Thursday, November 13, 2014


This morning, Victoria Sullivan, publisher of Border Press, and I were discussing a re-issue of my first book entitled Iran In A Persian Market. I began to reminisce about the flight to Tehran from London that my daughters and I made when we joined my husband who worked as a petroleum engineer with the National Iranian Oil Company in Ahwaz, Iran.

"I don't think things were as volatile in the 70's as they are in the Mideast now," I said, "but I do remember being herded off the plane in Tel Aviv, daughters in tow. We were greeted by soldiers holding machine guns and were placed in stalls where we were thoroughly searched. Later, someone on the plane who had previously traveled the route said that the so-called search for a bomb on the plane was only a cover-up for sales at the duty-free shops in the airport." Here's an excerpt from Sophie's Sojourn in Persia, a young adult novel I wrote, documenting this incident:

"We were supposed to be on the ground twenty minutes, and Mother told us we could stay on the plane. The captain's voice boomed over the intercom. 'All passengers must clear the plane. Take the buses to the terminal and wait for further instructions. Please clear the plane quickly. Carry all hand luggage with you...'

"As we walked down the steps toward a long bus resembling a trolley car, my mother gasped. Six soldiers wearing khaki uniforms stood in front of the bus, machine guns resting in their hands. They glared at us. The sun beat down on them, and great wet spots spread from their underarms. It was very hot....

"'It's only a checkpoint of some kind, I'm sure,' Mother reassured us. An old woman wearing a felt hat grabbed my mother's free arm and held on. 'Are we going to be shot?' she asked. Her voice quavered with fear... 'Of course not,' my mother said. 'They're probably checking the plane to see if it needs repairs or something...'

"Inside the terminal, dark-skinned women dressed exactly like the men soldiers herded us into a back room. It was filled with stalls that had dirty white curtains for doors. A woman motioned for the three of us to go into a stall. 'All of you can go in together,' she said to my mother. 'When you get inside, strip down to underclothes. Leave your bags with me...' She went over to my mother and felt her underclothing all over. My mother turned red and said pleadingly, 'You don't have to search the children that way.' The woman smiled. 'It's my job to search for weapons. My name is Leah...'

"The woman had put our bags in a corner of the stall and began to go through them. When she opened Suzy's bag (Suzy was a fictitious name for my youngest daughter) and pulled out a rubber octopus, she let out a piercing scream. The octopus dangled from a dirty string that Leah held in her hand as she ran from the room screaming and giggling...Leah and several other women ran from stall to stall, dangling the rubber animal for all to see. ...Finally, the woman took the octopus to the guard at the entrance to the room. He unbuttoned his shirt and took out a knife. Holding the octopus in the air with one hand, he slashed it three or four times in the head, then dropped it into Leah's hands. 'No explosive here,' Leah said, throwing the octopus to Mother...

"The old woman in the felt hat came over and patted Suzy on the top of her head. 'There, there,' she said. 'I just talked to Mrs. Seton.' She gestured toward a woman with bright red hair and a sharp nose sitting nearby. 'She says there was talk of a bomb threat, and that's why we had to clear the plane. They had to take out all the seats and search thoroughly. We should be leaving in thirty minutes...'

"Suzy stopped crying, but my mother's face got this tight look, and a bluish ring appeared around her mouth. 'Bombs? Who would do such a thing?' she asked. 'We aren't Arab spies!'
Mrs. Seton spoke up. 'Most of us are going somewhere in the Mideast to work or to be with husbands who work there. I don't think there was a real threat. Do you notice how many people bought gifts at the duty-free shops? I think it was a trick to get us to buy their wares...

"We boarded the plane and took off... It was evening, but the sky was blue, blue, with hardly any clouds in it. I looked down at the soldiers still standing on the airfield with their hands on the machine guns and wondered if we'd get the same kind of welcome in Tehran..."

At the time of the incident I accepted that explanation for being herded off the plane because the Israelis wanted us to shop at the duty-free stores; it was a reassuring thought for me and my young daughters, and this morning I continued to relate the experience as if all had been well during the time we spent in the airport. A few hours later, when I researched the Israeli-Palestinian situation of 1973-74, I was shocked to discover that in September of 1974, fifteen months after our encounter in Tel Aviv, a TWA jet with 88 passengers traveling from Tel Aviv to Athens, crashed into the Ionian Sea after Palestinian militants detonated a bomb hidden in the luggage compartment. The crash killed all the passengers and crew members aboard!! 

Forty-one years later, I stand guilty of "ignorance is bliss," since heretofore I believed that the investigation of the plane was a ploy to stimulate interest in duty-free goods. In any case, during the first three months in Iran when I experienced cultural shock, I avoided reading or talking about political incidents that resulted in severe consequences anywhere in the Mideast and buried the memory until I returned Stateside. I then recorded the cause of the Tel Aviv incident the way a fellow passenger had explained it when we finally resumed the journey to Tehran. The delay in Tel Aviv caused us to arrive at midnight at Mehrabad Airport and to experience another uneasy introduction to our sojourn in the Mideast.

However, I did overcome cultural shock and have written three books about our two-year stay in Iran, the last one being The Holy Present and Farda, a book of poetry recording the more fascinating aspects of this Mideastern culture and its history.

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