Working In Iran During The Revolution
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While working in London in 1978 I received a phone call from a shopfitting company that I had previously worked for. They asked if I would be interested in going out to Iran, to work on the fitting-out of the Royal Hyatt Hotel in Tehran. I was very interested, as this contract would be my first experience of working overseas.

Once I explained I would be able to spend more time with her and the children, my wife also thought that it was a good ideal. Although it may sound strange, by going to Iran I would see more of my wife and children than while working in the UK. At the time I usually only had one weekend off work every three weeks, whereas in Iran I would be flown home every 90 days for a ten day break.

I accepted the offer and later flew out to Tehran with 12 other shopfitters, some of which I knew, some I didn’t. The flight via Amman, where we spent several hours while changing planes took most of the day. I remember being rather tired by the time we reached Tehran. On coming into land at Tehran airport, I was surprised as to the time it took to fly over the city. At that time I never knew just how large and modern the city was.

After being met at the airport by some of our fellow workers, we were driven to two hotels in town. One for where the shopfitters stayed, and one for the Foremen, where I would be staying.

After breakfast the next morning, we went by coach on a ½ hour trip up towards the mountains where the Hyatt hotel was under construction. On first seeing it, the 26 storey hotel certainly looked an impressive sight. It stood out like a pinnacle on some rough ground, with the mountains forming the background.

When I later went up on the roof of the hotel, I found that you could look right back down the mountain to the hazy city far below. However, from the rear of the hotel, the view consisted of only a nearby prison, which covered the whole hillside. This prison later became well known in the news for being the largest political prison in Iran.

At the time of arrival it was winter and very cold, with quite a bit of snow up at the site. One of my friends, who had arrived a few weeks early, had advised me to take out Long Johns and thermal vests with me, so I was well prepared for the cold.

However, it came as a shock when I found that most of laborers were sleeping outside the hotel inside cardboard boxes. These boxes had previously been used to wrap some of the wardrobes, which were now installed inside the hotel. The men had to endure these living conditions until later being given tents to live in. These although still quite cold, were far better than the men having to live in the boxes.

At first life in Tehran was very good. There were numerous bars and clubs that were packed most nights with crowds of well dressed young people out enjoying themselves. There were no restrictions on drinking, or what women were allowed to wear outdoors. The only women usually seen wearing full Arabic style dress with a headscarf or veil, were the older and more traditional Iranians. The younger generation wore high fashion European clothing, with the women having their hair styled in whatever design they fancied. This situation however, would soon be dramatically changed.

About two months after arriving on site, due to personal reasons the two superintendents who had been running the project returned to the UK. After discussions with the other foreman onsite, the management then promoted me to be the sole superintendent. At one time I controlled a workforce of 60 UK shopfitters, plus four French polishers.

When checking to see who was missing on the coach to work in the mornings, it was quite normal to be told that Fred, Harry or somebody was in hospital on a drip. This was normally due to picking up a bug of some kind. By the end of our stay in Iran out of over 60 of our workers, all but 3-4 had gone down with dysentery of varying degrees.

One weekend while Ray and I were walking around town, when as some young men passed us, we were shocked when they suddenly spat at us. As they did so one said "go home Americans.” I turned back towards him saying we are British not Americans. On hearing this one of the men then apologised to us. From that day on things just got worse, with major problems occurring in the country One day we found that martial law had been declared, which was followed shortly after by a curfew being imposed.

On the first morning of martial law, while driving up to site in our coach, we were shocked to see tanks parked at strategic road junctions with heavily armoured troops standing around them. As I always carried my camera with me I quickly took a photograph of them. On our way though one main square, we saw that a machine gun position had been set up with a gunner lying down behind it ready to open fire.

When we returned back to our hotel in the evening, I had my camera ready to take more photos of the soldiers and tanks. Unfortunately, just as we neared a parked tank and I prepared to take a photo; a keen eyed soldier spotted me and raised his rifle. With that I quickly changed my mind about taking a photo and hit the deck. The guys nearest me yelled out, in alarm. “You crazy s.o.b. you could have got us all killed.” After that episode I never took any more photos of tanks or soldiers.

One Friday a coach load of us went to Quom. At the time none of us knew that the Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile there. We had just had lunch, when suddenly armed troops appeared with riot shields at the ready. That was it, we quickly gathered up all our guys and left never to return. This experience although rather unsettling, was nothing to what we would see later on during our stay in Iran.

As the troubles in Iran grew daily, it made the headline news back home. We heard that some parents were calling for their sons to be brought home. After discussing the situation with our company, John our project manager held a meeting with all our guys present. He informed us that the company had left it up to us to decide if we wanted to stay or go home. He said, “For anyone that agrees to stay on, the company is offering an increased bonus.” That raised a laugh when someone called out, “is that “Bullet Money?” I stated that in my opinion we were presently in no danger as we were well up out of town, and as long as we stayed out of town we would be ok.

After some discussion, the offer of what became known as “Bullet Money” decided the majority of us to stay and carry on working. Only a few of the lads decided to opt out, with them returning home to the UK a few days later.

One morning a couple of guys found one of their hotel staff banging his head against the wall. They stopped him and asked what was wrong. He told them that the night before his father had been in a mosque, when troops surrounded it and demanded that everyone inside came out. As they did so, they were all shot and killed.

Another very bad incident occurred, when all the doors of a cinema full of people were chained and locked shut. The building was then set on fire, which resulted in over 300 people being burned to death.

Shortly after the start of the troubles and our moving from town and up into the Hyatt Hotel, a machine gun post had been set up at the hotel entrance drive, with a few soldiers standing guarding it.

One Friday Ray and I arranged for a taxi to take us to where we could take a cable car up into the snow covered mountains. We had just finished our breakfast and were preparing to go outside and meet our driver, when we saw an army truck pull up at the top of our drive. The next minute armed soldiers jumped out and took up defensive positions blocking the top of the drive. “That’s it then, said Ray, no trip today.” “Its ok, I said, there’re facing out, not in. Common its time we went.”

I then walked out of the hotel and up the driveway towards the soldiers. On looking back I saw that Ray was hanging back, so I waved for him to come on. I knew that Ray did not really fancy passing through the line of soldiers, whereas I had no problems about doing so. On reaching the line of soldiers, who although were quite short in stature the sub-machine guns they were holding made them seem to be 10ft tall. I smiled at the nearest soldiers as I walked through them towards the taxi rank. As a waiting taxi driver walked down towards me, I turned and called too Ray, who was still some way behind me, to hurry up. Although the taxi driver was not the one I had booked for the trip, he said that as our driver had not turned up, he would take us to the cableway.

As we watched Ray reach the line of soldiers and hesitantly move between them, one suddenly turned towards him waving his gun and shouting something at him. Ray stopped dead in his tracks, shot his hands up and stood there shaking like a leaf. On seeing this, the taxi driver quickly ran down towards them saying something to the soldier as he ran. After what must have seemed like a lifetime to Ray, the soldier turned away from him. The taxi driver caught hold of Ray’s arm and quickly led him up to where I stood waiting. Ray was still shaking like a leaf when our taxi pulled away from the soldiers and we drove off up the road. “I really thought he was going to shoot me, spluttered Ray, I thought I’d had it.” “You should have seen yourself I laughed, you looked terrified.” “Looked said Ray, I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

Due to the situation getting worse in the country it resulted in are being unable to get any of our materials out of customs. This in turn caused us to be rapidly running out of materials, which we needed to complete the project. We then heard about a religious occasion coming up, in which self-flagellation took place. In view of this we were advised that the present situation could get much worse, and could well put us all in danger.

I told John our project manager that I thought the time had come for us to call it a day. He agreed with my thoughts, and instructed Jim our admin guy to start making preparations for our departure. While trying to book all our men on a plane out of the country, Jim heard that one of the few airlines still operating intended closing down. Unfortunately, he could not find out which one, so he booked flights on two different airlines. That way if one airline closed, we would still have a ticket out on another airline.

Although we were all quite concerned about our being able to reach the airport ok, fortunately, we had no problems when we later drove there for our flight out of the country. On our arrival at the airport we found it packed with people, who were all desperately trying to get on a plane out of the country.

After going through numerous security checks we eventually checked in and received our boarding passes. As we anxiously waited to board our plane, some of the lads were in high spirits at the prospect of getting away from all the trouble.

One guy who had bought a large decorative knife, suddenly started to wave it around in his excitement. A security guard quickly came and took it off him, and told him to sit down. Then another guy who had bought a Swiss army knife took it out and started to brag that he still had his knife. Once more the guard came over and took away the knife. He warned us that if we caused any more trouble, the person involved would not be allowed to board the plane. Funny, but everyone suddenly became quite, until we eventually boarded our plane and flew out of Iran.


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