Noilly Prattle: Persian Odyssey: Part XVIII – things fall apart

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Persian Odyssey: Part XVIII – things fall apart

street demonstrations
Between August and December 1978 strikes and demonstrations increasingly paralyzed the country.

How to describe what amounts to being in a combat zone?

When I was a kid there was a section of Boston's Washington Street and the area around Scollay Square that was often referred to as “the combat zone”. It was an area of bars and strip and clip joints frequented by sailors from the nearby naval base and civilian habitués seeking thrills of various kinds—including barroom brawls, from which the zone's nickname was partly derived. One high school rite of passage in the 1950s for boys was to be able to brag about having seen some T&A at the Old Howard burlesque theater in Scollay Square. But, I digress. Nostalgia, I guess!

Esfahan became, by degrees, something of a combat zone with weapons more deadly than the fisticuffs of Washington Street. Many of the haunts of the expat community and their association with “western corruption”, such as movie houses, restaurants, clubs, discos—even some banks—were attacked with molotov cocktails, homemade bombs and various and sundry incendiary devices. Gunfire and machine gun rat-a-tat-tats could be heard in the streets, especially at night outside of our high walls, making venturing on the streets between sundown and sunrise a risky business.

Abassi Hotel and Shah Mosque dome
Living alone left me feeling insecure. In chaotic situations like this, one seeks the shelter of the tribe in the community cave. The tribe was no longer gathering at the customary newly burnt out shells of our watering holes and the sense of isolation became increasingly stronger especially after business hours. Fortunately, there were some other guys in the teachers' room at the school looking to get together (one of whom was my original roommate J.) and we decided to share a house with a couple other guys owned by a doctor who was sympathetic to the ancien régime and was courageous enough to rent the house to foreigners. This house was not far from the old Abassi Hotel and practically in the shadow of the dome of the Shah Mosque, but also in a central area that was particularly busy with the nighttime fire fights between the rebel Islamist forces and the Shah's soldiers. The rat-a-tat-tats were closing in on us.

darkness in daylight
D. had moved on after our rift and had also moved from our house. I wanted to do a little fence mending and apologize for what had happened. I decided to go and see her one night on foot (I had sold the Yamaha) in spite of the risks. So I put on some dark clothes and a dark woolen cap (trying to look like a local in the dark) and headed for her house. I hadn't known she was with another guy, so I just made polite noises and small talk for a few minutes and excused myself, but D. followed me down the stairs. At the bottom I turned and we hugged each other, I told her that I was sorry for the way things had not worked out and that I had decided to leave Esfahan as soon as possible. She wished me well and said that she wasn't ready to go yet. And so I turned, blended into the shadows, and walked off into the night.

idle Hueys - flight training suspended
A sense of gloom was slowly descending on the teachers' room. The base was now involved in a struggle for its own existence. Training programs languished as did the teaching staff who spent most of our days hanging around and speculating on what the future might bring—should I stay, should I leave? There were incidents of scuffles with the locals and the expats. For example, I shared a cab to go the base one day with several other local people as far as a traffic circle where we would pick up the base bus to go the rest of the way. When the cab reached the stop I was angrily hustled, almost pushed, out of the cab for no apparent reason except that I was a foreigner. I was relieved to see other teachers waiting for the base bus and joined them.

demonstrations became increasingly more violent
Things went from bad to worse. We would get lectures from company supervisors telling us that, according to the Embassy, things were going alright and we should hang in until the rebels were defeated—show support for the Shah. Meanwhile, the banks were shut down and we could no longer get our money out. For some people who had been in Esfahan a long time that was a very serious development since they had considerable sums locked up in Iranian rials. My money was mostly in cash. Still, we kept getting assurances from the Embassy that it was just a matter of time now and things would be back to business as usual. People were agonizing over whether to get out or stay. Surely, some of the more naïve and obtuse ones reasoned, the Embassy must know better than we did how things were developing in the streets and the rest of the country. Then the airport was shut down and it was no longer possible to leave whether you wanted to or not. So much for the Embassy's assurances. This was sometime in December as I remember it.

To be concluded...


Anonymous said...

That scene where you go out at night to see D. is straight out of a film noir movie...Casablanca? What happened to her?

Are these photos ones that you took there?

Quite an exciting adventure.

Noilly Prattle said...

Nope, "Esfahan '78" really happened just that way. I made it back to my own house OK. I met D. again a year later in Tokyo. We were working for the same company, but in different parts of Japan. No, the photos aren't mine; taken from the Internet to add color to the story.

Anonymous said...