Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Spy in the Eye of the Beholder

The incarceration of journalist Roxana Saberi in Iran on charges trumped up from an initial naive or careless act on her part, trying to buy a bottle of wine, brings to mind how easily any journalist—or tourist or any "outsider" at all—can find him- or herself in great jeopardy in a foreign country with an alien culture.

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."


  1. Bravo! Let's free ALL American political prisoners starting right here at home with Judge Jay Bybee who is being drawn and quartered in the leftist court of opinion for rendering a legal "opinion". The judge didn't commit any act of torture, he just opined on what kinds of things the CIA could consider when interrogating people who were bent on killing Americans in large numbers. All Roxana wanted was a glass of wine. She didn't act defiantly against Sharia, she just wanted a glass of wine. Jay Bybee just rendered an opinion. He didn't DO anything and he didn't give anyone an order to do anything. He did what lawyers do on a daily bais, read the law and opine on it. What crime is that?

  2. I have always attributed a large part of Alfred Hitchcock's success with American audiences to how he understood that ordinary people can find themselves in extraordinary situations.

    Truth is, they often do. Everybody has at least one or two close calls straight out of one of Hitchcock's thrillers. You are living proof to this: you managed to find yourself in the same pickle as "Jeff" Jeffries and Roger Thornhill in one outing! (Too bad there were no sexy blonds.) As for myself, I am no less susceptible than the next man. Just last month I managed To Catch A Thief in the act; a jewel thief, no less! (Alas, no sexy blonds this round either. I think that was Hitchcock taking artistic license.)

    Nevertheless, what you shared above is all your readers need to know that what happened to Roxana Saberi could happen to anybody abroad. This is the reason why even the most unmoved reader should be outraged; this could happen to them as well!

    Yes, by implication it may sound fun to play the part of James Stewart or Cary Grant, but the reason why those stories are entertaining is because people die when it's a true story. The Wrong Man was based on a true story. Rope was based on a true story. What is happening to Roxana Saberi right now is an all-too true story, and she is starving to death in an Iranian prison because of it.

    Every day she is being pulled further and further away from her family, her fiancé, and from the light of life. She has already demonstrated that she is willing to die in protest. Through inaction or abuse, is anybody here truly ready to kill her? If so, SPEAK YOUR NAME!

    This is not a talking-point or a movie, this is a dimming human life. If "Anonymous" truly wants to see this life extinguished, then I have one word left to say: Psycho.

  3. good on you Ray. thanks for visiting, you're linked...and GO Roxana, a brave young woman...how easy it is for bullies to attack women isn't it.

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