The next morning, Mr. Shababian and I headed for Meshkinshar to find out why the construction of a 200-foot tower needed to support a 10-foot diameter microwave dish had mysteriously stopped. The location was the small telephone switching building that routed telephone calls to their destinations. The microwave radio system would replace the antiquated long-distance lines that suffered frequent service interruptions, with sound quality so poor it was hardly worth using. The new system would carry high-quality, long-distance telephone service along with two television channels.
The tower needed four foundations: one for the tower itself and three more to anchor the guy wires that would support it. Each foundation needed holes dug and filled with concrete to support their respective loads. When we first arrived at the site, we could see the parked back hoe and tower sections already assembled and ready for lifting into place. The microwave dish was also assembled and waiting for the tower. As we walked around the area, we noticed the three excavated holes, with the remaining spot marked with sticks holding color-coded ribbons fluttering in the arid breeze. The back hoe seemed poised and ready, like a hungry dinosaur, but with no Fred Flintstone to operate it. Mr. Chief Engineer Shababian seemed to be absorbing more information than me, as he had his hand on his chin and kept muttering “Hmm, hmm,” followed with, “Let’s take a look inside.”
As we entered the building, the two surprised men who’d been playing cards and drinking tea leaped to their feet and gave Mr. Shababian a lavish greeting with bows, handshakes and smiles. They obviously knew who he was. The worried looks on their faces suggested to me that they could possibly be in trouble, but after a quick statement that I didn’t understand from Mr. Shababian, they went back to their game. He motioned for me to join him back outside.
It was flat and arid land, but because of an elaborate and ancient irrigation system, there were crops growing all around, and even some within the site’s perimeter chain-link fence. Mr. Shababian spent another five minutes ambling around the area, then came up to me and asked, “Do you have a plot plan for this site?” It was a large drawing showing the relationship of all objects in the area, existing and proposed.
“Yes, I do.” That was the one bit of support the company had given me.
“Well let’s have a look at it.” We found a table back inside and spread out the drawing. Mr. Shababian looked at it for several minutes, and finally asked me, “Can you see any reason why we can’t rotate the tower ten degrees clockwise?”
“What?” His question took me completely by surprise.
He held his hands flat above the drawing, forming a triangle between his thumbs and forefingers and placing them over the planned location of the tower. Then he turned his hands clockwise showing his proposed position of the tower. The center would be in the same place, but the anchors would have to be relocated. “I’m just wondering if this change would cause any technical problems from your department’s point of view.”
“Why on Earth would you want to do that?”
“Never mind that for now. I just want to know if we could do it without causing any other problems.”
I looked at the drawing for a few minutes and said, “Well I don’t see any reason why not. Usually we try to have one of the guy wires pointing north for a reference, but it’s not absolutely necessary. It’s not an engineering requirement.”
“Well let’s try it on paper to see if it works.”
We used colored pencils and a ruler to illustrate the proposed location superimposed over the old, developing what’s called “a red-line” drawing used to plan and authorize engineering changes. When we finished, we saw no new problems. “OK, let’s do it,” he said. When you get back to Tehran, tell your people to send the surveyors to mark the new locations of the anchor holes. Then the back hoe operator can fill in the two old anchor holes and dig the three new ones. After that, you can continue as if nothing happened.”
Officially, such changes needed to be recorded and sent through an approval process. But being the chief engineer, he had the final say on all change orders. He signed the drawing, rolled it up and handed it to me. “Here, tell them you have an authorized change order, signed by Mr. Shababian.” We both chuckled at him mocking his own name.”
“OK, but… why? Why are we rotating the tower?” I was totally confused.
“I’ll explain on the way back. Come on. Let’s go. We’re finished here.”
In the car, Mr. Shababian told me the story. “You saw the two men playing cards and drinking tea? Well one was the telephone technician who works there and the other was the back hoe operator. So let me tell you how I’m guessing it went. The back hoe driver arrives and the telephone man greets him. ‘Praise Allah, at last you are here to dig the holes. I’ve heard about the tower that He is sending us.’
‘Praise Allah, and thanks to Him, we will soon have a modern system.’
“The operator goes out to dig the holes. But did you notice anything strange about that third hole, the one yet to be dug?”
“No, not necessarily.”
“Well it was right, smack in the middle of his vegetable garden. So the operator tells the technician, ‘Praise Allah, we have a problem.’
‘Good heavens, what is the problem?’
‘One of the holes would destroy your vegetable garden! Praise Allah, what shall we do?’
‘Could we wait until Allah finishes making the vegetables grow?’
‘I believe that would please Him. But what can we do in the meantime?’
‘We can play cards and drink tea. It will only be another month or so. You can stay here with me until the vegetables are ready to pick.’
‘Can you send someone to tell my family I’ll be staying here with you?’
‘Of course, praise Allah.’
“It’s perfectly normal for the people out here in the country to act that way,” Mr. Shababian concluded. “No one’s in a hurry for anything.”
“Why couldn’t we just give him fifty bucks for the vegetables and get on with it?” I asked.
He spoke slowly as he shook his head. “The vegetables are gifts from God. Fifty bucks would be a gift from man. He would definitely refuse the offer.”
“Couldn’t you force him take the money? After all, you’re the boss.”
“I could never do that. It would break his heart. Those vegetables are far too important to him. Besides, the telecommunications system is meant to help the people, not to destroy vegetable gardens.”
“But they looked disappointed when we left.”
He laughed out loud. “Well, yes. They were looking forward to continuing their card games. But they’ll soon realize that the change is Allah’s will and they’ll praise him again before they go about their business.”
“I think I’m beginning to see.” I felt more comfortable as I was getting a better feel of what rural Iran was really like; peaceful, considerate and compassionate.
We still had a few hours for the return trip so I thought I would get as much information from him as I could. “Tell me more about the mistakes we’re making here?”
“Well most of them have to do with your hurry to get things done and your refusal to show even the slightest respect for our culture.”
“Can you give me an example, other than the bazaar?”
“Let me tell you two stories. Mind you, these didn’t actually happen, but they’re examples of the kinds of things that do happen. Let’s say an American comes out here to sell pickup trucks to the old-fashioned farmers. He sees an old man riding a donkey, stops and says, ‘Hello, old man.’
The old man says, ‘Praise Allah, a visitor from afar. And why has He sent you to me?’
‘Ah, good sir, Allah has sent a pickup truck that you may wish to purchase.’
‘Praise Allah, what is a pickup truck?’
‘Why, this marvelous machine I am riding in is a pickup truck. Would you like to get in and see what it’s like?’
‘Of course, praise Allah. It certainly is beautiful. What makes it run?’
‘It burns gasoline. We make it from the oil we dig out of the ground.’
‘You mean to tell me that you dig that nasty oil out of the ground and then burn it in this machine?’
‘Well, I’m not sure Allah would like that. He buried that oil down so deep because it is so foul. We should not be digging it up when we have perfectly good donkeys to ride on. They have been given to us by Allah.’ Then he might ask, ‘What does your pickup truck excrete?’
‘Well, it excretes gases that disappear into the air.’
‘And can you show me its anal opening?’
The salesman then shows the old man the exhaust pipe. You see, when the farmer buys a donkey, he sniffs its butt-hole to make sure it is healthy. So the old man takes a sniff of the exhaust pipe. ‘Phew, that smells horrible. I don’t think this machine is very healthy. I don’t think I would like to buy it today, sir. But please go in peace, and may Allah bless you.’”
“But I’ve seen quite a few pickup trucks around.”
“Well of course, but not everyone wants them, at least not yet. You see, our society is divided between the old and the new cultures. The old is still the majority, and they’re very set in their ways. But I’m sure they’ll adapt and we’ll join the modern world eventually, but we can’t do it tomorrow. We have to take our time. Forcing people to change only causes problems. But let me tell you the next story.”
“Go on, this should be good.”
“A television salesman knocks on the door of a small home in the country, like the ones you see all around you now. The man of the house answers the door. ‘Praise Allah, a visitor from a distant land. And why has Allah sent you to us.’
‘Well, good sir, Allah has sent me with a television set.’
‘A television set? Praise Allah, what on earth is that?’
‘It’s a magic box that shows moving pictures with voices and music from all over the world. You can use it to see your King and your holy men. You can see football games and you can use it educate your children. Do you think you would like to have one?’
‘Praise Allah, I believe I would love to have one.’
‘Well I just happen to have one in my truck.’
‘Well, bring it in, by all means.’
So the salesman brings it into the house and asks, ‘Where shall I put it.’ The man of the house holds his chin in deep thought. He can’t think of a place. So the the salesman says, ‘Why not put it in that corner over there?’
‘Oh no, no, no! That corner is very sacred. That is where great, great, great, great grandfather had a heart attack, but thanks to Allah, his life was spared. That corner is very sacred and we could not put the television there!’
‘Well, how about that other corner over there?’
‘Oh no, no, no! That corner is also very sacred also. That is where great, great, great, great grandmother had a premature childbirth, but thanks to Allah the baby’s life was spared. That corner is very sacred. We could not put the television there!’
Soon the salesman finds out that every part of the house is sacred for one miracle or another that happened over the course of the centuries. But not to despair, the man of the house soon comes up with an idea. With a bright smile he says, ‘See all the little children in the house? We will tell them about the television as they grow. And when they are grown up and my son is the man of the house, he will have decided a place where you can put the television. So would you mind bringing it back in fifteen years?’”
“That’s hard to believe.”
“Well,” Mr. Shababian said chuckling. “It may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you should get the point. You could probably negotiate the television set in a few months, but you would have to take your time and be very patient and polite. Family heritage and courtesy are very important to Iranians. But getting things right now isn’t, as you’ve already seen.”
“I’m getting a better picture.”
“And you know what I think the American truck and TV salesmen would say about our people?”
“They’d say, ‘They’re contrary to American economic interests and are therefore our enemies.’” He seemed to let out a sigh of knowing disappointment. “They’d be offended and angry.”
“Well wouldn’t they have a right to be? They’re not going to get anything done.”
He looked at me directly in the eyes as before, “If you Americans have the right to advance as rapidly as you wish, why shouldn’t the people of Iran have the right to advance as slowly as they want? You’re always talking about freedom, but when it comes to profit, freedom seems to be reserved only for the profiteers. The people in Iran don’t want you to do what you did to your own Indians. We simply want to progress at our own pace, regardless of your profit projections. Peace means far more to us than money.”
As there wasn’t much I could say to that, I chose to watch the desert landscape go by for a few minutes. I then asked Mr. Shababian if he knew where our field office was in Tabriz. He said he did, and that we could stop there before going to the airport. We had a short wave radio and I wanted to contact Tehran to report that the problem was solved.
After several attempts, the radio operator in the Tabriz field office finally managed to make radio contact with our civil construction manager in Tehran. I explained that the problem with Meshkinshar could be solved by rotating the tower ten degrees clockwise. His obviously confused voice asked, “What the hell is going on up there?”
I said, “Well, I’ve been to the site with Mr. Shababian and he wants to rotate the tower ten degrees clockwise.”
“Why the hell does he want to do that?”
I knew he wouldn’t understand, so I just said, “I don’t know but he’s already approved a red-line drawing. I’ll complete the change order paperwork when…”
He interrupted with, “Bullshit, Asmus! You tell that fucking son-of-a-bitch to kiss your ass! You’re not making any changes without authorization from this office!”
Mr. Shababian was standing right behind me and heard every word. I said into the microphone, “I’m sorry, you’re breaking up. I can’t hear you.”
The squawking voice went into a rage. “That mother fucker is the cause of all our god damn problems. You tell that stupid shit that you’re not changing anything without my approval. Tell him to go fuck himself.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. You’re breaking up!” Mr. Shababian and I held our hands over our mouths and laughed without making a sound. I continued talking into the microphone, explaining very slowly and clearly, “Richard Asmus, calling from Tabriz! Meshkinshar tower problem solved! Rotating tower ten degrees clockwise! Will report to office tomorrow with a red-line drawing signed by Mr. Shababian! Over and out!” The rage continued on the speaker as we left the room laughing.
On arriving to work the next morning I was instantly summoned to a meeting room with all the department heads and the general manager of the entire project, a boulder of a man with a bald head, a round red face, a thick black moustache and a stubby cigar lodged permanently in the corner of his mouth. He barked out the other corner, “Will somebody please tell me just what the fuck is going on here?”
The construction department head leapt to his feet, sneering through his pencil thin moustache. “Fucking Asmus here is not the man to be sending out with Shababian. He’s letting that asshole push him around. We sent him up to Meshkinshar to find out why the tower construction has stopped, but Shababian comes up with some bullshit idea about rotating the tower. Fucking Asmus falls for it and signs a red-line without even asking us.”
My boss then immediately rose. He was a short and stocky man with thick blond curly hair, ice-blue eyes and a slower and more confident manner. “Now wait just a fucking minute here. We send Asmus up to Meshkinshar with Shababian to find out why construction has stopped, and he comes back, not only with a solution, but with a change order already signed by the top dog. We can resume construction as soon as we do a new survey. What the fuck more do you want? Asshole, here, sent two of his morons up there and they came back with nothing… absolutely nothing! Further, everyone else has problems just talking with Shababian. Asmus seems to know how to get him to sign change orders.”
From around the cigar came, “Well it sounds to me like somebody’s finally got a handle on that shit bag. How’d you do it, Asmus?”
“Well, Sir, I just learned how to pronounce his name properly.” The blank faces showed me I needed to explain further. “I think if we’d all start addressing him properly, we could make some great inroads. His real name is not Mr. Shababian. It’s Agha Mohahndess Shahbabian. It means, ‘Mr. Engineer Shababian,” and it shows the respect of his position. And if we all learn to call him that, I think we’ll see a different man. Calling him ‘Mr. Shababian’ is the way we address a person without a profession, like a driver or a garbage man. ”
The blank faces remained frozen. “Let me show you how to do it.” I felt like a clown, but I went through the motions that he had taught me, thinking that they would follow. But as I continued, the puzzled faces didn’t budge.
Suddenly the silence broke from the other side of the cigar, “What the fuck are you talking about, Asmus. Fuck that camel jockey son-of-a-bitch. We’re not gonna kiss his ass. Now get the hell out of here. Oh, by the way, nice work! We’ll send you on more jobs with him if you think you can handle his bullshit.”
“Piece of cake,” I said while mentally rolling my eyes back.
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