The Day Shah Came to the White House

The telephone calls from Iran always came in the middle of the night when you were sound asleep and this time was no different. It was my father. After asking me about my grades in school and making sure that his investment in my education was not being wasted, he said, “The word came from the top the other day at the office that His Majesty Alaa Hazrat is coming to the US in a few weeks. They would like to have a gathering with the university students so that he can learn about their lives in the US and their issues and challenges. I passed on your telephone number. Mr. G. from the embassy may call and give you more details.” Then he said, “Of course now that you are in college, you are old enough to make your own decisions.” I knew exactly what he meant. I went back to sleep and completely forgot about the conversation!

A couple of days later Mr. G. called. It took me a few seconds to put it all back together. He repeated what my father had said and also mentioned that they would be providing the tickets and the hotel room for the brief stay in Washington D.C. I said that I would be interested to come and also my two roommates may want to come as well. He then said that he would call in a couple of days to get their names and finalize the trip.

“Guys, listen to this. They are paying for us to go to DC to have a gathering with the Shah. I am sure that there will be a reception at the embassy with great food, and some nice looking girls! We can wear our white John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever suits, take a few pictures and if it got boring, we can quietly slip out and check out the night scene in Georgetown! What do you say?” My roommates were not as enthusiastic as I was. Babak’s older brother was fairly active in the student movement at his university. “From what I am hearing from my brother, they are organizing hundreds of anti-Shah students to go to D.C. and protest his visit. It may get ugly. I don’t think that it is such a great idea for us to go to the embassy.” Babak Said.

There were around 100 Iranian students at my university and they fell into 4 broad categories. The first group always avoided any contact with other Iranians. They came and went without saying hi or speaking Farsi. So we just ignored them.

The second group was comprised of the leftist students of different shades. They were always sitting around a big table at the Student Center. We had nicknames for most of them. Their leader was Mammad Che Guevara and the second in command was Parviz Sandinista! They always had booklets and leaflet at their table and were ready to engage you in never-ending political discussions.  

The third group was a small Muslim crowd. They usually sat at a table next to the wall and they didn’t look friendly at all. Their pack leader was Jafar Khareh (stupid Jafar!) He had a beard and his wife wore the hejab on campus which was very unusual at that time. The rumor had it that once he slaughtered a sheep in his living room to have Halal meat for Ramazan. His neighbor saw some blood coming out of his place and called the police to investigate. That whole incident elevated him to a new level in our eyes.

Then there were the rest of us. We had our own big table at the Student Center. We generally talked about school, social things, sports, etc. We all got along just fine.

When Mr. G. called again, I could tell that his tone had changed. He talked about how the patriotic Iranian students should come to D.C. and show support for his Majesty. As he spoke, it became very clear to me that he was organizing a counter demonstration, and not a fancy reception at the embassy. As a kindergartner I remember going to Elizabeth Boulevard in Tehran with my teachers and classmates and wave flags as Shah and foreign dignitaries drove by. But, as a college student, the idea just didn’t appeal to me.  So I started to slowly walk back from my prior commitment. I mentioned that I had exams coming up soon and I needed to finish my term paper. I also said that my roommates are in the same situation. And not to get into trouble with the embassy, I said that I would call him in a couple of days to let him know. I never called.

In the days leading to the Shah’s arrival, there was a certain buzz at the leftists’ table. They were making plans to rent vans or cars to go to D.C. And then they all disappeared for a few days.

Shah’s arrival at the White House was the biggest news item on the Evening News with Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings. There were hundreds of protestors in ski masks and placards. They were kept behind the fences and away from the White House. The D.C. park police was in full force on their horses. The small pro-Shah crowd was in a spot away from the others. As the motorcade approached the White House, the chants of “Down with the Shah” and “Marg bar Shah” were heard all over the place.

The Evening News showed anti-Shah protesters jumping fences and going after the pro-Shah crowd with the sticks. D.C. police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. And as Jimmy Carter was welcoming Shah on the south lawn, the wind blew the tear gas into Shah’s eyes. He looked visibly upset as he wiped his eyes. Carter apologized for “the poor air quality in D.C.!”

I learned later on that Shah’s arrival was broadcast live on Iranian TV and people in Iran saw basically the same images and heard the same chants.

Several years later I met a couple at a party. We talked about the situation in Iran, the war, the hostage crisis and then I told them the whole episode with Mr. G. from the embassy. The woman laughed and said, “You are lucky that you did not go. Because I DID! I had the same plans as you had; a free trip to D.C. a meeting and a reception at the embassy and some sightseeing the next day. But when we arrived at the hotel, Mr. G. gathered us at the lobby and told us that we needed to be downstairs the next morning at 7:30 AM to get on the charter bus to go to our spot near the White House. So I figured that I just won’t show up in the morning until the bus had left and then I go about my plans. I could always apologize later to Mr. G. for sleeping late because of the time changes.”

Then she said, “The next morning at 6:30 AM there was a big knock on my door. I tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t stop. Mr. G. went from one hotel room to another and woke everybody up and made sure that everyone was in the lobby at 7:30 AM. We got on the bus. He then passed on the flags and shepherded us to our spot. As Shah’s motorcade went by, we waved our flags and then the whole hell broke loose! They were coming after us with their sticks. We just ran for our lives. I ran for a few blocks and then took refuge in a shop.”

I’ve always wondered how Shah felt as he drove by the protesters. These were the youth of Iran, the “cream of the crop”, and the future of the country. He could not afford losing them. Maybe he realized then that it was all over.

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