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Home page > Articles > American Embassy/Mina Siegel

American Embassy/Mina Siegel

Saturday 5 November 2011

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Feminist School: The following story is written by Mina Siegel on US Tehran Embassy Occupation Anniversary.

My brother dropped me off in front of the American embassy in upscale Takht-e-Jamshid Avenue and told me he would see me at one o’clock across the street in Hotel America’s restaurant for lunch. I walked to the closed gate of the embassy and asked the young Marine behind the gate where I should go to renew my visa. He smiled and turned his head to his right side and pointed to the extended wall of the embassy. I nodded to him and followed the direction of his pointed hand towards where the beautiful lawn disappeared behind a dilapidated brick wall. A short brick step-stoop leading to a rotting little wooden door with no sign on did not look more welcoming than the mute marine behind the main entrance to the embassy. An unarmed Iranian guard appeared soon from the half opened door. “I’m here to renew my visa,” I told him.

He smiled too. “You should come early in the morning to get a number.” “How early?” I asked.

“Seven.”

“Seven a.m.!” I just repeated, light-headedly.

A little further under the shade of a few trees there were some thirty or more young people, mostly men, with folders under their arms, talking or waiting idly. Some of them seemed have gotten their visas, showing their passports to each other. I approached them to find out what was going on. One of those who had already received his visa told another one who, like myself, had come late, “You should come early, around four o’clock in the morning. Numbers are given at seven.”

“Four o’clock in the morning?” I interrupted, and then apologized. “It is all right, yes, if you would try a couple of days that early, you will finally get in.”

“Couple of days?” I asked again.

“I mean, you should try a few times. Thursdays are the best and least crowded days since many people are away for weekend.”

I stayed a little longer, aimlessly looking around. The dilapidated wall, the rotten wooden door, and, a little further away, the fancy iron grille of the entrance to the embassy, the green lawn behind it with the water sprinklers here and there, they all seemed gray and dull to me under the hot August sun. I started walking, not knowing where; my white linen crisp clothing glued to my skin made it harder for me to breath or walk. Even the cool breeze passing over the lawn felt like hot steam on my face when I passed the embassy‘s gate. The Marine was still there, walking back and forth; seeing me, he smiled again. “Really dumb!” I decided.

I walked a little, really upset, or more precisely, disillusioned. A nasty feeling bubbled inside me, a feeling I wanted to ignore. “Four o’clock in the morning … A few days…” I kept repeating to myself like a mantra. I dragged myself back to the brick wall, under the shade of trees and joined the crowd waiting there. “This does not look like America!” I thought to myself just to change the mantra. “Wait a minute, what does not look like America? Did those streets behind City College look like America? Did those places in the South Bronx and the other side of Grand Concourse look like America? Hey, but Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum look like America.” I started to make a list of all those places that looked like America and those they didn’t, though it did not help. No, it was not that much its lack of Americanism that was troubling, it was something else unknown to me then.

I crossed the street and walked a little, passed Hotel America. It was still too early, so I continued walking a block or two when I found myself in front of the Super Iran. I walked in and went right to the magazine and newspaper rack. Everything was there, Time, New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, but no Village Voice. I picked up the Playboy quite involuntary, looking over my shoulders to see if someone was watching me. I leafed through it to open the centerfold. It was a nude picture of Suzanne Somers! Strange! It was not like the old times at all when those centerfold ladies seemed to be created so pretty and perfect that one could hardly imagine that they were real with an actual life. We used to place those pictures at the bathroom door at our home without meeting any objections, not even our parents’, or our conservative visitors’. They were accepted just as the old graphics of Adam and Eve with Cain and Abel in my father’s drawing room, But this was the picture of a not-so-pretty and no-so-perfect TV star with the most imperfect controversial story spread about it all over the media back in the US. I dropped it back in the rack, and picked up Time instead, and without even looking at it, started walking through the aisles as if walking in a miniature America, something we used to do after our Friday lunch in Hotel America back when we were teens.

No, the magic was gone from that fantasyland too. The cereal boxes did not drag me to the fairyland where life was all fun and kids could have nuts and sweets for breakfast and have special “toy food” or TV dinners when watching TV or playing. A few years living in the States has destroyed that fantasy I had formed in my mind about America. I had found out that those little bites of food in those well-packed boxes were only food for adults who cannot cook. Hardest of all was the display of canned juices from California all over the supermarket that smacked me on the face on that particular day. They were no fantasy then, and it seemed they had become brute snobbishness. With all those fresh juice bars in Tehran, why should they bring preserved fruit juice from such a distance? I went back and put Time magazine in the rack and left the supermarket.

I walked back to Hotel America. Surprisingly, that was still the same; still passersby could not miss the famous salad bar, set lavishly near the window. The variety of shredded cabbage, javelin cuts of carrots, cooked seasoned chickpeas, and a variety of bean salads and potato salads etc. were not just a “variety to choose from” to avenge our appetizer-free gourmet dishes, and there was the sense of rebellion in them against God-sent commandments to Iranians: “Thou shall not change your salad recipe of lettuce, tomato and cucumber.” But, being a weekday, missing were noisy American kids running loudly and joyfully, unscolded by parents, in the dining area

I found a table and sat waiting for my brother to come, looking at my transcript and wondering if I would be able to get my visa within the two weeks left of my vacation.

“Did you get it?” My brother asked, as soon as he arrived. “No. I should come early in the morning, around four o’clock” “Oh, nonsense! What do you mean, four o’clock in the morning? “Go and ask yourself. I’ll sit here.”

We picked up our plates and went to the salad bar, but it was not so much fun any more. I didn’t know if it was the food that had lost its novelty or the lump in my throat that had blocked my appetite and even taste. My brother said he has not been there for such a long time. “I’m not going to Maharaja, the Indian restaurant, or Café Ghanari anymore. You know, the phrase “in front of the American Embassy” turns so many heads these days that I can not bring myself to utter it.” “What about referring to Ghanari or the cross street, Roosevelt?” I asked.

“That won’t do it either; every one knows they are all across from the American Embassy.”

“Yes I hear you, such a pity. I like the people, I mean Americans. But you know, I miss them. In America you really miss America and Americans. That little American community we have here, Iran - America Friendship Society or the Iran-America Society are more America than the New York City. During the three years I spent there, I lost sense of American goodness. You do not come across the sense of “freedom and liberty” or even “democracy” as such. I’m sure they are somewhere, but one does not get a chance to meet them. I don’t know how to explain it. You know? One does not even see the appreciation of anything, no one gets excited about anything. I don’t know what, but something is missing.”

I was just rambling on without thinking. I was sad and felt very nostalgic for all those old good days when, in spite of all our anti-imperialist talk, we liked America. Most of us were happy to close our eyes to think of it as the last good place on earth, where the troubled people of the world could take refuge in its openness and enjoy the generosity of its nature and its people. That “goodness” was fading, both in our mind and in reality.

“Do you remember when we saw Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf together in the Iran-America Society’s playhouse?” we asked each other simultaneously. And we smiled at the memory of that night. The play was produced by American troops, all amateurs, working in embassy or Iran-America Friendship Society, and their families. My brother knew very little English then, though it seems we did not need to know any language at all to understand the play. When the play ended, we drove home with a few friends. It was unusual for us to leave the theater or movie in such quiet and sober mood. Although the play had laid great emphasis on the relationship between men and women and the lack of communication between them, and although neither of us had been in any serious relationship to identify with it, it had such a strong effect on us. It seems we all felt something, something we did not want to admit. It seems that famous doorbell ring in the play had alarmed us all that some bad news was on its way. “Are you seeing a lot of plays there? Did you get a chance to check out those four hundred theaters you were so excited about? Is it really true that all of them are performing every night?” he asked, referring to the main reason I chose to study in New York City.

“I guess there are, though, it is not what it meant to me then. Altogether they are too commercialized for my taste. The actors and actresses are packed and out of the theater way before the audience. And even worse, no matter how good the play is, it doesn’t resonate with the audience. Remember when Eddie left the telephone booth in The View from The Bridge? Remember how the whole audience sighed? That would never happen in New York. Not that I know of.

I happened to teach that play in one of my courses. Most of the students did not even notice the significance of the scene. And even when I brought it to their attention that Eddy was reporting on his wife’s nephews, they were puzzled as if to say, “So what.” What we have learned about America is ancient history; that America does not exist anymore. Things are very different, very different. Today, there is nothing wrong with what Americans do, the motto there is I’m OK, you are OK, he /she is OK…. everything is OK. OK, OK, OK., that is the message there, do you understand? Something called “equality” always prevails, top is as good as the bottom, climbing is the same as falling; gaining is the other side of losing. And so, tragedy never happens, except when is a flood or an earthquake.”

That was the first time since my return that I was alone with my brother, with all those past memories rushing back to life. I noticed how much I missed those little things that I had never paid attention to. Now back at home, I noticed how much the America I lived in the last three years was different from the America I knew before. I wondered if things were so different or if it was I who had changed and saw things differently. Maybe it had something to do with that particular day. I felt sad; it seemed that something had been shattered that day and I saw a piece of real America among the scattered pieces.

********

We both went to the embassy at four in the morning. A row of boys and girls, mostly in blue jeans, were sitting next to each other in the street outside the embassy their back against the wall and legs stretched in front of them, their folders or small briefcases on their laps, heads slightly tilted to one side, dozing. Passing them all the way to the end of the wall and turned to the alley behind, we joined the cue. There were around one hundred people there already. My brother stayed with me, and every few minutes filled his cheeks with air and send out a “pooh” in disbelief.

I woke up by feeling the warm glow of the sun on my face. It was six in the morning. I had fallen asleep on my brother’s shoulder, and he had fallen asleep with his head on the shoulder of a girl next to him. The girl was already awake. I hurriedly shook my brother, who woke up, seemed embarrassed and disoriented, blinked several times and stuttered something inaudible. But the girl was very sweet and said she had dozed off herself and did not notice anything. We all got up, shaking ourselves. I noticed the crowed had doubled while we napped. Soon, a line formed behind the wall of the embassy and extended far into in the alley, weaving like a maze.

Finally, at seven o’clock, the guard started to distribute the numbers. The first sixty or seventy got their numbers. The rest? Well, “Come back on Saturday!” I ran to one of those lucky ones with number and asked him when he got in.

“I came at twelve.”

“Twelve?

“Yes, when I came some twenty people were here already,” he said cheerfully with quite sense of achievement in his tone.

“What does it mean? We should really sleep in the street?” I thought I went home alone. My brother already had been left for his work. No one would have believed me if my brother had not have borne witness. I did not mind staying in line even for twelve hours during the daytime, but sleeping in the street was something very unbecoming to me, it did not fit my self-image, a graduate student at Columbia University sleeping like a bum in the street all night! It was a temporary relief that the following day was Friday and embassy was closed, but that weekend there was no talk about anything except my visa and the American Embassy. It seemed there we had no choice but the first and last resort, finding someone in the Embassy to let me in out of order! I was lucky. I went to the Consulate Office (I found out that the dilapidated building was the Consulate General’s Office) at eight in the morning standing among the crowd, waiting for this guy to show up. After a while the first ten numbers went inside and the rest still were standing either for their numbers to be called or something happens, when the guard came out and shouted: “is there any Minoo Minooi here?”

“Yes that is me,” I said.

“OK, come in,” he said, while with one hand he opened the door a little and with another, as if guarding me from the rest of the crowd, guided me inside. It was horrific. The crowd booed and hissed vaguely, and I very sheepishly walked up the stoop and squeezed myself through the half-open door, shut the door behind me, and closed my eyes with my back pressed to the door, almost like fainting. I had no energy to walk or even open my eyes again.

It took a while before I found enough courage or strength to open my eyes. Where was I? My back against the door, I found myself in something like the courtyard of a rural house, a rectangular area, not so large, paved with either brick or old cement or a mix of the two. A few feet away from the wall, an unlined narrow but deep gutter was running across the length of the courtyard. On the opposite side, there was another wall with a door on its far left side. I jumped over the gutter and went through the door opening to the back of a small room with some metal folding chairs placed in three or four rows. A sliding glass window in the front separated this room from another room, apparently the consul’s office. I dropped myself on one of the chairs in the last row to compose myself, get oriented, and see what I was doing there. A big picture of Jimmy Carte hanging on the opposite wall in the other room reminded me where I was. I kept gazing at his smiling face, and kept thinking of his inauguration speech while waiting to be called to the window just to pick up an application, and even much longer to return the application back to the consul and be interviewed.

Waiting long, I felt tired, hot, and thirsty. There was no water fountain in the waiting room; hesitantly, I walked out to the courtyard, jumped over the gutter and asked the guard from the crack of the door where I could have some water. He looked at me and said, “Water?” “Yes, drinking water.” To my amazement, he pointed at a hose, which I had not noticed at first, muddy and camouflaged by a coat of dirt, laying across the edge of the gutter, extended to the end of wall where there was a little cubical den. I walked closer to pick up the hose; an offensive smell came through the crack of the small door of the den that distracted me for a second. I had guessed right. It was the bathroom. Two brick walls separated the corner of the yard from the rest of it. A ground level toilet stall (what is called here a Turkish toilet) had apparently been installed over the gutter. I picked up the hose. The water, running with a slow flow, was clean and cool. I washed off the soil and mud that had stuck on the head of the hose; and, with my hand I poured water over it again and again careful enough not to stain my dress. The smell coming through the bathroom was still bothering. I felt an urge to direct the hose to the toilet stall and wash it, but I did not. I turned my back to it and walk away, but the smell in my nostril persisted. I poured water over my hands again, filled my palm with water, brought it close to my nose to inhale and wash away the odor. It did not help, but the cool water over my hands felt good. I wished I could wash my face, I wished I could go to that cubical and take my cloths off and wash my whole body, my feet, my shoulder and my neck, and my arms and my face again; not of dirt, but of smell and that offensive odor. I closed my eyes again and let the feeling of the running water wash me through. No, it was not thirst; it was not fatigue either. It was a nasty grim feeling inside me, something deep inside that I wanted to wash it away. It felt like shame and humiliation, of being there, in that courtyard, in front of that bathroom, with that hose in my hand. Ashamed of my thirst, for even wanting to drink any water from the hose that was lying across the dirty muddy gutter near the entrance door to that bathroom with water all over it, if it was water indeed. I was not thirsty any more. I placed the hose over the ground, away from the bathroom door, and returned to the consulate waiting room.

Back to my seat I felt thirsty again, I closed my eyes and I heard the boos and hisses again. I felt that nasty feeling griping my throat hard almost choking me. Why did I do that? Why did I do that? The hell with this damn visa! Why did I do that? I felt like crying. No, it was not that muddy hose in front of the bathroom; it was me feeling like dirt, being pushed into a corner, being forced to do something that I had promised my self not to do that again, ashamed of myself for doing such an Iranian thing, partibazi, finding a way to shortcut due process with the excuse of “necessity,” which in fact wasn’t true in my case. I could have gone to the street the night before and stayed all night there, and be among the first sixty to get my visa without all this. “What did I think and what did I expect when I agreed to this kind of solicitation? Stupid of me to accept it; what did I expect?” All I could do was to hate myself.

****** The following day I picked up my passport with my visa renewed for another year.

****** The next time I saw that building was in November 1979, when some Iranian students took over American Embassy and took the diplomats and staff as hostages.

Life was suspended for many of us for 444 nights when Ted Koppel reported every night showing scenes from Tehran with the crowd rallying behind the embassy walls chanting “Death to America.” Oddly enough, that feeling of shame emerged in me once again, thought this time I felt ashamed of doing something so un-Iranian, something against our reputation for being hospitable, for betraying the trust invested in us as a host. As the conflict progressed, the deep sadness gripped my heart in anticipation of something worse ahead, a nasty divorce I had foreseen, and had sensed much earlier that summer day in American Embassy.

One late night, watching Night Line, Ted Koppel was interviewing one of the students, nick-named Sister Mary, the only female among the hostage takers. She was a young student, with shy face and perfect English. Ted Koppel asked her if she would point the gun she carries to the Americans taken as hostage and pull the trigger if necessary. I held my breath and stared at her young face fearfully wondering, “What would she say?” She stared back and gazed right into the camera as if peering right into the Ted’s eyes. I could imagine millions were watching at that moment, millions of eyes of all colors, blue, and green, and black, and brown were fixed to those large brown eyes rimmed with thick, long eyelashes. Then something strange happened. She bent down into that gutter and dragged a muddy, dirty hose lying there with a stream of water running from it. The camera followed her into the gutter; a piece of muddy plastic wrapped around a twig was sticking to the hose. She removed it patiently and cleaned the tip of the hose and poured water over it again and again, and then she placed her finger over the tip of the hose to stop the stream of water and let only a tiny gap so the water could flow with more pressure and then she turned it to the camera. Water splashed right into the face of Ted Koppell. “Why don’t you cool off Ted. The purpose of this gun is not to kill Americans. First, this gun is not loaded with any bullets. Second, I do not know how to shoot. This gun is just loaded with humiliation and fires only resentment without any need for pulling the trigger. I picked them all right here in this dirty gutter.”

A buzz brought me back to myself. The screen went blurry, water splashed over the TV screen and was running over the table and dripping on the floor. I moved the antenna. It was better; I could see her face. She looked into camera, some of the water still on screen, still running from her eyelashes as if she was crying, though she spoke without a blink or any sign of emotion, “Yes I would do that, I would shoot and I would kill if necessary.” No hose, no gutter, no mud! With an empty water pitcher in my hand, I was staring at the scene. Ted Koppel looked wild; I do not know what he expected. But surely he did not expect a woman, with American education, who was indeed an American citizen, to be so rude and violent as she proved to be.

444 days and nights passed. Americans had their shows and Iranians were not short of their shows either. Ted Koppel stirred our emotions here and the Ayatollah did his best there too. But the only witness to the entire affair was kept out of picture. It was strange that no one drew any attention to that part of American property, no one was interested in the contrast it has created, and no one mentioned the irony of its existence. The dilapidated wall, the wooden door, the dirty unlined gutter, the hose, the bathroom all were left unmentioned and unseen. Ted Koppel did not notice it, the cameraman of whatever agency, BBC, NBC, ABC, or else did not notice it, and Sister Mary did not notice it either. Later on, as an MP or a cabinet minister, she talked, she wrote, and she was interviewed, but she never talked about that place. Indeed, in none of the memoirs, reports, or the interviews done by the former hostages, or even hostage-takers, is there any mention of the hose and gutter or the bathroom, as if they never existed, as if they were all a figments of my imagination.

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