Tuesday, April 28, 2009
The Shah was still in power when I visited Iran as a guest of the Tehran International Film festival. Ironies abounded. The film I was there for was "The Front," which dealt with the Hollywood blacklist, a black eye in the United States' history, when fear and hate-mongers dominated the times. Our "host" was an Israeli who had previously lived and worked in Iran and felt very much at home there. While being formally received in the Shah's family palaces, we were served drinks—from a cafeteria tray. Odd selections of drinks in rows of five: orange, grapefruit, Coca Cola, martinis and Bloody Mary's. No amenity was spared: additional plastic trays bore canapes of caviar paste—on bread points—in a land flowing with caviar.
We had a per diem which I applied to caviar—dollops of the real, unadulterated thing, for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We were taken to see the crown jewels, real and dazzling. And we went sightseeing. That's where I almost got into trouble. I stood and beheld a majestic mountain in the middle of Tehran. You don't see such things in Manhattan. I raised my camera and focused it. And I was stopped, alarmingly and unceremoniously, by the Israeli, who knew what I didn't: you don't take pictures of a mountain, any mountain, in Iran. "Don't even point your camera in that direction. Or anywhere near it." The mountain was probably hollow, he explained. "It's where they store their munitions."
Roxana knew not to point a camera in the wrong direction, which I didn't. I was more fortunate. While I requested wine and was informed that not only the cafeteria trays, but the palaces' store rooms themselves didn't have either red or white, I didn't care. Otherwise, I might have tried to buy some. I could have been the westerner in the Shah's western-backed Shahdom to upset the balance and trigger an international incident prior to the Islamic Revolution.
I doubt Jimmy Carter would have understood or had much sympathy for me. More likely, he would have taken the position of "Anonymous," who posted a comment [see "Free Roxana" below] about Roxana. "The U.S. doesn't need to be dealing with this now on top of all our other problems. I have a feeling Iran is going to milk this for all its worth to get whatever concessions it can from the U.S. all because this incredibly STUPID woman didn't know when to leave town! I hope she rots!"
I don't think a man with Christ's initials would have hoped I would rot, at least not until he learned how astoundingly inept I thought he was with his negotiations with the Iranians in the hostage crisis. Far be it for the Son of the Cucumber King to disparage a peanut potentate, but if I could have set him down in any Middle Eastern souk for a few hours, he would have inevitably discovered that you don't say yes until the camels come home. You make an offer and walk away. The vendors are disappointed if you don't "play the game." They'll run after you with tea—on a silvery tray. They'll drop the price and chase you even if you're not going anywhere. The Iranians in particular have a characteristic inability to take yes for an answer.
With 52 American hostages remaining in Iran (Do I have to add involuntarily?) the President of the United States pledged not to leave the Rose Garden to campaign until they were freed, making himself a hostage in the White House. His bid for reelection was the only presidential election in my lifetime when I didn't vote for the Democrat.
The conclusion of the Festival was an awards ceremony "In the Presence of Her Imperial Majesty Farah Pahlevi" at Tehran's grand Roudaki Hall, followed by a reception sans cafeteria trays. To the contrary, it featured what I estimate to this day was the world's longest buffet of sculptured food and gold flatware. Platters awkwardly in hand, we were presented to "Her Imperial Majesty," in truth a knockout. One of our band of common film frolickers, Marjoe Gortner, star of an Oscar-winning documentary exposing evangelists like himself, had stored his eating utensils inside the breast pocket of his dinner jacket. I, the seasoned one who knew now from hollow mountains and stringent security, wryly told him to reach for his fork "very slowly." When his hand entered and fumbled around in his jacket, the entire room seemed to surge forward with men in identical dark suits and vertically-striped ties. Sensing danger, he let the utensils fall to the floor. He could have started an international incident. The award for Best Film at the Festival went to "The Front," whereupon its lead actress, Andrea Marcovicci, triumphantly raised her arms. Thanks to the barrage of photo flashes that ensued, the morning's papers revealed that Andrea wasn't wearing a bra under her vintage gown and, contrary to custom, put two additional shapely trophies on display. She could have started an international incident. Earlier, in the lobby of the Tehran Hilton, Lauren Bacall spewed obscenities because the caviar she had purchased wasn't being refrigerated fast enough. Every word from her mouth could have started an international incident.
Wasting little time, our knowledgeable Israeli shepherded us deftly out of harm's way to the airport and onward to Paris. Our maven was David Matalon, who went from having the potential of being an Israeli spy to becoming a major Hollywood film studio CEO and producer.
See how easy it is to be seen as a spy? It could happen to anyone. Let's "Free Roxana."
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
I was in
Roxana Saberi is a 31-year-old American-Iranian freelance journalist born and raised in Fargo, N.D., who moved to Iran six years ago where, this past February, she was arrested—initially for purchasing a bottle of wine, banned under Islamic laws—and charged with espionage, tried, convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for spying for the United States in Iran.
Roxana could only suit an Iranian profile of a spy: chosen Miss North Dakota in 1997, among the top ten finalists in Miss
Her lawyer and the U.S. Dept. of State call the charges of espionage baseless. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that in 2008,
The following is an open, impassioned letter from her fiancé, award-winning Kurdish Iranian filmmaker, Bahman Ghobadi.
"To Roxana Saberi, Iranian with an American passport"
If I kept quiet until now, it was for her sake. If today I speak, it is for her sake.
She is my friend, my fiancée, and my companion. An intelligent and talented young woman whom I have always admired.
It was the 31st of January. The day of my birthday. That morning, she called to say she would pick me up so we would go out together. She never came. I called on her mobile, but it was off, and for two-three days I had no idea what had happened to her. I went to her apartment, and since we had each other's keys, I went in, but she wasn't there. Two days later, she called and said: "Forgive me my dear; I had to go to Zahedan." I got angry: why hadn't she said anything to me? I told her I didn't believe her, and again she said: "Forgive me my dear, I had to go." And the line was cut. I waited for her to call back. But she didn't call back. She didn't call back.
I left for Zahedan. I looked for her in every hotel, but nobody had ever heard her name. For ten days, thousands of wild thoughts came to my mind. Until I learned, through her father, she had been arrested. I thought it was a joke.
I thought it was a misunderstanding and that she would be released after two or three days. But days went by and I had no news from her. I started to worry and knocked on every door for help, until I understood what had happened.
It is with tears in my eyes that I say she is innocent and guiltless. It is me, who has known her for years, and shared every moment with her, who declares it. She was always busy reading and doing her research. Nothing else. During all these years I've known her, she wouldn't go anywhere without letting me know, nor would do anything without asking my advice. To her friends, her family, everyone that surrounded her, she had given no signs of unreasonable behavior. How come someone who would spend days without going out of her apartment, except to see me; someone who, like a Japanese lady, would carefully spend her money, and had sometimes trouble making a living; someone who was looking for a sponsor to get in contact with a local publisher so her book would be printed here (in Iran); could now be charged with a spying accusation?! We all know - no, we have all seen in movies - that spies are malicious and sneaky, that they peep around for information, and that they are very well paid. And now my heart is full of sorrow. Because it is me who incited her to stay here. And now I can't do anything for her. Roxana wanted to leave
. I kept her from it. Iran
At the beginning of our relationship, she wanted to go back to the
. She would have liked us to go together. But I insisted for her to stay until my new film was over. … And now I am devastated, for it is because of me she has been subject to these events. These past years, I have been subject to a serious depression… because my movie had been banned, and released on the black market. My next movie was not given an authorization, and I was forced to stay at home. If I've been able to stand it until today, it is thanks to the presence and help that she provided me with. … I was nervous and ill-tempered. And she was always there to calm me down. … United States
I wanted her to write the book she had started in her head. … She was absorbed by her book, to the point that she could stay and bear it all, until my film would be finished, and we would leave together.
Roxana's book was a praise to
. The manuscripts exist, and it will certainly be published one day, and all will see it. But why have they said nothing? All those who have talked, worked and sat with her, and who know how guiltless she is. Iran
I am writing this letter for I am worried about her. I am worried about her health. I heard she was depressed and cried all the time. She is very sensitive. To the point she refuses to touch her food. My letter is a desperate call to all statesmen and politics, and to all those who can do something to help. From the other side of the ocean, the Americans have protested against her imprisonment, because she is an American citizen. But I say no, she is Iranian, and she loves
. I beg you, let her go! I beg you not to throw her in the midst of you political games! She is too weak and too pure to take part in your games. Let me be present at her trial, sit next to her wise father and gentle mother, and testify she is without guilt or reproach. Iran
However, I am optimistic about her release, and I firmly hope the verdict will be cancelled in the next stage of the trial.
My Iranian girl with Japanese eyes and an American ID, is in jail. Shame on me! Shame on us!
Ghobadi’s call bears repeating: “My letter is a desperate call to… all those who can do something to help.” My entry here is a call to all for help. Please add your voice to it.
Ghobadi’s call bears repeating: “My letter is a desperate call to… all those who can do something to help.” My entry here is a call to all for help. Please add your voice to it.
Friday, April 17, 2009
If you’re as weary of the tea parties nonsense as I am, skip this.
I’ve had it with April’s Fools. I know in my heart they’re going to be 2009’s fools. Worse, twenty-first century fools.
April's Fools are angry with a president who can’t, in less than three months, salvage and repair the ship of state their ship of fools of choice plunged into the depths of darkest waters during eight lost, and found pirated, years. Their solution? Tea bags.
Earlier today, in a tea room filled with civilized people, I sipped tea properly steeped (from loose tea) and served from a teapot brimming with calm, not a tempest. [Full disclosure: in Manhattan, my two daughters own three charming "Alice's Tea Cup" restaurants where tea is an art and a pleasure, not a political protest.]
Tea, like patriotism, like love and sex, or hygiene, should never be tepid. Or tainted. It is not for revolutionaries, and despite the romance of The Boston Tea Party, should not be bagged or balled or pre-packaged. It should be savored, not “spun,” social, not “socialized.”
I wanted to know what the tea partiers were thinking. Where better to go than Twitter? After wading through twiddle heaped on twaddle, I was able to read the tea leaves. It was all about having fun! Mirth by malcontents who needed an excuse to party while they fumed, and then declared how fun it wz- u shdv bn ther! :)
All this while I was sipping Grand Keemun! I thought of the grand events I hadn’t missed—the Bicentennial, Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve fireworks, the end of the Vietnam War, the dawn of the twenty-first century, the election of the first black president of the United States. And then I thought of people I don’t want to know dressed in revolutionary war costumes, hoisting seditious signs unwittingly profaning their own misguided patriotism, dangling, waving and wasting teabags—sheep herded by one nefarious, self-serving right wing Australian who, unbelievably, is having many a field day telling Americans what to think and feel and do—at their expense—as he and his surrogates goad them into telling the rest of us we’re un-American and should go to Cuba!
One thing I can say in defense of those sheep—there’s not a lot of black sheep among them. (On the other hand, I can’t resist saying I inadvertently dredged up the slang meaning of tea-bagging and my reaction was “Ewe!”)
I thought about what these people I don’t know and don’t want to know drink. The evidence is clear: for starters, too much Kool-Aid. Matriculating to Pabst Blue Ribbon—"We're an American Brand"—and Boones Farms—"We're an American Brand." Encased for aging until, as it appears today, GOP stands for the Grand Ovaltine Party.
Tea parties. Brew-ha-hahs?
Monday, April 13, 2009
In hostile hands, it could have been a blood libel: Mickey Mouse Decapitated In Israel for Passover! All said and done, there was no denying he was in two pieces.An Israeli producer had asked me to add the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons to a large package of performers I was bringing to Israel for a children’s festival during Passover. [See: “Once Upon a Passover” immediately below.] On Thanksgiving Day eve, I walked eight blocks north from my apartment to a cordoned-off Upper West Side, Manhattan block where a lot of industrious people spend all night once a year spreading out the large, flat balloons on the street and inflating them gradually with helium. Under the glow of lamppost lights, I found The Balloon Man who, with Mrs. Balloon Man, supplied “Mickey,” “Goofy” and the rest of the Disney/Looney-Tuney balloony-cartooney spectacle to parades and fairs.
I asked Mr. and Mrs. if they’d like to go to the Holy Land—with their balloons. Two days later, from their home in deepest Virginia, they said yes. I learned they’d never been out of the country and needed passports, their first. The balloons had their own travel demands. They were bulky, fragile and costly, and had to be crated for cargo and fully documented for customs. Above all, I was forewarned, they required a LOT of helium. My production partner Shalom and I gave the Israeli production people the helium specifications down to the cubic centimeter. Taking no chances, we phoned and faxed them repeatedly in advance to remind them: no helium, no balloons in the air.
The Balloon Couple got to Israel on time and without incident. But “Mickey” and the three additional balloon “characters” we had agreed on transporting were detained by customs in almost every country, so it seemed, they passed through between the United States and Israel, and their anxious proprietors were concerned. It was like watching nervous parents waiting at the front door at night well past curfew for their tardy children. Early every morning, Mr. Balloon Man would wake one of our Israeli drivers to take the lengthy trip with him to the airport to claim his precious balloons, which were not there yet. Afternoons and evenings he would eat—foods he had never before seen, but was conspicuously consuming. When he complained of acute diarrhea, Shalom instructed one of our drivers to find him some Kaopectate. It’s possible the directions on the label were in Hebrew. We learned he guzzled the entire bottle. He had no need for a john for days.
We weren’t happy with the hotel The Balloon Couple were in, so we started working on moving them to a better one. As for the helium, when we asked we were confidently told ain ba’ayah, “no problem.”
The balloons finally arrived! Now they were only stuck in Israeli customs, but after several more superfluous trips to the airport, they were “sprung.” The crates were carted out to the park where the week-long festival would take place, and we summoned the helium. Ain ba’ayah, we were told again. Fifteen minutes later, a man arrived carrying a can about the size of a football and proudly presented it to us. “Where’s the rest?” we asked innocently. There was no “rest”—not in the vicinity, not in all of Israel. We would have to send to England for it and, we learned, it would take a week to get it. That would be the day the festival ended.
Instead of four glorious balloons sailing high above Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park, we were relegated to the grounded head of one balloon—of Mickey Mouse—anchored and protected from assault, at Mr. Balloon Man’s insistence, by a wooden fence on all four sides—and further guarded by his wife on a folding chair inside the fence.
We moved them to a new hotel, into a suite with picture windows overlooking the Mediterranean. We encouraged them to let go of their disappointment over the balloons, as we had, and to enjoy themselves. You’re in the Holy Land! See it! We never mentioned food again.
Evenings, I had musicians asking me, more than once, when “this holiday” ended and they could have bread, egos of every age and assortment to massage, and two under-aged break-dancers from our company sneaking out of their hotel at every opportunity to a local disco to hustle $20 bills from customers intrigued by their novel moves.
While the Mrs. was on guard, nature called. Trustingly leaving her purse on a fence stave, she abandoned her post. Everywhere in Israel, signs constantly remind people to “Be Aware of Abandoned Packages.” Someone alerted the bomb squad. The Mrs. emerged from the ladies room to witness a robot crossing the field en route to dismantling or dousing her purse. (We saved it.)
While everyone else was singing and dancing by day and breaking matzoh by night, the Balloon Couple were idle—and reclusive. As they lounged on the couch in their suite enjoying a sunset on the Mediterranean—after he recited a litany of how difficult and disappointing the trip had been for them—he said to her, “But honey, we have to give these people credit. They’ve gone out of there way [sic] to make us comfortable.” And as the words were coming out of his mouth, an upright body, arms and legs splayed, mouth open and contorted, hurled past their window. Hysterical, the Mr. called the hotel operator who, in addition to having trouble deciphering his southern accent, already knew, amid the pandemonium, what he was frantically trying to tell her. The body had plunged through the lobby ceiling and onto the lobby floor. We later learned it was the body of a United Nations soldier who was stopped on the top floor and asked by a hotel security man if he was a guest of the hotel. The upset soldier hoisted and threw a courtesy shoe-buffing machine through a plate glass window (overlooking the Mediterranean) and followed it out the window.
Our Balloon Couple, who’d presumably never seen worse than a patch surgically attached to Bugs Bunny’s behind, was inconsolable. Our Israeli producer was sympathetic and concerned. “What can we do for them now?” he asked me. I said, “Get them the fuck out of here.”
Callous? No, quite the contrary. For their sakes, I felt, let them go home. I knew at this point nothing in our power could make it up to them. Nevertheless, we tried.We arranged for them to have a weekend on us in Rome. We later learned they never stopped, in all likelihood never got off the plane, went straight through to Virginia. We never heard from them again. I said we brought two people to see the Holy Land and probably made anti-Semites out of them. The Revenge of Mickey Mouse?
Monday, April 6, 2009
Jerusalem Post twenty-five years ago.
Imagine an ethnic mix of six African-Americans, six white Anglo-Saxons, two ultra-assimilated Jews, two Latins and one Asian in Israel for Passover—all eight days of it. Food items they’d never dreamed of set before them on a dining table—not for eating, mostly for show. Symbols, like lamb shankbone, bitter herbs, salt water, charoses. And this above all: no bread in their hotel restaurant or lounge. No bread anywhere near at hand outside the hotel or on the street. An out of body-politic experience.
My partner in escorting celebrities to Israel, Shalom Elcott, and I took a host of performers to Tel Aviv to perform at a week-long children’s park festival called Medinat Hayeladim, “the children’s state.” Our incongruous troupe of entertainers consisted of Robert Guillaume (famous in Israel for TV’s “Benson”), Albert Hague (noted composer and “Fame’s” Professor Shirofsky) and his wife, actress Renee Orin, vocalist Jeree Palmer Wade, a troupe of dancers, the man and wife team responsible for the Macy’s Day balloons (that’s another story) and two necessary musicians.
One of those musicians was Robert Guillaume’s drummer, who arrived angry and left angrier. Bread—the lack of—was only the beginning of his unleavened feelings. Bob and I agreed that he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a drummer or a terrorist. The other musician stayed out of sight, shacked up, I suspected, with a loaf of rye.
Robert Guillaume is a good man and a gentleman. He came prepared to sing a handful of songs in Hebrew—and to sacrifice the wheat, flour and yeast. He was fine with things as they were and accepting of the things that weren’t.
Someone made the mistake of telling him he was actually fortunate because, in Israel, Pesach (Passover) was only seven days. [The reason for the eighth day was initially the Diaspora. Given that Jewish holidays start at sundown, people far away from Jerusalem could not be certain of the day the holiday started or ended. Consequently, an eighth day was added to be sure Jews across datelines and time zones wouldn’t break leavened bread again (and wolf it down) too soon.]
So, Bob came down to breakfast on the eighth day expecting BREAD. But the hotels in Israel cater to visitors, particularly American visitors, who don’t know from seven days. “Pesach is eight days—it’s always been eight days!”
The Israeli breakfast is famous. It consists of endless buffet tables laden with all you could ever want for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, tea time and bedtime snack, plus a nosh here and there for the rigors of the day. Without so much as a glance at the buffet tables, Bob sat down at a dining table expecting BREAD.
Guess who he was joining? Yours truly. I may have missed his “good morning,” but not his booming declaration of how much he was ready for BREAD. It fell to me to break it to him. He lost it! Completely exploded. Seven days on and off a stage in a park under the hot sun didn’t do to him what one more morning sans bread did.
Suddenly, this staid, dignified, reasonable man couldn’t separate the wheat from the chaff. He brought up grievances and frustrations I had heard nary a word of during the trip—because he never mentioned them before! Conditions at the park. Conditions in the hotel. Conditions between the park and the hotel! I tried to reason with him, but he grew hotter and hotter, quietly fuming because, as I said, he’s a gentleman.
At this delicate point, a short, over-stuffed-looking, classic British bore of a man stopped at our table, interrupting us. He fawned all over Bob, repeating superlatives about him and his performances as he exhausted the first round of them. Robert was patient. I was barely patient—but I wasn’t jumping in the middle of this, not while someone was complimenting an actor! Finally, the man lumbered away. As if the intruder had never existed, Bob immediately turned to me and resumed his tirade. Note that neither of us has yet had a bite to eat. And there’s no bread basket on the table.
I catch myself looking for a charitable interpretation of his tantrum. If it’s not the petite dancer from last night who was immune to his charm, I’m telling myself, it’s his blood sugar. As he’s going on and on… and on… I see none other than The British Bore, bearing heaping food dishes lined up along both outstretched arms, heading… don’t tell me!… in the direction of our table—and I know he can’t bring himself to pass it. Stopping, oblivious to the tension in the air and the glaring indication that he is intruding and unwelcome, he interrupts us again … to say to the actor—his actor of actors—“I’ve never actually seen you, but I’m sure you’re wonderful.” And continues on his way.
It changed the tune! I told Bob the line would make a great title for a book containing all the stupid things people say to celebrities (because they can’t resist talking to them and have to say something!). And we began warmly swapping stories.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
My father’s death was the trauma and turning point of my life. It came just days before my eighth birthday. In accord with Jewish tradition, on four holidays over the next year I rose and stood in synagogue in prayer for the memorial Yizkor service in remembrance of the dad I still wanted to know. Though a matter of minutes, it was an eternity to a boy who, never daring to look up, burned with the self-consciousness of feeling that every eye in the congregation was on him, pitying him, distinctly the youngest, smallest person in the entire shul who no longer had a father.
My mother, a grief-stricken forty-year-old widow, inherited a business that meant next to nothing without my dynamic father, and a lot of money she knew absolutely nothing about managing. Cultured and stunning, she never remarried, devoting herself instead to being as much a father as mother to two sons. She exuded love and embodied decency, and when she died, at ninety-three, I was able to say that I did not have one bad memory of her.
I don’t have a bad memory of my father either, in part because I have so few. I still feel cheated.
I remember a “gent” with a sterling silver cigarette holder burning a “perfect” cigarette hole in the most elegant pair of slacks I have seen to this day. A mild-mannered man popping Tums in his mouth after every meal, and in-between. A hard-working man falling asleep during movies and having a favorite song because it was the only one he knew—if I sang “the one I like” to him, which I did at his bedside. "In a quaint caravan, there's a lady they call the gypsy." I remember a pal who blindly took my side in every squabble. I remember a tender, loving father who called me, of all things, his “pussycat.”
I remember too little, and I waited too long to learn a lot about him. My mother told me she would have to “drag” him away on vacation. Dining with him in some idyllic setting, she saw a distant look come into his eyes. “Lou,” she said, “Are you enjoying yourself?” He looked at her and, his eyes asking for mercy, said, “Do you know what I could be making now?"
My Uncle George, who worked for my father during summer breaks from college and idolized him, said he and a three or four-man entourage of my father’s co-workers would struggle to keep up with him as he hurried along a small town street, turned abruptly to enter a restaurant, stepped to the bar, ordered coffee, swallowed two sips and left as abruptly as he entered, entourage hotfooting after. An hour later, my father would do it again—the hasty turn, the restaurant bar, the coffee, the two sips, the sudden exit. And that was nothing, my uncle recalled from his youth with fresh awe, compared to the fox my father whimsically bought as a pet!
My cousin Elaine describes the excitement of the young cousins in Pittsburgh when, on the same day every week, they ran into a neighborhood grocery to see their names on the labels of the produce baskets “D. LOUIS FOX” shipped all the way from Wachula or Pompano Florida. "Elaine Peppers"… “Gloria Carrots"… “Samuel Cucumbers”!
By all accounts, he was a sweet, genteel man.
The punch and the prizes are not the same when your grandfather takes you to a father and son day.