Tehran, February, 1979
“So you’re a bachelor,” I ventured.
“Why do you say that, agha?”
“You wear the brown of a bachelor.”
“That is a custom for the maghrebi—the westerners. The Berbers. For me it is a good color to disguise the filth I encounter here. For example, that dog.”
“Nice taqiyah!” I was complimenting his white cap. White linen doubled over with a kind of gold filigree.
“It is an araqchin, agha.”
“Why are you sitting here?” I asked. I had had enough of the xenophobic vocabulary lesson. He’s irritated me so I decided to be irritable in return.
“I am making illustrations of the bustle and tragedy of these people. These Emricani and the Irani. Maybe some are from Afghanistan as well. They are always in the wrong place. Always the wrong time, those Afghani.”
His pencil drawings were quite dramatic. From time to time he looked up, leaned over so that he could see around me, and then went back to his figures. They don’t look happy. Maybe they’re Afghans brought in for day labor. Now no longer welcome. Like us. Most likely Iranians deemed to have been too close to the Shah. And so marked for revolutionary justice. A la Robespierre or Danton? Not exactly.
“Are you going to Emrica? With these people?”
“You ask so many questions, agha. I choose not to answer them. And please move the dog away.”
“Charlie?” I said, “Heel.” Charlie obeyed although by his yanking on the leash I could tell he was wondering about this boy. Not suspecting. For that he would have growled with menace. That would even scare me.
There was a momentary rat-tat of gunfire. Maybe in the air. Maybe Air Force versus Army. The Air Force had already mutinied, joining the revolutionaries. The Army was just falling apart. This would be a good time for Iraq to attack, I thought. That’s all we’d need.
“I’m trying to hitch a ride out. Are you going out?” I asked again.
He chose not to answer. Instead he got up, folded up his drawing tablet, and headed into the crowd. The panicky crowd. Without his entire portfolio. As he did, he threw off the brown djellaba. To expose a white djellaba. A kind of caftan. Pure white like a bed sheet. With what seemed to be a priest’s collar. Matched the hat—the taqiyah.
Anyway, I think I can clear this artist. As he rose to escape me, I had managed to maneuver him, to slam into him which allowed me to check him out. I later realized I hadn’t checked the hat. Who would put an explosive under a hat? So, clear. Unless pencils are classified as weaponry these days.
But he left his portfolio leaning against the wall. I picked it up to return it to him. But he was lost in the crowd. So I continued my perambulations. Me and Charlie. Checking out civilians. Wondering about the Air Force guys who’d gone rogue. By looking for give-away facial features, steely eyes, nervous twitches, sweaty foreheads, Pahlavi symbols—none of which were immediately evident. So I had to subtly feel them up. Women too. Even women in burkas were subject to my curious but subtle hands. And other body parts.
I told the Colonel this approach would not float. “It’s all we’ve got,” he admitted. “You’re all we’ve got. You know the language. And the culture. And you even look the part.”
This time he didn’t give me any shit about the beard. Or the stringy, overgrown growth of black hair. Or the djellaba I often sported. Brown for bachelor. From my Maghrebi days.
“This touching could become a capital offense under the new government.”
“We’ll get you out of here,” he assured me. Or tried to.
“Yeah. Sure. I’m not even Corps anymore,” I whined.
“I know. I’m appealing to your patriotism . . .”
“And my desire to commit suicide! These guys—they’re probably guys—armed with grenades, might just blow themselves up if they see they can’t attain their objective.” I said as much.
“You’d take cover,” he mumbled. He didn’t believe it either.
So there we were, Charlie and me. Checking out civilians. Mostly Iranians. Like that goofy little artist. Looking for those tells.
“We’ll have your back,” the colonel insisted.
“Me too,” I said. I almost saluted too. Old habits.
So I did the bump and grind. To no result. For four days without an incident. Planes finally taking off on the hour from Mehrabad. Guarded by rogue Iranian servicemen and guys who didn’t take great care of their weaponry—or personal hygiene. Like me.
You knew it wasn’t going to last. That Murphy always prevailed. And he did.
First a guy started yelling—screaming really—that this guy was touching up his wife. I think he meant me. I’m sure she gave me a wink through her burka eye slits.
He wasn’t amused. And came at me. You know. Trying to show his manhood without actually striking me. “Pedar sag!” (dog father). I positioned to throw him down with two maneuvers.
The explosion went off at that very moment. That’s when all hell broke out. Even more than before. The panicked became even more panicky. Screaming everywhere. And the offended guy was pointing at me as if I was the one who’d set off the grenade.
Charlie was pulling me the other way. So we—well, I—elbowed my way through the crowd. The first time I’d ever run from a fight. Unless under orders to do so. Which was fairly often in the ‘Nam days, come to think of it.
Fragments of his now bloody white djellaba were strewn around where the explosion occurred. Strewn among the blood and other bodies. A United Nations of bystanders. I worked to insinuate myself into the crowd of mesmerized onlookers. Too busy pointing out body parts to be concerned with me. Or the abused husband screamer who lagged somewhere behind me.
I think I saw the artist’s head. At least a part of it. Fragments of brain showed. But the skull cap remained glued to the brain goop, decorating what was left. Charlie gave it a lick. Then shook it off with doggie exasperation.
That offended guy was gathering a crowd. So that’s when two equally grubby guys as grubby as me grabbed me and Charlie and dragged us away. Toward the runway. Dragging me, since I didn’t want to aid them by cooperating in whatever purpose they had.
Until one said “Dammit Michael, give us a hand here. Or a foot at least. Your days here are done. You’ve been made. Here’s your passport of the day. Take this flight out and remember the rest of us in your prayers!”
“It was no big deal. I can finish the gig,” I argued. I took the packet.
“Colonel’s orders, Michael. You know how that goes.”
Yeah, true to his word. I knew these guys from other battles in other places. So somewhat against my will I let them drag and shove me to the plane’s stairway. “Get Charlie aboard,” I yelled.
Then they pushed me down the aisle to a waiting seat. “Best, Michael.” And they were gone. Those around me looked at me suspiciously. I don’t blame them. I would too.
I still looked the part of a revolutionary, but my passport didn’t match. The guy next to me instinctively recoiled when I was shoved into the aisle seat. I gave him what I tried to make into a friendly smile. I quickly sneaked a look at the passport I’d been holding to my chest. The one in the packet. “Michael Waller,” I said, introducing myself to myself the same time as to my seat partner. “Canadian.”
“You look like one of them,” he said, relaxing a bit.
“I was on the job.”
“This guy is Israeli,” he said, indicating his neighbor on the other side.
“Shit. Tell him to put away his passport. They’ll be coming through. Coming to check us out. Pull non-Americans off the plane. Especially Israelis. Jeez, how’d he get this far?”
“Winning personality, I guess.” I could work with this guy.
I couldn’t have been clearer. But the Israeli teared up. “They cried for me. For my departing. That I would have to leave them even,” he said through his tears.
“Not the same here. Here’s an extra American passport for you. American. You don’t mind being an American for five minutes, do you? Also, I suggest we lower our tray tables and we’ll pass these things around. Under them.” All done in a stage whisper. “Then we’ll do a kind of three-card Monte to throw them off. Do constant exchanges.”
Of course, it was about this time that one of the Revolutionaries approached. Fully armed. I hate to think what a single shot would do to our flight plans.
“Sala’am, agha,” the guy said. Polite enough.
“How ya doin’, eh?” I answered in my ersatz Canadian.
“Passeportes,” he commanded.
I handed him all three. “Bet you can’t tell who’s American and who’s not,” I challenged. I did a little shuffle with the passports.
He grumbled and grunted as he looked at them. He started to read all three, open on my tray table, at once. Two were upside down. I doubt he could read so he was going by the photos. Of course mine, the Canadian, was clean shaven; so was the other American’s. The Israeli’s photo, my backup, had a full beard. The Israeli didn’t. “Bet you can’t guess who’s who from those photos.”
“You look Irani. Hastin? (Are you?)” he growled.
“Of course not. I dressed for a planned birthday party. But my colleagues insisted that I depart. So here I am.”
Of course, he was not amused. He studied the photos for a long moment. Then threw the bearded American passport at the Israeli, the Canadian one to my American friend, and his to me. “You are this one,” he said with certainty. A perfect Monte.
“Still we hunt for one Israeli,” he went on. He looked at me suspiciously.
“Give it up. Besides, there are no Israelis on this plane. Not right now. And do you know what damage you could do with one bullet fired into the fuselage of this plane?”
“Kill one Israeli?”
“Prevent the plane from taking off. Then you’re stuck with two hundred of us. And probably still with one Israeli.”
“Bia! Zood bash digeh!” (Come on! Hurry up!) a Revolutionary at the front door yelled.
The Revolutionary looked uncertain. As if he smelled something was wrong. Then he turned to go. As he did, the salutation “Allahu Akbar!” floated behind him..
Airborne. A little later the captain came on over the loudspeaker to let us know we’d cleared Iranian airspace. Much cheering followed.
As for me, on to other exotic destinations . . . to screw up.
David worked in data communications, taking assignments around Africa (Ivory Coast, Chad, Algeria), Iran (Tehran), and France (Paris, La Défense). Then he careened into full-time writing, often exploiting the adventures he experienced abroad. He has short story and poetry publications as well as two books related to technology and two works of fiction in publication. The fiction includes: The Mystery of the Big Booger for kids and Land of the Sun, Land without Light—historical espionage. He received a PhD from Boston University.