Guests of the Ayatollah Gotcha

I just finished reading Mark Bowden’s “Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam,” an extraordinary narrative of the Iran hostage crisis. Although it took place when I was out of toddler-dom (November 1979 till January 1981), I have next to no memory of the events, and Bowden’s story kept me riveted through all 700-plus pages. In part, it was my sheer awe at his being able to reconstruct the memories of dozens of hostages, hostage takers, and other involved players more than three decades after the event. Much as I aspire to be Bowden’s kind of long-form journalism, I don’t think I have an ounce of his organization and talent.

OK, now that I’ve heaped on the praise like Paula Abdul, I should confess that the book wasn’t quite as speedy a read as Black Hawk Down. While the section about the Dessert One disaster — Carter’s failed Delta force rescue mission, which ended in a helicopter and plane colliding in the Iran dessert in the middle of the night — was completely enthralling, some of the sections about the hostages read like, well, an account of 444 endless days of mind-numbing captivity. Also, I should mention that I actually met Bowden when he was deep in the throes of working on the book — five years ago. He was kind enough to buy me lunch outside of Philly, shortly after I’d moved down there and contacted him out of the blue for career advice (using the Atlantic Monthly internship by way of an introduction). He was extremely nice and supportive, suggesting that I get a job at a newspaper (hey, only took me four years to follow through on that!), but made no mention of how insanely long his books took to write. At any rate, I guess it’s good that he’s still working at a faster clip than guys like Gay Talese.

Still, the book is totally worth reading through to the end. It indirectly makes a very persuasive argument that sometime diplomacy doesn’t work (at least, not as fast as it should), and if you wait for the U.N. to act on international disasters may spend a lot of time twiddling your thumbs.

My favorite part was actually Bowden’s account of Iran today, drawn from four visits to the country. My favorite anecdote comes from his last trip, when he tried to brind a documentary camera crew into the old U.S. embassy — now a museum dedicated to glorifying the hostage crisis — and was told that no moving pictures could be shot. Afterwards, three guards came out after him, apologizing for their country, giving him the thumbs up, and saying Yeah George W. Bush, and in halting English, “OK for George W. Bush.”

This struck me as odd when I read it, smack at the end of the book. But then I saw a comment on Bowden’s Guests of the Ayatollah blog:

Thumbs up, to an Iranian, is the equivalent of giving someone the finger. Look at the caraciture of Carter on page 294. The revolutionary and the oil barrel are both giving Carter the thumbs up. It doesn’t mean he is doing a good job.

The revolutionary guards at the end, offering a thumbs up and a “YAY GEORGE”, are pulling your leg. A non-American, offering unqualified praise of any US president, let alone George W. Bush, should’ve raised your
suspicions.Thumbs up, to an Iranian, is the equivalent of giving someone the finger. Look at the caraciture of Carter on page 294. The revolutionary and the oil barrel are both giving Carter the thumbs up. It doesn’t mean he is doing a good job.

The revolutionary guards at the end, offering a thumbs up and a “YAY GEORGE”, are pulling your leg. A non-American, offering unqualified praise of any US president, let alone George W. Bush, should’ve raised your
suspicions.

While Bowden responded “I did not mistake their meaning,” I gotta say, that poster’s interpretation sounds a whole lot more plausible to me.

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