Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Iran

the-debate-3The opening of my play, “The Debate,” about Charles Darwin was this past Saturday night.  I’m playing the role of Darwin in it.  That’s me, hamming it up in the picture.

When Madge Montgomery, the Artistic Director of the Theater Company of Lafayette, spoke to me about submitting a script for their Lincoln/Darwin play festival (Lincoln and Darwin were both born on February 12th, 1809), I knew relatively little about either man.  Having lived 20 years in England, I was more intrigued with the idea of writing something about Darwin, and I had a feeling that more of the submissions were going to be about Lincoln.   So I went on-line and spent about 15 hours reading everything I could find on Darwin, his family, his colleagues, Victorian England, ….  Then I headed off to the University of Colorado library and got out Darwin’s autobiography, as well of that of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s protege and self-proclaimed “bulldog.”

When I started the research, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write about.  One thing that I was certain of was that I didn’t want to write about the controversy over whether or not evolution is scientifically valid.  (Of course it is.  Sorry, Creationists.)

But since I’ve started as a playwright, I’ve found that when I immerse myself in a subject, something invariably presents itself that has to be written.

In this case, I soon became caught up in Darwin’s description of his relationship with Huxley.  Darwin had formulated the bases of the theories of evolution and natural selection by the time he was 29, but he realized what social, religious and political dynamite he was dealing with.  So he spent the next 20 years gathering more evidence and biding his time.  Then a colleague named Wallace sent him a letter with many of the same ideas, and Darwin rushed “Origin of Species” out in a few months.  A year later an impromptu debate occurred at the Oxford Museum of Natural History pitting the supporters of evolution against the Creationists.   Darwin, who was ill and house-bound most of his life, wasn’t at the debate, but Huxley was and defended Darwin’s theories.

In Darwin’s autobiography, he talks about how he would constantly chide Huxley for being so aggressive in attacking everyone who dared to question his (Darwin’s) theories.  In contrast, Darwin was deeply into being a gentleman scientist and believed in dealing civilly with everyone.

The action of my play occurs a few weeks after the Oxford Debate, when Huxley comes to Darwin’s house to tell him about what had transpired.  And the “Debate” of the title refers to both the Oxford Debate and the heated debate that Darwin and Huxley engage in on a scientist’s responsibility to take into account the potential impact of his discoveries before making them public.

Thoughtful stuff for a loose cannon like me, who has a habit of deciding what he thinks needs to be done and declares “Full speed ahead,” huh?

The next day, I did a gig as Darwin at a Unitarian Universalist service in the area.  The Unitarians, and the Universalists in particular, claim Darwin as one of their own.  After speaking with the Reverend, I made up an extract from the play that seemed relevant to the theme of their service.  In costume and with my phony British accent coming and going, I addressed the congregation.  They seemed to enjoy it, and it was a real kick for me.

I’d never been to a Unitarian service before, and I must say that it was a revelation for me.  Much of what I heard was what has been going through my head for the last 50 years.  It was a lot like coming home after a lifetime away.

After the service, a woman came up to me and said that she thought she’d worked with me many years earlier.  It turned out that we had trained together in Chicago in January, 1974 (!!!) before flying together to Iran and teaching English as a Foreign Language in Tehran for the Iranian army.  (See “Up close and personal — with your chicken thighs” and “Banging on doors, yelling ‘Those Bastards.’ “)

Small world, huh?  Amazing that she’d recognize me after all these years.  I guess it’s because I’m succeeding in my obligation to live forever and stay young and beautiful all that time.  On the other hand, I do have a painting in the attic that’s getting old and ugly!

don-iranFollowing on from yesterday’s post, I should tell you that Rhonda and I were iran1in Teheran in 1974 teaching English to Iranian soldiers.  This was in the days of the Shah, and Iran was buying a fleet of attack helicopters from Bell Helicopter.  Rather than teaching the Bell instructors Farsi, it was decided to teach the Iranian soldiers English, and Bell contracted to set up several schools.  I was just finishing up a Masters in Linguistics with a specialization in Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and moving to Teheran to teach Iranian soldiers was my first venture outside of the U.S.

At the school, which was on an army base, there were forty teachers.  Most of them, like Rhonda and me, were idealistic, bright-eyed young Americans on their first teaching assignments.  About 400 soldiers, in training to be helicopter mechanics and pilots, would go through the school each year, and at the beginning of the year they were all given an entrance exam.  The students with the top 12 scores went into the first class, the next 12 scores went into the second class, and so on.  I got the last class — the lowest 12 out of 400!

These were not high-school grads from an industrialized country we are talking about here.  The large majority of the Iranian population at the time was rural, and most of my students had come straight from tiny, mud-hut villages in the desert.  Several of them were only semi-literate in Farsi, and I had 8 hours of teaching these same students 5 days a week for 12 weeks, to get them to be literate and fluent in English.  It was an exhausting, incredibly frustrating first venture into my new career.

Although we didn’t know it yet, 1974 was close to the end of the Shah’s regime, and if I had been looking for signs of the coming explosion, I would have seen them.  But I was far too busy being profoundly culture-shocked with life in Iran.  At the orientation session for the school instructors, we were told that the Iranian Secret Police, Savak, was everywhere, and we were never to refer to the Shah in public by title or name.  We were to choose a euphemism.  The one which nearly everybody used was “Clark Kent.”

We were also told that at least one of our students would be a ringer — a Savak agent there to watch us.  To avoid uncomfortable situations, we were to avoid teaching “controversial” words in our lessons.  Words like “democracy,” or “elections.”  (“Why don’t we have elections, teacher?”)  Fortunately, my 18 year old soldier-students were much too interested in trying to get me to teach them words referring to female anatomy to care much about political science.

The school was made up of two long buildings lined up end to end.  My class was at the end of one building, and the school office was at the nearest point in the next building.  A dozen times a day I went back and forth to the office, and while using the main entrances of the buildings would have meant a trip of nearly a quarter of a mile, there were secondary doors next to my class and the office, so the trip was less than 50 yards.

One morning I arrived to find the school abuzz.  In two days, the Empress would be visiting the school, and the army was doing it’s best to spruce-up the place, which included putting large potted plants at each of the entrances.  A few hours later, while I gave my class a break, I headed to the nearby door to take the shortcut between the two buildings.  It was locked.  I realized immediately that the base authorities had decided that if they were going to go through the trouble and expense of putting potted plants at the main entrances, everyone was damn well going to use those main entrances.  In frustration, I banged on the door and said, “Those bastards.”  Several of my students who had come out of the classroom observed my mini-tantrum.

Remember now, these were the bottom 12 students out of 400.  They never learned even the simplest word on less than 50 repetitions.  These words, though, they learned on the first repetition.  Within seconds, my entire class was running up and down the halls of the military language school, banging on doors and yelling, “Those bastards!  Those bastards!”

“No,” I said desperately, “I didn’t say that.  I didn’t mean it.  Oh, god!”

Later that day I found out which of the students in my class was my spy.  I should have known.  Corporal Khojasteh was far and away the best student in the class, so I frequently used him to run errands for me.  That afternoon I asked him to come with me to the office to help carry a projector.  Forgetting about what had happened in the morning, I led him to the nearby door and tried it.  It was still locked, and I muttered under my breath, “Damn, that’s stupid.”  He fixed me with an earnest stare and said, “The major did that.  Is the major stupid?”

“Let me rephrase that,” I babbled.

After that, I kept my eye on Corporal Khojasteh, and he did many things to confirm that he was, indeed, my personal informer.

If I told you that this was one of the high points of my career as a language teacher in Iran, perhaps you’ll understand just how difficult it was.  And how unprepared I was for it.

Thanks for inspiring these memories, Amber.

chickenI grew up in the suburbs thinking that the animals which supplied the meat that we ate all grew neatly inside of Styrofoam containers with Saran wrap covers and price labels.  I never though about it much, but I suppose I expected that if I ever went to a chicken farm, there would be thousands of Styrofoam containers hopping around making “cheeping” noises. Then in 1974, when Rhonda and I were 22, we moved to Tehran where we learned differently.

Each meat shop where we lived in Tehran specialized in a different type of animal, and if the animals were small ones, they were alive and running loose in the store. In the poultry store, we would point to the chicken or duck we wanted and the shop owner would chase it down, wring it’s neck, and hand it to us.  Warm, and with the heart still beating!

When we got home the first time, we unwrapped the chicken, and Rhonda and I looked at it and then each other.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” she asked me.

“I think we’re supposed to do something about the feathers,” I replied.

“Yeah, I know that,” she said, “but there are parts inside that we aren’t supposed to eat.”

“Nah, they wouldn’t do that to us, would they?  Just put it in the oven and it’ll be great.”

Fortunately Rhonda had grown up cooking for her family of four and had much more experience with meat than I did.  So we managed to survive our first chicken-cleaning party.  The next time we went to the poultry shop, though, we managed to communicate to the shop owner — using our still unpolished, “grunt and point” Farsi — that we would like him to pluck the feathers and take out the insides.  No, we didn’t want most of the insides (except the liver, which we recognized); he could keep them.

The next big shock was when we went to the cow store.  You’ll be relieved to know that in that store the shopkeeper didn’t chase down a live cow and hand it to us.  Cows have a hard time time making a living in Iran; it’s a long walk between blades of grass.  So entire carcasses were shipped frozen from Australia or Argentina.  When a single carcass arrived at the shop — that was all that our local shop had at any one time — it was hung up on a gigantic hook to await customers.

Other than the mysterious innards, at least Rhonda and I had some some basic knowledge of fowl anatomy.  What we knew about bovine anatomy could have been put on the head of a pin and still have room for all those angels dancing.  Which was unfortunate, since it was apparently our responsibility to instruct the butcher as to which portions of the cow we wanted.  Not that it mattered much, because by the time we got to butcher shop, most of the parts that we would have recognized by name were already gone.

So, we resigned ourselves to eating, “hunk” of beef.  The first half-dozen times, the butcher insisted on putting whatever we bought into the grinder.  Smart butcher!  Eventually, though, we got tired of variations on ground beef, and told him we wanted him to leave the meat in one big piece.  Big mistake!

“What are you going to do with it?” he asked us suspiciously.

“We’re going to eat it,” I answered.

“Do you want me to cut it into small pieces?” he asked.

“No, just leave it like that.”

“Let me slice it really thin for you.”

Finally, I convinced him that we were in the mood for a nice, roast hunk of beef.  He was right to be skeptical.  It was tasteless, tougher than shoe-leather and completely inedible.  There’s a reason why the meat in Persian cooking, which by the way is wonderful, is mostly ground or cut up into tiny pieces and stewed for 3 days.

After a couple of months, we found a store which sold Persian Gulf shrimp for $2 a pound.  Other than taking off the heads and tails, peeling them and taking out the vein, there’s not a lot you have to know about shrimp anatomy.  Shrimp became the staple of our diets.  Boiled shrimp, broiled shrimp, fried shrimp, shrimp fried rice, shrimp soup, shrimp steak, Shrimp Newburg, shrimp cobbler…   Sort of like a menu designed by Bubba in “Forrest Gump,” but 20 years earlier.

Chickens are no longer anywhere where near as mysterious to me as they were in 1974.  Two years after we left Tehran, Rhonda and I spent a summer working on a kibbutz in Israel.  There, I ended up in the chicken houses, caring for 20,000 chickens.  In case you’re wondering, 20,000 chickens produce one hell of a lot of chicken shit.  Chicken shit is one of the most noxious substances known to man when it’s dry.  But that’s nothing compared to when it’s wet.  And yes, wet or dry, someone has to shovel all that chicken shit.

But that’s another story.