Saturday, May 28, 2011

Terrorism and Traffic

It's only a matter of months before I release my memoir of family life in the Foreign Service. Here's an excerpt that I hope will tease your interest:

Danger was real and present in Tehran when we arrived there in 1975, and we heard all about it from Fred's embassy colleagues. They described the Revolutionaries' plot to depose the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Although the Shah was credited with the modernization of Iranian infrastructure, he was also guilty of using his ruthless intelligence agency SAVAK to crush all forms of political opposition. Religious leaders denounced his methods and criticized his doctrines as well as his alliance with the United States. Revolution was not a new idea -- the Shah's army had quelled an uprising in 1963 and forced the Ayatollah Khomeini into exile. Now, in 1975 terrorists again pursued the overthrow of the government by attacking high-level military and political figures, both Iranian and American. The terrorists included diplomats on their hit list, and during our two-year stay, they assassinated seven Americans in Tehran.

Fred and I asked each other why the State Department career counselor had described Tehran in such glowing terms, making it seem like a grand resort serving caviar sandwiches, rather than a city fraught with unrest and terrorist activity. We concluded later, after years of experience in the Foreign Service, that most of the folks who chose to serve at Main State in Washington, DC, rarely left the United States. They might excel at their jobs; they might know all about foreign policy; but they had little or no idea of what was actually going on in everyday life in these far away corners of the world.

Embassy security experts told us that women and children were not terrorist targets, so I felt safe, safer than in Washington, DC to be honest. But the risk for Fred worried me sick, even though the embassy provided armored cars with armed guards to transport staff members to work. Fred told me he felt uncomfortably like the bulls-eye in a large target while riding in the official car. He decided to drive by himself in our VW. He grew his hair long again and completed his disguise with a full beard. Even with blue eyes, he passed for an Iranian.

Of course driving alone also presented dangers. Drivers in Tehran defied every traffic rule known to mankind. Vehicles of all shapes and sizes darted from lane to lane, treating stop lights as nothing more than pretty decorations. If there were a gap on the opposite side of the street a vehicle soon filled it, dodging the oncoming traffic. Gridlock was common and led to shouting and fistfights. When we asked an Embassy driver what all the yelling was about, we learned how colorful Iranian insults could be. "You son of a barren camel!" Or, "Try to paint my fart!" On several other occasions we had to maneuver around a car coming backwards on a one-way street. Did the drivers really believe that the arrow on the street sign referred to the direction of the car's position rather than the direction of its motion?

Because Fred took our car every day, when I wanted to go out I called a taxi. That is, until I discovered the buses. The city owned a fleet of faded green double-decker buses retired from service on the streets of London. Dakota, Tina, and I enjoyed the view from the upper deck where we could see over the high walls into all the landscaped rose gardens. No matter how crowded the bus was down below, we usually had the upper deck to ourselves. I commented on that fact to an Iranian friend and he laughed.

"Everyone knows it's not safe to ride up there," he said.

"Why is that?" I couldn't imagine what could be dangerous about the upper level that wouldn't also be true of the lower level of the bus.

My friend chuckled again. "Well, you see, it is very dangerous to ride on the upper deck because there is no driver up there, no driver, you see?"


  1. I love it! Very colorful description.

  2. I never thought of Fred as an Iranian but after what you wrote, sure, why not? I want three autographed copies of your book when published, please. I love your writing and humor. I think State Dept. people can sell beach front property to people in Arizona! The realities of Mogadishu did not exactly match the pre-information we were given. But we were young, naive, and adventurous. Jo

  3. Here's to being young, naive, and adventurous! I'll be happy to set aside three signed copies for Jo as soon as the book is in print.

  4. Great! Another thing you could do in pre-release of your book is try to get self-contained excerpts published. The punchline here is a great ending to a short piece. -Shara