As internal strife in Sudan escalates and the African nation could turn into a playground for global powers and as foreign nationals including our fellow citizens attempt to flee, watching and reading the news about this development, reminds of the time I was caught up in a similar situation many decades ago as a teenager.
This was in the mid-70s when my father had moved us to Beirut in Lebanon after we had left Iran after spending many decades in that country, where he had worked in the textile industry. Lebanon had for many decades been an oasis of peace and prosperity in West Asia, seemingly not that affected by the turbulent politics of the region. For the finance world it was the Switzerland of West Asia, with major international banks setting up their regional headquarters in its capital Beirut.
However, by the mid -70s the Arab Israeli conflict had begun to have an influence on Lebanese politics, as the influx of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 and 1967, due to the two wars between Israel and the Arab States, led to a shift in the nation’s demography. I will not go into the details. It was only a year since we had settled into the Lebanese capital, that in 1975 the first embers of the political troubles began to be felt, which later would lead to a long civil war that only ended in 1990 and which left an estimated 1,20,000 fatalities and also the movement of almost one million people out of Lebanon.
I vividly remember that in June 1975 (just a few years after I fell in love with Cricket), that I was keenly listening to the riveting Cricket World Cup Final match at Lord’s on June 25, between Australia and the West Indies on BBC radio with my new friend from the Krishnan family who lived in our apartment complex. His father was posted with Air India in Beirut and he and his sister were visiting their parents before going back to India for the restart of their school year.
That year by April, the embers of political conflict had begun to transform into small fires. My father was unemployed at that time and was not with us, and was elsewhere looking for a new job. In an era without mobiles and easy communication, he had begun to frantically send us letters urging us to leave Lebanon and move to India. Leaving would mean that I would lose a year of school and my sister a year of her university education. In addition, locals and Indian friends who had spent many years in Lebanon advised us to stay put as they felt that these were the usual “tamashas” that were part of the politics of the country and would settle down through compromises.
However, by October the situation had begun to go south. Battles between various factions increased in frequency. We followed the news on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service Radio and as days passed the rata-tat of automatic weapons fire and bombs began to be audible in our neighborhood and our Al-Kaki 1 and 2 apartment blocks. Going to school had become difficult as public transport had shut down and fighting had engulfed the prime hotel, business and shopping street called Al-Hamra. Our American neighbours, an elderly couple from Texas who had settled down in Lebanon (their son was married to a local) told us that they had been asked by the U.S. Embassy to be ready for evacuation. Soon enough in a few days, they bade us farewell and left with their two Siamese cats in tow.
What were we to do now? Only help from fellow Indians and locals could be of use. One of our family friends, was Mr. Pandurang Kodikal an executive in the tyre company – Ceat. He and his family lived in the next tower along with the Krishnans. With Air India shutting down its services to the city, the Krishnans had also left. Soon food was difficult to procure and banks began to shut down and we were down to our last few Lebanese Pounds. Kodikal uncle told my mother that we should leave too, as he and his family were leaving with the assistance of their company. But what were we to do? Father was in another country searching for employment and postage services had stopped and we were short of funds. Kodikal uncle lent us some money, but it was not enough to buy us tickets to India, therefore we decided to buy air tickets for Tehran in Iran, as it was the nearest place where we knew families with whom we could shelter, as we had only left Iran the previous year. We were confident that we would return within a few months.
The journey to Beirut Airport was perilous, with rival groups closing in to capture the strategic asset. We found a taxi willing to take us to the airport, but for an extraordinary fare. As we neared the airport, we could see tanks of the Lebanese Army. Inside, hundreds of foreigners were queuing to check-in at various airline counters, and the atmosphere was heavy with tension. We checked in at the British Airways counter. The lady at the counter asked us for our Iranian visas. We had none! How could we have got visas, with roads closed and not much money in hand? My mother pleaded with the staff to allow us onto the flight, saying that we knew people in Tehran and we could manage an entry into the country. Probably, relenting seeing my mother and our plight, British Airways agreed. As the Boeing 727 aircraft took off, we felt that our testing times were over as we saw Beirut disappear in the evening light.
We reached Tehran late night that October day and with stupid naivety and hoped that our immigration formalities would soon be over and we would be on the way to Mr. Sounder Rajan’s house. He was a Professor of English Literature at Tehran University (which over the next four years would become one of the hotbeds of revolutionary student fervour as the Islamic Revolution against the King of Iran (the Shah) would unfold). The official at the immigration counter in his light blue uniform and dark blue cap with the Imperial Insignia, asked us for our visas. My mother explained to him in Farsi (Persian) the circumstances in which we had landed in his country. The official would have none of our story and the police arrived promptly at his gesture and took us away to a room. We were terrified. The scene was similar to that in the famous Hollywood movie, “Argo”, as the CIA agent tries to smuggle out Canadians officials.
The senior immigration officer was not in his room and we waited for his arrival with nervousness. The official arrived a few minutes later, agitated and looking for his cigarette. Once he got a packet, he angrily broke it open and took out an unfiltered cigarette, and tapped it on the pack before he lit up. He ordered black tea for himself which arrived promptly, in a small sized glass which is common in Iran. The sugar arrived in the form of cubes. He placed a cube of sugar in his mouth and took a sip. Then he took a heavy drag of his cigarette and blew out the smoke, almost into our faces. We heard him bark out orders to someone in Farsi. He sat down and began to ask my mother in broken English as to why of all places she and her children decided to come to Iran and that too without visas and why did she not go to her own country. My mother trying to break the ice began speaking to him in Farsi, explaining that she had lived in Iran where my father had worked for the last many years and it was only the previous year that we had left the country. He asked where my father was. She told him that he was looking for a job and was not with us. This seemed to have raised a red flag for him and he began to be convinced that my father had abandoned us and we were trying to find refuge in Iran.
After a few hours of trying to convince him, the official finally agreed to give us a 72-hour visa, on the condition that we would have to get a permanent visitor visa from the Iranian Interior Ministry within the expiry period of the temporary visa. Failure to do so would mean that we would be arrested and then probably be deported back to Lebanon as it was the last port of embarkation. The other condition was that he wanted to know the address at which we would be living and the name of the person and their telephone number. He wanted to speak to the person to confirm his credentials and the address was needed for the police in case they needed to arrest us. The official was given Mr. Sounder Rajan’s telephone. The call convinced him of the genuineness of our case.
To cut a long story short, we did manage to get a temporary visitor visa for six months and another extension, much due to the contacts of Mr. Sounder Rajan in the Interior Ministry. We stayed in Iran with different Indian friends not for the next six months, but till June of 1976, by when we could join our father who had by then managed to find a new job in Madagascar in Africa. This period was difficult for us as I had missed a complete school year and my sister a complete college year. From time to time we used to run out of money, till my father could wire us some funds. Our Indian friends would tide over those periods, by lending money to my mother.
Epilogue – we never returned to Lebanon. However, my father returned to our apartment in Beirut sometime in 1977 during a ceasefire between rival groups to pick up our household items. However, he found that there was nothing to take back, as our flat had been ransacked and looted. The flat which was on the 6th floor was riddled with bullet holes, as it probably was a staging post during gun battles over the previous months. All that my father and mother had put together over the past many decades had been reduced to zero.
*Nitin Wakankar is a retired officer of the Indian Information Service. He likes to observe life, people and events. He spent his childhood in Iran and Lebanon.