My Most Memorable Independence Days

fireworks over a city

Happy Fourth of July!

As we approached celebrating our country’s 241st birthday, I thought about a couple of my memorable Fourths of July. Two things made the two mentioned below memorable: they diverged from the usual picnics and fireworks, and both involve Iran.

July 4, 1976

The first was July 4, 1976, our Bicentennial Independence Day. While Americans in the US experienced months of listening to 76 Trombones as a lead-up to the big day, I was one of 25 American teachers with the University of Southern California among an estimated 25,000 Americans living and working in Iran. The week before July 4, the US Embassy contacted all businesses with American employees to advise that we keep our celebrations low key. While rumors of disgruntled persons planning to do harm to Americans by attacking locations where large numbers gathered had not become common at that point, the embassy advised that we avoid large gatherings to reduce the possibility of such an attack being carried out.

A group of us from USC drove out of the city to a grove of trees beside a creek near Karaj, a village to the northwest of Tehran. We held our low-key picnic there, out of sight from everyone. We weren’t afraid. We were just being cautious.

We talked a lot about the successful raid on Entebbe Airport in Uganda earlier that day. Israeli commandos freed 102 of the 104 Air France passengers and crew who had been held there since June 27 after their flight from Tel Aviv to Paris was hijacked. The success of the rescue contributed to our sense that we in the West were invulnerable.

Three years after the Bicentennial Independence Day, on November 4, 1979, American employees at the US Embassy in Tehran were taken hostage by Iranian students who wanted to overthrow Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the autocratic ruler they blamed the US for putting into power through a coup in 1953 that removed the democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The recently released Foreign Relations of the United States 1952-1954 papers prove the students were right about the role of the US and the CIA in removing Mossadegh and returning the Shah to power. We learned we are not invulnerable.

Six months after the students kidnapped US diplomats, our attempt to repeat the success of Entebbe failed spectacularly in the deserts of Iran outside Tehran. Instead of bringing home the 52 hostages, the bodies of eight service members who died were left behind. We learned we are not infallible.

July 4, 1988

The second memorable Independence Day came twelve years later, in 1988, the day after the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes shot down Iran Air Flight 655 over Iran’s territorial waters of the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people aboard. The plane was on a flight from Bandar Abbas in southwestern Iran to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

I was working then at the US Embassy in Doha, Qatar, directly across the Persian Gulf from Iran and to the northwest of the United Arab Emirates. We spent that July 4th on the phone calling all those we had previously invited to celebrate July 4th with the ambassador to tell them we had canceled the event. We were learning to admit when we are responsible.

In spite of the dark lessons of these two unique observations of Independence Day, I returned from the first committed to celebrate the rights and privileges I have as a citizen, having learned how many people in the world do not have that freedom. I became involved in local politics. I caucused in my precinct. I served as a delegate in my district. I attended state conventions as an observer. I attended district meetings between election cycles.

I encouraged my friends to do the same, even friends whose political viewpoints did not match mine. I knew it is important that we all take part in the system we have in order that we not allow someone to take it away.

The only presidential election I missed voting in was in 2000 when I was in Yemen, dealing with the “new normal” of life in Yemen after the USS Cole had been attacked. I didn’t think it mattered if one person missed voting that year. The outcome of that election made it clear how wrong I was. Every vote counts.

What have you learned from your Independence Day celebrations?

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Q is for Qatar

The summer of 1987, before I arrived in Doha in October of that year, the governments of Qatar and Bahrain adopted threatening postures towards one another, the result of a dispute about the Hawar islands off the coast of Qatar. Both countries claimed the islands, which can be seen from the western coast of Qatar on a clear day and are miles away from Bahrain.

The islands are uninhabited, but are in an area with rich petroleum reserves. The increased tension between the two countries led to the closing of selected air lanes in the Gulf* to international flights. The US government was concerned that the closure of the air lanes put both commercial and military flights at risk since Iran and Iraq were also battling one another at the time, and their battles involved guns, not just words.

For a short period of time Bahrain severed communications links between the two countries. This proved to be a challenge to the embassy in Qatar. Without telegraphic communications, no reporting on the war could be sent from Doha to Washington. Instead, telegrams had to be printed and carried by non-professional courier from Doha to Bahrain where they were sent from the embassy in Bahrain. The fact that all reporting about the dispute, covering both the Bahraini and the Qatari perspectives, arrived in Washington with the name of the US Ambassador to Bahrain at the bottom was a source of some embarrassment to the US Ambassador to Qatar, I was told.

I saw one small remnant of the dispute–a T-shirt ordered by the Doha Hash House Harriers that included the outline of the country of Qatar on the front where a pocket would have been. In addition to the neatly printed country boundary, an indistinct blob made by a permanent Magic Marker appeared to the left of the outline. Qatari Customs would not release the shirts to the Hashers until they added something to reflect that the islands off Qatar’s west coast were part of the country.

Hearing the story from my colleagues on my arrival reminded me of a Ziggy cartoon I had seen just before leaving the US for Doha. In the cartoon, Ziggy was watching TV as the announcer said, War broke out today between two insignificant little countries you probably haven’t heard of.

Sometimes life is just as funny as a cartoon.

FYI: The dispute between Qatar and Bahrain was settled in 2001 with Bahrain being named the owner.

*The Gulf referred to here has two names, depending on which side of it one sits. When I was in 8th grade geography, I learned its name was the Persian Gulf. On the southern side of that body of water, however, it is known as the Arabian Gulf. I saw atlases on sale in Qatar where the word “Persian” had been blacked out, again with black Magic Marker. I choose to refer to it as either “The Gulf” or “The Gulf that has two names.”

D is for Doha

When I got off the plane late one October evening in 1987 in Doha, my first thought was Who left the oven door open? The heat assaulted me at the top of the stairs set up on the tarmac to facilitate passengers getting off the plane. I had never felt such heat.

Doha seemed like a sleepy little town when I lived there from 1987 to 1989. I could barely find any information about it before I left. So instead, I read all about Saudi Arabia, including a cultural guide put together by members of the US embassy staff in Riyadh to help those assigned to the Kingdom prepare for life in an almost entirely gender-segregated society. Armed with that mis-information, I brought videos of every movie I ever wanted to watch, every book I ever thought I’d read, and every board game I could get my hands on. I expected to spend most of my two-year assignment there indoors, more specifically, in my own home.

But Doha was a surprise in so many ways. Those videos, books, and games I brought? Most of them stayed in the boxes. Of all the overseas assignments I had, none offered more to do than Doha.

My first weekend in Doha coincided with the first visit by a cabinet-level official, the Secretary of Energy, to the country of Qatar. I spent the two days before the visit traveling around the city to see all the places the Secretary would be during his very short stay. The evenings were spent in the homes of other staff members at the embassy, entertaining the White House advance team members so they didn’t have to stay cooped up in their hotel rooms.

That week turned out not to be exceptional. Every evening there were dinners, receptions, or other events I was invited to attend. Many evenings, there were both dinners and receptions or receptions and cultural performances. If I managed to spend an evening at home, it was usually in the company of 20-30 other people, support staff sent on temporary duty from Washington or expatriates from the US or Europe whose employers were important contacts for the embassy.

Doha will always have a special place in my heart. I met my husband there, one of the British expats in Qatar. The country of Qatar relied on expats from all over the world–still does. When I lived there, the population of the country was around 300,000, only one third of which were native Qataris. Two thirds came from somewhere else–India, Pakistan, the Philippines, other Arabic-speaking countries, Europe, and North America.

Doha has a special place in the hearts of most European and American expats who lived there. Evermore after, when I run into someone I learn once lived in Doha, I see wistfulness in the eyes as we begin to share stories of how much we enjoyed living in that tiny little city in a very small country. As a small town Midwestern girl, I felt entirely at home in Doha, once I got used to the heat.