Part 1, “If you hit a child with your vehicle, don’t stop.”
When I arrived in Tehran, I had no trouble getting through customs and immigration. I’d been issued a resident visa and work permit at the Iranian Embassy in Munich, a relatively simple process. Everyone in the entire world knew that the Shah of Iran was a personal friend of the United States of America and everything it stood for, thanks to the accurate and honest reporting of the mainstream media. He was a man of equal stature to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, a pillar of peace, honesty and justice. There should be no problems in his country. I was excited to get a first hand look.
As I left the immigration and customs area, I saw a driver holding a placard showing the names of the arriving employees, exactly as I had been told. Two German engineers whom I’d met at the interviews in Munich were waiting along with him, and we greeted as if we were old friends. We soon arrived at a clean and modestly furnished three-star hotel, filled mostly with employees of Page Communications Engineers, the Washington DC engineering firm responsible for designing the new telecommunications system for the entire nation of Iran. After helping us check in, the driver informed us that the next morning, he would take us to our indoctrination lecture. I slept soundly in the comfortable but simple hotel, not noticing any radical differences from any other hotel I had ever slept in.
Breakfast included pita bread filled with yogurt and what the locals called “eating greens,” that I guessed to be parsley, mint and green onions – a bit different but quite tasty, actually. About six other new Page employees joined, and we all got to know each other via typical small talk. The van and driver returned at 8:00 am sharp and took us to the human resources building for the new employee administrative processes, just like anywhere in the world. We were later invited to a simple lunch of submarine sandwiches at an Iranian deli that could have been in New York City. We then all piled back into the van to go to the indoctrination lecture, and to the first darkening of our fluffy clouds.
We were first informed that Iran was in a very steep section of an uphill development curve, and the population was divided between the new culture wearing typical Western clothing, and the old traditional culture wearing the ancient apparel, with both sides accepting each other in peaceful harmony. In Tehran, we would see mostly the new, but outside of the metropolitan area, we would see mostly the old. And that’s where our first danger would arise.
Almost all highways were two-lane and crowded with pedestrian traffic, creating a dangerous situation that caused many accidents. Although the company would try to provide us with Iranian drivers for enhanced safety, we would be allowed to drive the company vehicles ourselves when drivers weren’t available. But in the unfortunate incident that we hit a pedestrian, and particularly if it were a child, we should not stop, but instead head for the nearest border as fast as possible and get out of the country. If we stopped, a crowd of horrendously evil people would gather and probably chop us to pieces. What, I thought. Americans wouldn’t do that. Americans couldn’t do that. We would have to stop. There’s no question about it. Just ask John Wayne, Roy Rogers or Lassie. We respect human life. I took as much stock in their idea as I would a TV commercial, not feeling apprehension, but having far less respect for those at the helm of my new employer. I was unaware that several months later, I would be put to the test.
The second most surprising item in the lecture dealt with personal relationships. Obviously in the coming year we would make friends with the Iranians who were adapting to Western ways. But we should never talk politics. The secret police called “SAVAK” were everywhere, posing as drivers, waiters, bartenders and such, and were listening for political dissent. In short, if the wrong thing was said, and the wrong thing reported, the next day we would find that our residence visas and work permits had mysteriously disappeared. We would be escorted directly to the airport without any chance to pack our bags, and would be banned from any further entry into the country. And we were sternly advised that we should not ask about our Iranian friends, because there would be no record of them ever having existed. My thoughts again went back to the movies. How could America keep such a close friendship with a country that didn’t allow its citizens to speak their minds. I left the lecture thinking, OK, I’ll do my job the best I can. I’ll get my bonus for staying a year, and then I’ll be on my way. I had given my word to stay and therefore I must, or at least that’s what real Americans like John Wayne, Roy Rogers or Lassie would do.
After the lecture, I was escorted to my office in the seven-story building, newly constructed to house our engineering team. When I was shown my desk, there was an Iranian technician hunkering on it installing a telephone, appearing to be working with his hands and feet. He was wearing a brown turban with cloth hanging down the back like a pony tail. When he arose, I noticed that his shirt went down to just above his knees, and his pants were tight around the ankles showing his woven slippers with pointed toes. He looked up at me with a beaming, broad smile that showed several gold teeth and said something I didn’t understand but assumed to mean, “Hello, you’re telephone is now ready.”
I nodded and said, “Thank you,” obviously breaking the language barrier because he seemed to understand. But although he was shabby, soiled and smelled strange, he didn’t seem as foreign as the telephone or the desk. I had come from six months in Bangladesh, followed by a winter of ski bumming in Europe. A desk in an office was more foreign to me than anything I had seen in the past 18 months. And in my five-year career as a telecommunications technician, I had never worked at a desk. I only helped the desk dreamers solve the problems that actually occurred in the functioning world, where reality often trumps elaborate scientific planning.
As I looked around the office, I noticed 11 desk-dwellers whom I soon discovered to be from the US, England, Australia, Germany and Canada. They all had that pleasant and professional here-to-serve-you engineering air about them that I had seen so often. But the idea of joining them suddenly struck me as if I were in a school girls’ dormitory. Surely I could survive and find ways to be congenial, but it was far from my natural habitat. I started asking simple questions about the need to make field trips out to where the action was. Unfortunately, the greatest need was in the design and planning of the system. The engineers claimed that the field people were adequate to report relevant information about problems. I doubted this, but figured that I could drop enough hints that if the need for one of us to go into the field arose, I would be the natural choice. I thought my best strategy was to be a complete nuisance.
My first assignment was to create drawings showing the routing of the wires called “waveguide” that carried microwave signals from the radios to the antennas mounted on the towers. They were actually hollow, oval-shaped copper tubes with an insulating jacket, and must run their entire distance in one piece with no splices. From my experience, the main purpose of these drawings was to ensure that the section of waveguide was long enough, and that it came with all the appropriate mounting hardware. The actual routing details would be established by experienced installers in the field. Exact drawings were not necessary. A rough sketch would do.
But I was informed that the contract required isometric drawings to show all the details of the run, a waste of time in almost everyone’s opinion. But the contractual obligation meant that it was included in the price, and we must do it to justify the inflated amount that the Shah had approved to dole out to his buddies in Washington. Although I had no clue what “isometric” meant, I was sure figuring it out wouldn’t be my greatest problem. Boredom would.
So for entertainment, I began looking around my bizarre environment, noticing several superfluous gadgets: drawers full of rulers, compasses, drawing aids, paper clips, pencils, folders and envelopes; all sorts of office stuff that I’d considered basically useless when real problems arose. I noticed that my telephone number was extension 68. The next higher number leaped into my mind, and I just had to know who was on extension 69! So I eased my swivel chair forward and picked up the phone, slowly dialing the two digits and placing my hand so I could hang up without being noticed. I heard the phone behind me ring, and then heard, “Hello,” both in the phone and from the voice behind.
I waited a comfortable pause, then quietly said, “Fuck you,” through the side of my mouth, then hung up with as little motion as possible. I then tried extension 67, which turned out to be the engineer on my left. I did the same, but this time I could watch his puzzled reaction through the corner of my eye. Laughing inside like a hyena in a coma, I went on with 65, 66, 70 and 71.
Soon came a tea break and I would meet the coworkers I had already successfully annoyed. Tea was served Iranian style, with crystallized sugar cubes to be sucked while sipping the hot tea from little shot glasses. Soon the conversation began. “Someone called me, said ‘Fuck you,’ then hung up.”
Various accents repeated, “Me too!”
I couldn’t hold back the laughter. All heads snapped in my direction. “The new guy!” came in unison. “What’s your story?”
Part 2, Meeting Mr. Shabbian
Engineers from around the globe each have their own unique story. I shrugged and said, “I’m a field engineer. I’m not sure what I’m doing here!” They all understood and took it amicably. They had been told that I was an excellent and supportive field engineer, but wanted to try my hand at the desk, suggesting that this would be some sort of promotion. They assured me that they would help me, and I would soon fit right in. I thought I would do everything in my power to make that not happen, but I would be congenial enough to not lose the job. I really wanted to see this ancient nation and rise above the horse manure shoveled out by the salivating-for-supremacy Western corporate press. Soon our differences became bonds. But after several episodes of crank calls, paper clips shot with rubber bands, pencils and rulers glued to desks and whoopee cushions on chairs, the word around the office soon became, “We need to get him out where he belongs.” Destiny stepped in, just as I was about to be lynched.
I was passing the boss’s office just as he slammed down his phone yelling, “That fucking Shababian!” I stepped into his office.
“What’s wrong, Chuck?” I asked.
“I know that son-of-a-bitch is in his office, but he won’t take my call. And this is important!”
Mr. Shababian was the chief engineer of the project. His boss was the Iranian Minister of Post, Telephones and Telegraphs, who reported directly to the Shah. I understood him to be a major player on the project.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“There’s a site up near the Russian border where the tower construction has stopped. The materials have been delivered and three of its foundation holes have been dug and there’s only one hole left. But the backhoe is parked and all the driver does is play cards with the technician. The construction boss has sent two different teams up there, but they couldn’t find out what the problem is.” He tossed some Polaroid snapshots across his desk, which I immediately regarded as irrelevant. I wondered why they hadn’t sent people with brains instead of cameras.
“So why don’t you give me a crack at it?” I suggested.
He looked at me with an ornery smile and said, “Yeah! Good idea! I’ll throw Shababian some fresh meat!” He reached for his phone. “Plan to go on a field trip for a few days.”
Victory, I thought.
So far, I’d heard two versions of Mr. Shababian. From one side, he was a problem: arrogant, uncooperative, non-communicative, irresponsible and unqualified for his job. And, of course, he had dark skin and a funny accent. From the other side he was a genius. He spoke five languages, earned his BSEE at MIT, but also had two graduate degrees in business and comparative religion from prestigious universities in other parts the world. After hearing the conflicting descriptions, I really wanted to meet him. Soon I would get my wish, but not in the manner I had hoped.
I was given travel documents to fly to Tabriz, a city in the northern part of Iran. I was to page Mr. Shababian at the airport and he would arrange a hotel and ground transportation. On the following morning, we would drive to Meshkinshar, a town about four hours away. It all sounded simple enough.
I arrived at the Tabriz airport in the early afternoon and found the rustic paging podium, operated by a professional looking, multi-lingual woman wearing a Western-style business outfit with skirt, white blouse, silken tie and jacket. I asked her to page Mr. Shababian. She spoke into an ancient, Edward R. Murrow microphone and I heard the page and waited, but Mr. Shababian didn’t show up. We paged again and again, but with no luck. I somehow sensed that he was there, but just not answering the page. So I started traipsing around the small airport looking for him, trying to image what he would look like. I had not been shown a photo.
Having no luck inside, I went out to the parking area and spotted a light-green, short-wheel-based Land Rover with the Iranian Project Management Organization’s logo stenciled on the door: a smiling lion holding up a scimitar in one paw, with something scribbled in Farsi above and the letters “PMO” beneath. I went to the driver and asked if he knew Mr. Shababian. He fidgeted nervously, probably not understanding English, but nodded toward the four people seated in the back.
At the still-opened rear door, I saw four men seated on the benches along the sides with two facing the other two. Three of the men looked a lot like me: khaki cotton slacks, plaid sport shirts, penny loafers and a few pens and pencils in pocket protectors. But the fourth man was quite different. He was wearing a crisply tailored, dark business suit, an impeccable white shirt with an elegant tie. From the aura of his handsome, fresh and professional appearance, I assumed he would glow in the dark. I introduced myself generally to all, apologized for not speaking Farsi, then told them, “I’m looking for Mr. Shababian.” The three who looked like me looked down at the floor and began nervously stirring nothing with the toes of their shoes. The fourth man started looking around the ceiling rolling his eyes back, obviously quite bored. No one answered, but I was determined. “Look, I know you’re with the PMO, and I know you know who Mr. Shababian is. Please, we have work to do and I need to find him.”
After a long and nervous pause, the well dressed gentleman collected himself, stretched as far as he could to get his face as close to mine as possible, looked directly into my eyes and slowly and firmly informed me, with an arrogant and mocking tone, “There is no Mr. Shababian. However, there is an Agha… Mo hahn dess… Shah babian. And I… am he!” Then he settled back into his seat.
To me, the problem was instantly clear. I imagined that if I were the chief engineer on a very important project, a project covering a nation of twenty million people, and my correct title was Chief Engineer Kingsley, and not only other engineers, but also technicians, craftsmen and laborers, all of whom were visitors to my country from foreign lands, called me directly to my face, “Mr. Kinky-poo,” mispronouncing my name and never using my correct title, never showing proper respect, I think after a year of this I would also be quite annoyed and, I too, would cop a confrontational attitude, with my toes curling each time I heard my name bastardized. I knew I was directly in the face of my first international diplomatic challenge.
I tried, “It’s nice to meet you sir.” My offer for a handshake went ignored. “Well, I guess we’ll be going to Meshkinshar in the morning.”
“Yes, I’ll meet you there.”
“But, I was told that we would go together.”
“My specific instructions were to meet at the site,” he snapped.
“But sir, I don’t know where it is!”
He leaned again into my face. “You mean to tell me that your company sent you this far out into our country without giving you the directions of how to get where you’re going?”
“Well, I guess so,” I replied, meekly.
“That’s not my problem.” He muttered something to the driver that I didn’t understand, pulled the door shut and they left.
I hailed a cab and got the driver to follow him. After a short and uneventful pursuit, the Land Rover stopped at humble little hotel: two stories, simple markings, one man working behind a counter in a small lobby… no frills. While Mr. Shababian was filling out the registration form, the clerk came to me and said something I didn’t understand. I got the idea, but tried using the opportunity to break the ice with Mr. Chief Engineer. “Sir, I don’t understand what he is saying. Could you please help me?”
He looked at me like I was the stupidest person on Earth. “Your company sent you this far out into our country without teaching you enough of our language to get a hotel room?”
“Well, I guess so.”
“That’s not my problem.” He turned and left without another word.
The registration was a standard form, written in both Farsi and English, the same as any hotel in the country. I filled it out and the clerk charged me what I thought to be excessive, probably at my nemesis’s request. But I paid the bill and got a receipt. When I got to my room, I shut the door and noticed a tourist advisory stuck on the back of the door, in English. It said the price for the room was about half of what I had paid, and if I was overcharged, I should call the number shown. But I thought best to let it go because as long as I had a receipt, I would be reimbursed. For the time being, I had a tougher nut to crack.
About an hour before sunset, I went out of the hotel with no idea what to expect. There was a small and simple restaurant attached to the hotel, with whitewashed walls, a few colorful drawings that I assumed to be local artwork, and a picture of the Shah with his wife and son. There, to my surprise, sitting alone at a small metal table with a red checkered tablecloth and a plastic flower in an empty coke bottle, sat Mr. He-Whose-Name-Could-Not-Be-Pronounced! When he saw me, he looked away, but I went up to him and asked, “Do you mind if I join you?”
He looked at me over the top tortoise-shell glasses, folded his arms in indignation, let out a loud sigh, looked around the room rolling his eyes back, threw up his arms in exasperation, letting them fall to his thighs with a slap, and said, “If you must!”
I sat across from him searching my mind for a nutcracker. Soon it struck. I tried meekly, “Sir, I have a problem that maybe you can help me with.” Most people in Third World Countries, I have found, are quite willing and even delighted to help a stranger in need.
He rolled his eyes back and shook his head in boredom. “So, what’s your problem?” Yes, he would help, but not so gleefully.
I looked directly into his eyes and spoke as slowly and clearly as I could. “Sir, I haven’t got the foggiest idea how to correctly pronounce your name.” He just stared at me. “Nor do I know how to properly address you to show the respect you obviously deserve.” I held his gaze like a vise.
I watched him slowly rearrange his thoughts for a short eternity. Finally he shook his head, let out long sigh, looked down for a bit and then looked back at me, directly into my eyes. “I’m sorry. I guess it doesn’t really matter. Call me whatever you like.”
I quickly snapped, “But it does matter. It matters to me. If there’s only one American in this country who knows how to properly address you, I want it to be me.”
He now had his elbows on the table, not faltering his gaze into my eyes, not blinking. “You’re serious.”
The iceberg began to melt. He sat erect in his chair and started giving me a primer in Farsi. He taught me how to roll the “hahn” and “shah,” not like the Spanish “r,” which is more like a “d,” but more like a horse whinnying, but not with the mouth, with the back of the throat. I felt like I was in the presence of a very capable language professor. He said the syllables over and over as I tried to copy them, using hand motions and gently encouraging and correcting me. After several tries, I could finally do it. I was the only one of 2,000 American employees who cared to speak his name correctly. I said it several times.
“That’s good,” he told me. “But you don’t have to call me that.”
“No,” He laughed. “You can call me Mr. Shababian if you like. It’ll be easier for you.” The tip of the iceberg finally sank beneath the sea. “You don’t seem like the other Americans here. Tell me, how do you like living in our country?”
“Well, I like Tehran, but I hope to see more of the country. When my wife gets here, we’ll rent an apartment so she can cook.”
“He stopped me, “Your who?”
“You mean your girl friend,” he concluded. “You know enough about our culture to say she’s your wife, but she’s really only your girl friend. You’ve probably even bought her a ring to make it look like you’re married, right?”
“How do you know that?” I was truly puzzled.
“You’re not a married man,” he said, shaking his head knowingly.
“But how can you tell?”
“You’re just not. You don’t act like a married man. There’s nothing married about you. But it’s good that you’re trying to learn a little about our culture. It’ll make your stay a lot more enjoyable. And it’s a shame that none of your managers do the same. They’re making huge mistakes by not knowing anything about us.”
“Well, the biggest one would be the completion clause,” he explained. “If you don’t complete certain portions of the work by specific dates, we start reducing the amount we pay. We asked for it because that’s the way you deal in the United States. Then we said we’d be the ones who decide what “completion” is. You didn’t even try to negotiate it, even though we expected you to try. You left yourselves wide open. Anyone in the Middle East would have fought it. We’re negotiators. We haggle, and we’ve been haggling for two thousand years. I’ll bet the average Iranian housewife could sell your president a sack of cow manure for $5,000,” he chuckled.
“So how do Iranian housewives haggle?
“Ok, I’ll give you an example, A housewife goes to the bazaar and asks, ‘how much are the eggs.’ The egg man says, ‘Ten dollars each.’ The housewife says, ‘You’re crazy, eggs are only worth five cents.’ The egg man says, ‘But these eggs are very special. They come from a chicken that speaks two languages: chicken and duck.’ The housewife plays the game with him. ‘Well I don’t want to talk to the eggs, I want to eat them. I’ll give you six cents each.’ The egg man goes into a fit. ‘I paid much more than that for the eggs. I’ll lose money.’ The housewife says, ‘Well, you better hurry up and sell them to me for seven cents before I tell everyone how silly you are for thinking bilingual eggs are worth more than regular eggs.’ It could go on for an hour.”
“Well, we don’t have time for that,” I said.
“That’s my point. You Americans are always in a hurry for everything. You would never see the humor in the situation and certainly not want to know anything at all about the egg man.You would probably give the guy ten dollars an egg and then go away angry calling him a thief under your breath.”
“Well wouldn’t that make him happy?”
“Not at all. It would probably hurt his feelings. It’s not about the money.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Look, the egg’s not what’s important, nor is the money,” he explained.
“So what’s important?”
“It’s the synergy, my friend. That’s the gift from God, the time people spend together. Neither the housewife nor the vendor really cares about the money or the eggs. If she stays long enough, he might even give them to her. It’s the synergy of the haggling that’s holy; the energy between the two is greater than the energy of each. One and one is three. We couldn’t live without haggling, it’s our life. That’s why we asked for the completion clause. We wanted to haggle.” He threw his arms up wide in the air. “But you just gave it to us without a fight.”
“So we could have negotiated it out?”
“Of course you could have made a better deal for yourselves! We’ve been here for two thousand years without a telecommunication system. Sure, we want one, but we don’t need it tomorrow.” He let out an ornery chuckle. “But now it’s in our best interest that you screw up as much as you can.”
“So is that what the Meshkinshar thing is all about, you delaying us so we have to pay for not meeting the completion date?”
“No, no, no, we’d never do anything purposely to delay you. We’ll just stand back and watch you make your own mistakes by thinking you already know everything.” He was chuckling confidently.
“How so?” I asked.
“Well, a perfect example is in area three. You had to build thirty buildings down by the gulf, and the contract stated that they had to have top quality roofs. But a local roofing contractor made a deal with your area manager to put on lower quality roofs for a lower price. But he would give the manager receipts for the higher price, and then they’d split the difference. He said his brother was the inspector and he would approve the work as soon as it was finished. Your guy went for it and pocketed about ten thousand dollars. Then a man claiming to be the inspector showed up, but wasn’t the contractor’s brother. He said the roofs didn’t conform to the contract and would have to be replaced. Your manager gave him the ten thousand dollars to bribe him to say that the roofs were acceptable, thinking that would save his skin. But then along came the real roof inspector and demanded the roofs be replaced. Your guy lost his job, we got the roofs we ordered and the scammers skipped off with twenty grand. But,” he added emphatically, “if your guy would have refused the scam in the first place, none of it would have happened. The sad part about it is, I could have warned you about those guys if you had only talked to me. But your bosses have been treating me like their garbage man ever since they arrived. So I mostly sit back and watch.”
“So why are you telling me?”
“Who knows,” he said with a smile, “maybe you’ll get high enough on the ladder to make a difference. We really want our telecommunications system, but we would prefer to get it from people who show us a little respect. Perhaps you’ll be the one to teach them that.”
Just then one of my fellow employees came into the restaurant. I had met him in Tehran and he was in Tabriz on a different assignment. He came up and started talking, but only to me, completely ignoring Agha Mohandess Shah Babian. We waited patiently, silently forgiving his lack of social grace. At last, the intruder nodded his head toward my ex-nemesis and asked, “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Mr. Shababian.”
He loudly gasped in astonishment.“No shit! You’re Mr. Shababian?”
“In the flesh,” he said smiling.
“God! I expected you to have horns and a pointed tail or something!” He sat down in one of the other chairs. “Geez, you don’t seem dangerous at all. You look like a regular guy to me, someone I could drink beer with and talk about sex.”
Mr. Shababian laughed, “Well we can have a beer if you want. But sex isn’t something we talk about in Iran. We do something about it, but don’t talk.” We all had a chuckle.
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