Economizing My Way Up

I was quite young and full of joy and pride when I graduated from Tehran University – the only major state university in Iran in early 70s, – because my long held dream had come true. Back then in Iran, just being accepted to a major university was considered quite an achievement, but successfully sticking with it right through graduation was even more of an accomplishment. This was especially true for me because I was the first one in my family to go to college or have any kind of formal education for that matter. I had just turned 21 years of age at the time of my graduation, and was perhaps one of the youngest members of the class 1347-8 according to the Iranian calendar.

Attaining a college degree in economics, which in those days was an exciting new and popular field of study, meant that the obvious source of a job for me was the public sector, where most of the jobs the jobs were, and still are. After enduring the convoluted hiring process, I was offered a job at the Department of the Interior. My apprehensive attitude toward government, which was typical among college students, did not make this job a good fit for me; however, I had no choice but to accept it. Living without money was not funny. After a few months of training I was dispatched to one of the northwestern provinces to work in a small town as the assistant to the city governor. The tacit task of everyone in our office was to act as the watchdog for the government, or to put it more mildly, to be its public relations agents. We used to listen to, or read about, the complaints of the citizens about government officials on a daily basis and to try to fulfill their requests for fixing or improving public services. I still feel sorry for those unsuspecting peasants who had to travel all the way from remote rural areas to the city so they could voice their complains or concerns. They appealed to us thinking of us as a Nirvana. Truth be told, all we did was forward their requests to the “proper government authorities” for investigation, but in reality all that resulted was further delay, evasion, and more complications.

One of our basic official duties was to organize and to supervise the election process of the public officials, an outright corrupt system. I remember in one local election, on the night before the voting day, we were told to stuff the ballot boxes with phony ballots for the hand-picked candidate. The boxes then were to be transported to the election polling sites the next morning where the unsuspecting voters would cast their ballots not realizing the election had already been determined. That was our established brand of a fair and honest voting process back then. I remember vividly that there was a man, Mashdi Abdulla, who was the full-time custodian of the building I worked in; he also served hot tea non-stop to the employees. One of the employees who were helping us with the phony ballots suggested teasingly that we cast a number of votes for Mashdi Abdulla just for fun; we happily followed his suggestion. But when I returned home that night, it suddenly dawned on me what could happen if the chosen candidate suddenly died in the night of natural causes or was killed in a traffic accident. Should something like that happen, Mashdi Abdulla would be the next person in line because he would have the majority of the remaining votes. This heretofore unknown person would suddenly be thrust into power and the limelight; become a politician, and a member of the city council because of our fake votes. That kind of thinking was not, of course, as daunting as the thought of not having hot tea in the office any more. It was also unimaginable the thought of having to endure the indignation that we manipulated the election result.

For a person like me who use to keep a poster of Che Guevara in his room while a student, coping with the corruption and archaic ideas that were so prevalent in government offices was next to impossible. Also, since I was so young, no one took me or my opinions seriously. I was like a mismatched patch on the intricate quilt of corrupted government employees. I was summarily dismissed as an idealistic, naive young man who had nothing to say that is politically correct. No one took me seriously except for some of the local influential people who had marriage-age daughters hunting for a nice-looking, articulate son-in-law, drum roll please! I cunningly enjoyed the occasional diner invitations to their houses which I thought of them as in-kind kickbacks. Marriage in our culture was, and still is, a family affair. These people who showed any interest in me were all wealthy, elitist Khans who were not at all compatible with my downtrodden family. Even if I intended to marry, which I didn’t at that age, I would have been very careful not to marry anyone who would look down on and want me to reject my own family in any way.

The town in which I worked was small but modern; it had only one major street that served as the walking track for my evening work out, thanks to very light traffic, clean weather, and serene environment. We, government employees, had nothing to do after the offices were closed in the afternoon. So, we would walk up and down this street; we did this not only to get our daily regimen of physical exercise, but also keep abreast of what was going on in town. I remember I used to walk with a very articulate and opinionated friend of mine who also happened to be the only attorney in town. We usually discussed politics, especially the ongoing tensions between the Palestinians and Israel which was an emotionally charged issue even back then. We discussed how Mr. Anwar Sadat, the late president of Egypt and a close ally of the late Shah of Iran, was handling the situation so cleverly! After our evening walk, we would eventually end up in the lobby of the only modern motel that was built by the government. It was designed mainly to accommodate the foreign tourists because the town was on our country’s border with Turkey, and a great number of Western tourists passed through it every day. No one dared to question or undermine the preeminence of Western tourists in Iran, not even government employees. Our parliament, yielding to the pressure exerted by the Shah, had passed the Capitulation Law which gave legal immunity to Westerners living in or traveling throughout Iran.

All in all, I considered my life as a government employee pretentious, wasteful, and unfulfilling and wished to do something more meaningful and constructive. I could not tolerate the ongoing corruption; no one could imagine how profoundly corrupt things were in public sector unless he or she was on the inside, or was a part of it. Corruption on every level was a ubiquitous phenomenon in government offices. From the beginning of my employment at the Ministry of the Interior, I was always contemplating a way out. I knew I had to think about reorienting my career or else I would become contaminated by the culture of sleaze that was all around me. I finally decided to go back to school for graduate study. A few months back, a couple of my friends had already gone to the United States for the same reasons. I was in constant contact with them, that further intensified inclination to travel to the U.S. to continue my education.

Obtaining a student visa from the American embassy in Tehran was very easy in those days because Iran, of all the countries in the Middle East, was the most loyal ally of the U. S. Iran’s government was principally controlled by the U.S. officials. Our Shah was their Shah! In addition, the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and Rial (the Iranian unit of currency) was reasonably low and indeed affordable. An English translation of the official transcript of my undergraduate courses was the only document I needed to apply for admission to an American university. Many of them, as well as the language schools, had their fully-authorized agents in Tehran who were endowed with plenty of prepared and, I believed, pre-signed I-20 forms – the official acceptance form to a U.S. university. I was able to obtain two I-20s within a few weeks; one was for admission to a university, and the other was for admission to an official English language school called ELS (English Language Services). I have no statistics to back it up, but based on my observations and popular opinion, Iran was the country with the largest number of foreign students studying in the U.S. in the early 70s. I could never have imagined in my wildest dreams that one day I would be one of them.

At long last, the day for my departure had arrived. I had finally prepared all the needed documents and was able to buy all the airline tickets I needed to fly to the U.S. Overwhelmed by my exuberance over going to the U.S., I left Iran without even notifying my employer. Technically, if the Shah’s regime was still in power today, I would still be an official government employee, or at least the beneficiary of my pension funds which perhaps amounted to a couple of hundred dollars that I contributed during the short period of my employment. At the time of my departure my monthly ending salary was $15,000 Rials which was equivalent to $200 in U.S. currency using the exchange rate that was in effect at the time. This was not bad for a single person considering the cost of living index at that time. Owing to my frugality, I was able to have saved most of my monthly salaries. As a result, when I left Iran I had more than $2,100 to use as my start up money in the U. S.

On a cold day in early December, I finally arrived in Norman, a small college town in Oklahoma. It was my final destination in the U.S, after a long journey that lasted for more than twenty four hours with frequent stops including the last one in the city of Tulsa. To comply with the immigration laws, I had to report to the school of English Language Services immediately upon my arrival, and I did. The school was located on one of the top floors of a huge dormitory building on the campus of Oklahoma University. I took the elevator to the floor where the school was located. There was nobody there because it was after hours and the school was closed. I was stranded on that floor with my bewilderment and my two pieces of luggage; I didn’t know what to do other than waiting. Fortunately, as I came to realize later, many of the students of that English school were Iranians who were living on that same floor. Luckily, I came across a couple of them who happened to be talking to each other in Farsi. I approached them and told them my story, politely seeking their assistance. After putting a few watermelons under their shoulder! I was able to earn their sympathy. They told me that I could stay with them overnight until the next morning when the English school reopens.

During our conversations, they also informed me that the room adjacent to theirs was unoccupied. It was connected to their room via a door because both rooms shared one bathroom. I practically begged them to let me get into the other room and sleep just for the night. They reluctantly agreed. Between you and me, this arrangement continued for days and I used that room free of charge for about a couple of weeks until I finally found three other Iranian students who were willing to share a rented apartment with me. What else could a frantic, moneyless man can do? I considered this, my very first experience in the U.S., as a financial success, thanks to my rigorous economic training back home! It gave credence to the expression that “necessity is the mother of all inventions.” I finally moved out of my unlawfully-occupied room and into a modestly furnished apartment for $160 a month, utilities and assessment fees included.

AUTHOR
A professor of economics, Reza Varjavand is the author of a recently published book:

From Misery Alley to Missouri Valley , Xlibris Publishing Company.

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