeini himself had to come on national television to tell the hooligans to stop. The next week he had 2 million peasant women from the countryside bussed in from their villages in their veils to march in counter, counter protest.
There was the day the famous newspaper published a blank edition except for one sentence on the front page which said that due to the current atmosphere of censorship which had returned that they saw no further point in publishing anything. That edition sold out and the next week their newspaper office was burned to the ground.
Meanwhile the crowd was putting the last touches on dismantling the torture house up the street from where I lived on Kuche Khaghani and the Semiramis Hotel on Roosevelt Avenue about two blocks from the US Embassy.
I had watched the butchers go on strike when Khomeini announced that only meat slaughtered in the Islamic way by slitting the throat of the sheep and bleeding it was acceptable. I saw this being done in the gutters of the city streets right down town. Anyway the Iranian butchers had to get the Pakistani butcher back in Australia to do a video which they got onto the TV somehow to show Khomeini that the Australian sheep were in fact slaughtered in the Islamic way even if they did arrive frozen to Iran.
I remember that week I couldn't find any meat to buy and so finally I decided to buy a sheep's tongue which was all I could find. I boiled it for a few hours and it was still too tough to cut. Three hours later it was still too tough. Finally I left it to boil all night. When my old Kurdish landlady came up to say good bye to me she laughed when I told her about the tongue. She explained to me how I was supposed to make a slit and peal off the outer membrane which was the only tough part. She was right, the inside had turned to mush.
She gave me at least a dozen looleh of opium to take with me on my trip home. All that last week I would go evenings to Touss's house to receive friends and his relatives who wanted to say good bye to me in person after five years. My girl friend Roya was going to be the hardest one to say goodbye to but it was not easy at all with anyone and we shed many tears.
Sure enough Neil had been right and I eventually found my way back to the colonel's office at the Army Avionics Base. This time he stared to obfuscate. I figured I was just not as savvy as Neil. I reminded him that I had been there a month before with Neil and now I needed the same kind of letter. “But I don't know you…how do I know you don't owe taxes and didn't commit any crimes against the Iranian people?”
“Well let me put it to you this way Colonel sir, I am going to sit down in the middle of your office on the carpet and I am not leaving until you get me such a letter,” and so saying I sat down cross legged in the middle of his floor space. He was terribly embarrassed and immediately his sergeant started bringing me in pastries and tea. I thanked him and said: “You may bring me all the tea and pastry in Iran, but I am not leaving without that letter.”
After about 25 minutes working at his desk pretending to ignore my presence, he peered down at me over his glasses when no one else was present and whispered to me that the problem was that his secretary in keeping with the spirit of the revolution was on strike and he couldn't type. I asked him if he would mind if I spoke to her myself and he said alright and pointed her out to me in the next room where a passel of women gadded about the water cooler. I went over to her and politely introduced myself and then explained what I needed and offered to pay her handsomely for the letter which I did, about $20 and that was how I got out of Iran. I took it back to the former Savak office, they ran me in their computer once more and then without any further delay, having remembered me from before with Neil, they stamped an exit visa in my passport.
I spent my last night at Touss's house. One of our good friends whom we had nicknamed “Court” for his courtly manners had stopped by to say goodbye: “Well, I don't suppose I shall ever be seeing you again….so have a nice life.”
That last week I had also run into Khorso Eghbal, younger brother of the late and great Doctor Manoucher Eghbal, former prime minister and one time president of Nat'l Iranian Oil Company” standing in a doorway chatting with an Englishmen to escape the rain. I said hello and he responded nonchalantly while all the while I was shocked that he would be still in country.
The last person to come to Touss's house was the neighborhood mullah who had come to bless me for a safe voyage. He whispered in my ear: “I hope you don't think all of us Moslems are like these fanatics!” I told him I knew better and returned his hug.
I cried in the taxi all the way to the airport. Roya met me at the gate to say goodbye. She was being quite brave until I called her one of our mutual terms of endearment in Persian and then we both broke down and cried. I gave her one last hug and hoped that she would be able to get out of Iran soon. I told her that once I figured out where I was going to be that I would write to her but right now I had no clue and no job waiting and was headed to spend some time in Samos, Greece for the summer to write about all this and to decompress.
In the men's room of the airport I found myself flushing all the looleh of opium down the toilet afraid of what they would do to me either here or at the other end of the flight if I got caught with it. This made me cry too…
On the airplane which was Iran Air since that was the only airline flying in and out of Iran at that time, who should I run into but our friend “George”, a British red headed airline stewardess whom Touss had nicknamed, who use to invite us to the parties she and her stewardess roommates would give. She smiled at me and made sure I got plenty of vodka and orange juice on the flight to Athens… The next day I was sitting reading the newspaper in Ammonia Square in downtown Athens and the headlines were about the beginning of the Iran Iraq war.
I thought O God, how much more must my adopted country of Iran suffer? This is Khomeini trying to keep his revolution alive with this war since in peacetime he has no agenda, no mandate, no plan…nothing to offer Iran but misery…little did I know the “Silent War” was to be fought for 8 years in which a million Iranian youth died and that Saddam Hossein was egged on and armed by the USA. Dr. Buehler, a Viennese doctor who had performed surgery on my friend Touss's knee for his bone cancer voluntarily went to Iran and fitted out hundreds of amputees from that war with prostheses. I wonder how all these real politique bastards who say that Saddam served our needs at the time would feel if something like this ever happened to us?
By September I was back in Washington D.C. staying with my parents trying to figure out how to pick up the pieces of my life when I received a phone call from Robert Ode.
A mutual friend of ours had referred him to me. He said that he had been called out of retirement to go to our Tehran Embassy to help give out visas and what did I think of the situation over there? I told him that the situation was not stable and advised him not to go; 480 days later his wife still hadn't heard from him. He was the senior diplomat of the group taken hostage.
What most people don't know is that the entire staff of the US Embassy, including a gorgeous Pakistani nurse friend of Neil and I named “Stella,” had been rotated out and sent back to the States because they had been through so much already and so all the people that were taken hostage had only been in country 2 weeks.
I can also tell you that there were mile long lines outside the US Embassy of Iranians trying to get visas to come to the US and was quite an embarrassment to the revolutionaries that so many people wanted to leave. Contrary to the pundits who came up with conspiracy theories that Reagan had control over the hostage situation and timed their release for his re-election, my simple theory is that the revolutionaries took the embassy in order to stop the bad press, the mile long lines of people trying to emigrate who were voting against them with their feet, was giving them.
Neil was back in San Francisco, working as a manager of an engineering group at the phone company by day and studying law at night having decided to become a gay rights advocate but his life was cut short at age 40 by aids. Stella called us from Beverley Hills where she was a nurse for some psychiatrist! Touss stopped talking to me for 20 years because I wouldn't help him with a referral for a job in Saudi Arabia in an American firm but then he went on to an OPEC appointment in Vienna …as a result of chapter 8 of these Zirzameen Tales, a friend and former boss of his located me and together in a day and a half we relocated Touss and he and I are now in regular communication.