Gathering clouds

Summer of 1978

March 13, 2003
The Iranian

One day I heard on the news that bank windows in Tabriz were being smashed by Islamic fundamentalists. How was it possible that they were getting away with that, I wondered since the Shah had a 400,000 man standing army? Was he losing his grip? I never and still don't understand how a strict Islamic bank can make money without charging interest? How does that work? Do they loan money for free?

I went to my neighborhood branch of Bank Saderat and had the manager wire transfer all my money to the USA. I remember Mr. Sedeghi laughing at me and saying: "What are you afraid of; nothing is going to happen here... " A few months later that branch was burned down.

I remember 2 years earlier, on our way to work at Mehrabad in the employee bus, one day some Savakis in plain clothes wearing jeans in fact but waving Uzis and wearing light blue army helmets signaled to our driver to pull the bus over to the side of the road. They told us to dismount from the bus and walk the rest of the way into the base.

Once we got inside the air force base, there was complete bedlam. All the civilian neighbors had come inside the base to escape the imminent fighting and the cadets were wandering around in a disorganized manner without any apparent commanders or plan.

Across the street from the base, the secret police had surrounded a building and then called in a helicopter which promptly dropped a napalm bomb on the roof and then rocketed a parked car. No prisoners were taken and no questions were asked. A group of plotting revolutionaries in one of the apartments within the building had just been taken out... we the witnesses of this horrific event had no one to complain to... at the time I had no interest in politics per say and had never even heard of Amnesty International where I could have reported such an event...

In such a beautiful country and culture I had been blinded from the plight of a lot of very unhappy people. I could not fathom that we were on the eve of a revolution. It was the quiet before the storm. Some people knew it and could see it coming but not me. The former ambassador to London, who had been the youngest ambassador in modern Iranian history when he had been appointed ambassador to India, committed suicide. He had a gambling problem and over a four day period had lost several million USD at a casino in London.

The foreign ministry refused to cover his gambling debts. His father refused to bail him out again and finally even my friend the President of Bank-e-Saderat refused to make him a loan and so he had taken his own life in the end rather than face and live with financial bankruptcy and disgrace. I loved his daughter, she was so sweet and bright and her husband was so not.

I remember her weeping at the Bashga-he Shahanshahi the day we got the news and it was the only time I ever saw her husband smiling. I wanted to deck him. For me this individual event became symbolic of the self immolation and suicidal course that the corrupt leadership in general was embarked upon ... .like an implosion, it was rotting from within...

At any rate, the excesses and abuses of the regime were starting to make it unravel, come apart, start to rip at the seams, corrode from within... my Italian friend Sandra visiting me from Tuscany saw it coming and told me it was coming as we sat sunbathing poolside at the Shah Abbas Hotel in Esfahan until a busload of Japanese businessmen arrived in suits and noisily took the place over. She could see all the discontent. I had grown acclimatized to it and couldn't see the forest for the trees...

Some of the swindling that had gone on was particularly spectacular. The same trainloads of government subsidized sugar were sent back and forth across the border collecting the same subsidy over and over. Volumes could be written about all the get rich quick schemes that actually were pulled off... trainloads of cement were lined up at the borders when there was enough sand in Iran to make all the cement in the world.

The Shah had become more and more of a recluse, substituting a life size card board cut out of himself in his limo for the annual parade commemorating the victory in Azerbaijan.

One day as I was walking home along Meydan-e-Ferdowsi, I saw a police car pull over a lone driver for speeding. Two policemen got out of their car and went over to the driver who emerged from his vehicle looking huge as he stood upright. They spoke for a few moments and then the next thing I knew, the driver was beating hell out of both the cops at once and I stepped out into the street to walk around the disturbance. I remember thinking to myself that this was not a good sign.

Another time near Khiabun-e- Shah Reza, I saw a man running down the sidewalk with a young policeman in hot pursuit. The fugitive arrived at a phone booth and started running around it in circles with the cop behind him. A small crowd gathered in a greater circle around the scene and began jeering the policeman. At some point he lost it and started viciously head butting members of the crowd in their faces with his helmet. This gave the fugitive his chance to slip away. I had never seen anything like that before where a crowd had helped obstruct "justice." The police were definitely beginning to show signs of their inability to control the subjects.

It was not long after this that fighting began in earnest and that the martial law authority imposed nightly curfews in all the major cities in Iran. Night after night began a great out crying of human voices shouting death to the king. I wonder how he felt listening to that great united voice ringing the air like a plague of 17 year locusts, sitting in Niavaran Palace wondering when the mob was going to storm it...

One evening I was with my friend Pouran leaving her beautiful apartment tower on our way to dinner at the Imperial Country Club Bashga-he-Shahanshahi when in the lobby I received a page from the receptionist that I was wanted on the phone. I couldn't imagine who knew I was there... .but it smelled like trouble especially since I had forgotten that it was Ashura, the holiest Shiite religious holiday of the year... It was Bahram, one of my assistants telling me an unbelievable story.

Evidently one of our illustrious Bell Helicopter employees had gotten totally drunk on this the holiest day of the Shiite calendar year and weaved down the hill in his car hitting every parked vehicle ricocheting back and forth from one side of the street to the other all the way down to the bottom of the hill where he had crashed. A U.S. embassy official who happened to live at the bottom of that hill offered him refuge and in the meanwhile an angry crowd of the owners of the damaged cars had gathered outside this house and were threatening to burn it down unless the employee came out and paid for all the damages.

I politely listened until Bahram had finished recounting his tale and then I posed the inevitable question: "And just what exactly am I supposed to do about it; go out there and try to talk this mob of irate owners carrying torches to break it up and go home?" "Yes!" "Oh" said I," Me and whose army?" Bahram says: "well Security seems to think this is an employee relations function?" "Oh they do, do they? Does anyone know you are having this conversation with me right now?" "Yes. All the Security Officers are standing around listening as we speak!" "Bahram, you are a consummate ass! Furthermore, you work for me not for the Security Department and they have no business giving you direction. Since you seem to be under their management, kindly convey to them my profound belief that this situation calls for the intervention of the Iranian Marshal Law Authority not little old me. Goodbye!"

I then proceeded on my date and had a great dinner at the Club with the pleasant company of my friend. The Head Waiter and The Bar Tender were two Lebanese brothers who had left Beirut in order to avoid the fighting there. They were very sophisticated and pleasant and we use to give them French designer silk ties for Christmas since they were Christian.

I shall never forget several months after the revolution was complete, we returned to an all but abandoned country club to actually see a pack of feral dogs running around the golf course pissing on the greens and snarling over scraps in the sand traps. When we got to the club house and went to the dining room we found the two Lebanese brothers in their tuxedos standing one behind a bar with no alcohol on its shelves and the other at the waiter station standing watch over an empty dining hall. It was a sad picture... and I began to recollect how many pleasant times I had spent with so many friends there in better days...

Anyway on this night, I dropped Pouran back at her place and had the taxi keep going to take me home where I went to bed forthright and had a good night's rest until at about 7 AM the phone rang and it was the third in command of Bell Helicopter himself, the former US Army General S. He spoke to me in a voice full of irony: "I understand that you were insubordinate last night?" I replied: "With all due respect Sir, I do not take orders from the Security Department nor was it in my job description to face down angry mobs single handedly without the assistance of riot police. Frankly you may take my job if you insist that this is an area of my responsibility because risking my life to save some sorry ass culturally insensitive ignoramus was not part of the job description when I signed on for this gig!"

The next day, my boss was demoted and a former military type, all American good old boy was put in on top of him. Within one week, his house was bombed and he was on the next plane home and our original positions were restored plus combat pay bonus. A few months later when we were busy evacuating thousands of people from revolutionary Iran, the same General had me stop everything I was doing to track down a traveling cage for his wife's dog that she wanted to put on the plane with them on their way home. I don't know whatever happened to the Ashura Drunkard!

Then one night right after Khomeini had started making short wave radio broadcasts from the safety of Paris encouraging people to violate the curfew and get shot to die as martyrs for Islam, a horrible thing happened... at least as horrific as "Bloody Sunday" in January of 1905 in St. Petersburg when Tzarist troops opened fire on peaceful demonstrators or Tiananmen Square but the world has forgotten the ten year "Silent War" between Iraq and Iran in which millions of people were killed and the USA armed and encouraged Saddam Hossein to start and sustain war on Iran because he was a CIA appointee and Americans are sore losers who don't like getting kicked out of countries where they have oil concessions so why should I expect anyone other than Iranians to know about or remember Black Friday?

How many nameless people died in the Silent War or were left orphans or quadriplegic while the rest of the world only knew one Iraqi name: Saddam Hossein which is still the case and only one Iranian name Khomeini? An Austrian Doctor, Doctor Bueller, who had operated on and reconstructed the bones of my best friends leg when he had cancer, voluntarily went to Iran after the war to help fit out all the amputees with prostheses...

On this particular Friday night in September I believe, I was at home because the curfew had started when I began to hear the shouting of voices perhaps 7 or 8 city blocks away. They were not the roof top "Death to the King" shouts, they were different.

I called my long time school buddy who lived on Behesht and Bahar, Jim and asked him if he could hear the shouting? He said he could. I asked him if there was a soccer game going on at the sports stadium near his house and he said no. Then we began to hear the automatic gunfire, that sound like hands clapping and the shouting began to turn to screams and sobs and wailing with great tremulousness and fear.

It was bloodcurdling and much of it was female voices and I remember thinking that the Shah was even stupider and more indifferent to the suffering of his people than I had suspected if his men were mowing down unarmed men, women and children in peaceful protest of his regime... how many Americans are clueless... in the Boston Massacre of 1776 only one person was killed and it was a long time ago...

I remember the shooting, the crying and the screaming went on and on and on and on from 9pm to 2am when it finally stopped, 5 hours of shooting and I bet they were bullets either made in American or Russian ... I was weeping, I was by myself upstairs in my apartment, lying on the cold terrazzo floor vomiting and crying...

The next day, the top management of Bell Helicopter called us into a meeting and told us that something had happened last night but had any of us actually seen anyone get shot? They extolled the virtues of keeping calm and not spreading rumors. I choked on my rage... and reminded them that there was a curfew so of course none of us had seen the event. I mean talk about a self serving case of denial.

People were just so out of touch with reality it was amazing to witness. One day there was a bomb scare in our office on Jordan Avenue. The "Pie Man" had just come by so Joanne, one of our travel agents, who had bought a big pie from him suddenly bolted from our group who were huddled together out in the parking lot while the bomb squad went up on the roof, to run back inside to fetch her pie...

Mabel, my Venezuelan friend had been struck dead while leaving a restaurant with her Iranian boy friend by a speeding hit and run driver who was trying to get home before the curfew... The buttons were beginning to pop off and fly from the shirt of the Iranian Corpus as its chest began to fill with breath like a sleeping giant finally waking up... to revolution!

The petroleum industry workers went on strike and there were people lined up for days trying to buy kerosene for their space heater bokhharis. At night or on the Sabbath you could see ropes tethering all the jerry cans together in a line on the side walk unattended so that their owners wouldn't lose their place in line the next business day.

There were lines of many city blocks of vehicles waiting to buy gasoline from the few service stations to be found that were still open with petrol to sell. One day two Bell Helicopter employees were in a taxi which got out of the slow lane jammed with waiting cars to go around them when suddenly a bullet went right through the windshield and into the cab drivers head splattering blood and glass on them. Apparently a soldier had mistaken the taxi drivers move for an attempt to cut in line and so he had used his rifle to put a stop to it... there were lots of weeping people involved in this one, including the young trigger happy soldier who wept the most of all... .

Bell Helicopter eventually started circulating a newsletter everyday to report incidents that had happened the night before in an attempt to keep us informed. As a result while Bell was still bringing in plane loads of new employees up until two weeks before the Shah finally left, there were also thousands of employees and their dependants quitting and leaving at their own expense rather than wait for Bell to finally offer an evacuation program...

Meanwhile as the Iranian world was falling apart with ever increasing momentum like the ice pack breaking up at the South Pole in spring, life went on and I was having an office romance. I had spied a Persian girl at work one day I had not seen there before and I fell in love with her face especially one day when I saw her at the drinking fountain with her lips pursed round the jet of water... I fell in love with her soft full lips... her name meant a dream and I was dreaming about how much I wanted to date her... my American girlfriend had returned to the USA many months before the revolution had begun upon the completion of her teaching contract and I was a bachelor again and on the prowl.

I can't remember exactly how it happened but I have a vague recollection that one day I offered her a ride home with my car and driver and me and on the way invited her to stop and have dinner at the Tehran Hyatt Hotel with me before we took her home and to my amazement and delight she accepted. From that day on we started dating and although we were very discrete at work, my driver apparently couldn't keep his mouth shut because some of our Iranian employees would make remarks to her when no one was around like: "What's the matter, aren't Iranian men good enough for you."

Weekends she got in the habit of having her aunt drop her within a few blocks of my house on the pretext that she wanted to visit a girlfriend and then instead walk to my house. I would anxiously await for the doorbell to ring knowing it would be her and there was a tremendous air of excitement when she would come in silhouetting my doorway, slightly out of breath and flushed.

Shutting the door behind her, she would throw back her chador off her shoulders and we would kiss. She had taken to wearing chadors when the revolution was coming to life in order to keep a low profile. One day she told me that she had found an artistic picture she had once had taken of herself for her now ex husband of herself sitting on her bed with her bare back turned towards the camera and she wanted me to have that photo.

That weekend she arrived at my house quite upset because her male cousin who had been with them in her aunt's car had found the photo and unwrapped it and when his mom had parked the car and gone into a shop to buy barbari bread, he had turned to my dream and said to her that he would keep the photo and put it over his bed. She was angry and sickened by this little pig but could not protest as her aunt would have guessed that she was en route to give it to some man and in Iran divorced women were even more sheltered by their families than were virgins. To this day which is 21 years later I long for that picture or at least a glimpse of it.

In my minds eye I can still see a scene worthy of the Doctor Zhivago movie, when the 6 mile long march was in full swing half a block south of my house and my girl arrived at my door in a white lace chador like a divine angel with the sunlight behind her. She dropped her veils and I carried her up my stairs and we proceeded to make some incredible love all the while to the sounds of the army of protest marchers outside my house on Shah Reza Avenue.

I remember thinking how affronted the fanatics would have been and how we probably would have been stoned to death had we been caught in the act... which had the effect of heightening our excitement... it was very romantic don't you think? Of course the revolutionaries were very romantic too... I remember watching the march and seeing Volkswagen vans driving up and down the lines offering hot meals to the protesters for free many of which were driven by engineers and other professionals... it was the dawn of the short lived Iranian Spring and what a feeling of solidarity and brotherhood and sisterhood there was...

The day that Shah Reza left millions of people took to dancing in the streets. They bent their windshield wipers outward and tied white ribbons in increments to them and then turned on the wipers so the white ribbons waved back and forth festively... people were singing and rejoicing and I took to dancing with them too and I was there the day Khomeini arrived and the city was completely deserted like a ghost town, not a creature stirred, not even a dog or cat... the proletariat had gone out to the airport to see him arrive.

They didn't know what they were in for with that lunatic with his thick stormy black eyebrows whose sinister visage seemed anything but religious more like criminally insane yet even though Black Friday should have been a warning of things to come... his ends justified his means... he even eventually prosecuted a true saint Ayatollah Taleghani, who had once been forced to watch his own daughter being raped by Savak agents...

Each day in the paper, the tabloids would have black and white photos of the naked bodies riddled with bullet holes of the officials of the Shah's regime who had been executed the night before many of whom were my friends like Doctor Said Said, Speaker of the Tehran City Council or my employer like General Khosrodad. It was like the Reign of Terror after the French Revolution except instead of a woman instigator of the executions it was this old priest...

The revolutionaries were so frightened that to spare any of the former regime might risk their returning to power, that they were out for blood. Poor Hoveyda; Khomeini's son awoke him at 4 am and shot him in the head after stating his accusations as: " Sins against heaven and earth... " Hoveyda, whom I had met personally one summer when I was 16 visiting Tehran, at a reception in the garden of the Foreign Ministry held in honor of all the Iranian college students studying abroad on government scholarships who were home for the holidays.

Hoveyda, who had personally called to wish my best friend well when it was discovered that he had bone cancer... Like a cancer, Iran was killing its own intelligentsia, its best and its brightest and those brains who could escape did, often in spectacularly daring ways like the former chancellor of Tehran University Nahavandi who dressed like a woman in Chador ( and he was a big man) and rode in the back of a van across the border into Pakistan or other famous persons like Manoucher Farmanfarmaian, who walked into Turkey...

Americans lead such sheltered lives... they are eons apart from the realities of the people they bomb and I am praying that they don't bomb the Cradle of Western Civilization again... It is inconceivable to me that during the "Silent War" that Scud missiles from Iraq were actually careening down the streets of Tehran... .it is unimaginable to me and yet everyone remembers the V2 attacks by the Nazis on London during WWII with their characteristic whistling dive bombing sound as their fuel became spent stalling their rocket engines in flight to send them into free fall descent... raining death and destruction and terror.

Why is it that the victors can be so sensitive to their own suffering but not so to that of the vanquished or to their victims when we all share our humanity in common? How many times have I heard Afghans say that an Afghan life is worth nothing in Afghanistan? How did that come about in a country so full of innocence and beauty and devotion to God and loving kindness which I experienced in 1977 and how did Iranians who are the most generous and tolerant culture on earth come to be portrayed as the bogeyman of the Western World...

My universe has been turned on its head, my dear friends, all you victims, you refugees, you Diaspora, my heart hurts with you... I see in my mind's eye a recollection of the pistachio tree, so full of nails that you couldn't see the bark, dead without a leaf in the courtyard of the tomb of Timur in Herat, and with it died the hopes of all the barren Afghan women who had placed those nails there in the hopes that it would make them fertile... so they could mother new life, new humanity and new hope...

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