Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘Teheran

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.