Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Beauty Queen of Fargo and the Hungarian Secret Police

Got to USC yesterday, and turned on my computer.  USC's homepage came up, and I saw that Roxana Saberi--the American reporter who was imprisoned by the Iranian secret police for writing a book about the Islamic Republic--was the guest speaker at a noon lunch conference open to the public.  Had to go check that out.  Got there, and discovered that she was a beautiful, tiny woman with one of those exotic faces that you can't place.  She looked very Eurasian, and I attributed that to her being Iranian.  I know that starting from Iran, going north and east, there are lots of Mongolic ethnic groups like Hazaras, Tajiks, Turkmen, etc with almond-shaped eyes.

A young Asian (Chinese? Korean?) girl sat down next to me, and while we both spread mayonnaise on the free box lunches they were passing out, she gushed, "Oh, she's so beautiful!  She's half-Japanese, half-Iranian!  She was Miss North Dakota!"  The girl trembled with joy while ogling her hero.


I assumed that the young Asian girl was glad to see that here was an Asian girl who was world famous for being a daring reporter--hence her overenthusiasm.  Later on, I found out that the gushing girl is a journalism professor.  Whoa, slow down there, pardner.

So, after the usual introduction where the Vice President in Charge of Paperclips introduces the Associate Dean of Hawaiian Reindeer Milking--who in turn actually introduces the guest--Roxana started.  She had a bunch of loose sheets of paper, and a book with a ridiculous number of post-it notes sticking out between the pages.  Her voice was pleasant, but weak.  We strained to hear her, despite the polite silence that reigned the room.  She shuffled papers while rambling on with an autobiography accompanied by PowerPoint slides from her childhood to her college years. 

It turned out that her Japanese mother met her Iranian father in Iran, and they moved to the U.S., where Roxana and her brother were born.  She grew up in North Dakota, and while going to college in Minnesota, the Miss Fargo beauty pageant only had three contestants, and somebody begged her to be number four.  They needed bodies.  Not only did she win, but with her piano-playing skills she worked all the way up to the Miss America contest which she didn't win, but did get a bunch of good college scholarships that let her go get a second Masters Degree at Cambridge.

Now I started to become impressed.

Then she got to the part where she wanted to be a reporter, and instead of winding up in a French-speaking country as planned, she wound up in Iran, speaking bad Farsi with an American accent.

Once she started talking about her work in Iran, she became a different person.  The shy girl from Fargo was replaced by a world-traveling reporter.  The change in her facial expression, tone, and demeanor was remarkable. 

Then she got to the part about the morning when someone rang her doorbell, and it was the Iranian Secret Police, who hauled her off to the infamous prsion for political enemies of the Islamic Republic.

Okay, now you're talking my language.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I heard a lot of stories from my parents about life in Stalinist-era Hungary.  Even after the end of the Stalinist Rakosi era, the Communist government under Kadar had to keep the Soviets happy, which of course resulted in having a society where people mistrusted their neighbors and coworkers.  Police especially were not to be trusted.  Besides occasionally catching burglars, their real job was to frighten the citizenry.  I remember when I was a little boy in the 70s, and we flew from L.A. to Frankfurt, and took a train to Budapest.  As the train rolled through the Austrian countryside, every mile that it got closer to the Hungarian border i.e. the Iron Curtain, the more fidgety my mom (who snuck out of Hungary without permission in 1964), and other Hungarians on the train got.  When the Hungarian Border Patrol (Hatar Orseg) boarded the train, my mom's hands trembled as she handed them our U.S. passports.  At this point in history, the Communists were not interested in ruining relations with the U.S. by arresting some middle-aged house-wife, but Mom wasn't convinced.  Too many of our relatives or in-laws had wound up in concentration camps after World War II.

When I went to college in Hungary in the 80s--when none of us knew that 5 years from now the whole Eastern Bloc would implode--as an American citizen I had to put up with annoyances and limitations on my personal freedoms that nobody in the U.S. would ever tolerate.  Among my Hungarian classmates, I didn't talk about my family history, or express opinions about the government.  I didn't know who was a member of the KiSz--the Hungarian Communist Youth Association, or who was a good old-fashioned stool pigeon. 

I used to commit an illegal act on a regular basis, when the Communists were in power: I would sell my U.S. Dollars on the black market for a far better price than the official exchange rate.  It was a win-win.  I got a better price, and Hungarians got forbidden Western currency.  One morning, a guy in a suit & tie rang my bell.  I answered it, and he showed me his police i.d.

Oh shit.  They've come to arrest me for selling my dollars on the black market.  They're going to imprison me, then kick me out of the country.  I was trapped on the second floor, and my aprtment was at the end of the hallway. 

He asked me to step outside.

I complied. 

I looked around, and the neighbor's door was open. Great.  My neighbor was a hard-core alcoholic.  There were mornings when the way I went to class was to step over him, because he was asleep outside his aprtment door--key in one hand, empty bottle in the other.  Now he gets to watch the cops haul me away.

The cop says, "We are from the Burglary Division.  We are searching your neighbor, Andras Peterdi's home, to look for stolen goods.  We need a civilian witness."

Later on that day, I changed my underwear.

That's one of many stories.  One classmate--a Communist rat-fink asked me if I was a CIA agent.  I had an uncle who worked at a government ministry, and his job was to guard the Japanese copy machine, to make sure that no one used it to print anti-government propaganda.

So, I know how Roxana felt.  Once she started talking about the details of her imprisonment, I started to feel really sorry for her.  I could see on her face that she was re-living those days, as if it was happening right now.  I wanted to hug her and tell her, "You're okay.  You're okay.  It's all over."

She talked about her fellow political prisoners who are still in that prison, and showed us her hand-drawn maps of where she thinks her cell was, and the set-up when they would interrogate her.  They would haul her,blindfolded, into a room, and have her sit with her back to a group of anonymous men who would ask her questions, and then not let her answer, while they accused her of being an American spy.

Besides Iranian citizens who protest the totalitarian regime, there are three Berkeley students who were hiking near the Iranian border, and were taken prisoner by Iranian border guards who think that any American on the Iranian border has to be a spy.

I miss Sergeant-Major Gatewood.  He was a Green Beanie who really did hang out on the Iranian border.  He was the real Rambo, and they never would have caught him. 

It is precisely the close-minded attitude of the Iranian government that is discussed in a fascinating book by Lee Harris that I am reading right now titled The Suicide of Reason.  The subtitle indicates that it is a book about Radical Islam's threat to The West i.e. wolld peace, but the book is far more complicated, nuanced, and deeper than that.  The writer lives in a place called Stone Mountain, Georgia, and a place name like that combined with the author's WASP name convinced me that I had already figured out what the author and the book were all about.  Resorting to stereotypes, I assumed that the author is one of those conservative Southerners who still can't get over having lost the Civil War.  He's probably a Christian Fundamentalist who hates Muslims and Arabs.

I started reading the book, just to see what a Fox News Channel Idiot Lee Harris is, and discovered that the book deals with deep philosophical and historical issues.  His ideas are lucid, sophisticated, and clearly not the product of some guy who sits in his mountain-top cabin whittling wood and oiling his gun.  I never heard of him until a week ago, but he must be a history or philosophy professor.

I'm only 100 pages into the book, but so far he hasn't gotten to Islam, or the Arab World as a target of vitriol.  Instead, he reviews world history, running it through various filters of sociology, biology, psychology, physiology, Darwin, Max Weber, Capitalism, Hitler, Goebbels, Marxism, The Enlightenment, and Tribalism.  His premise is that in our modern Western Society we have become fat and lazy, and don't remember that our grandparents worked their asses off, and fought wars to make the world the way it is.  This is in opposition to tribal units of people like Muslims in the Thrd World (but he lists a lot of others, like South American Communists) who have no desire to live in a big house with a swimming pool, and a Land Rover in the driveway.  They don't want iPhones, hate everything we stand for, and want to kill us.

So far, I only partially agree.  There are alot of people around the world who hate us.  Some of them run governments.  That said, there are also a lot of people in those countries who know better.  Some of them want to dance in a g-string on the beach in Miami, with a mojito in their hand.

That said, I think Harris makes a lot of really good points.  He makes so many intelligent observations in his book, that I wish it was required reading for U.S. military sergeants, officers, and Congressmen.  As for me, I want to go out to a bar with him, and talk until two in the morning.

1 comment:

Balázs said...

... and where would Leland fit in the picture ?