middle east

It was an interesting year. OPEC was beginning to exert its influence over world oil prices for the first time and generate considerable wealth for its member countries to invest in new industries. My company decided to expand its exports of minerals to the Middle East.

I had some business experience in Asia but knew nothing about the Middle East. I was soon to learn. The first challenge was managing the use of two passports and not presenting the wrong one when I entered or departed certain countries. The second passport was for travel to Israel and China as it had no entry and departure stamps for Arab countries or Taiwan.

The Middle East experience started and almost ended in June 1972 with an overnight flight from Bangkok. We were about five miles from the runway when the Boeing 707 began its descent into Cairo Airport. The pilot lined up the approach with the lights below and cut back on power so the 707 could descend rapidly. I looked out the window and could clearly see street lights below us. We were about to set down on the road to the airport when the pilot realized his error, applied full power and slowly lifted the nose of the airplane for a low level fly past of Cairo Airport. He turned back over the city and tried the landing again.

The terminal was quiet when we disembarked, the first flight in that morning, except for the chatter of passengers walking quickly to the rest rooms to change their underwear. I had a five day visitor’s visa and passed through the immigration check easily. The foreign exchange desk was not open so I headed for the taxi rank. There was one cab parked at the rank so I walked over to the old car and tapped on the window to wake the driver. He slowly emerged from the cab and said something in Arabic I didn’t understand. He didn’t speak English but understood “Sheraton Hotel” as I stowed my bag in the trunk and climbed into the back seat. The driver walked away, came back with two others who helped push the cab until the engine started and we were on our way to the hotel.

As we approached the city the driver started talking again and I nodded but did not understand. He slowed the cab and pointed to various buildings, statues and monuments in the darkness. When we reached the hotel I called the doorman over to help me with payment of the driver and retrieve my bag from the trunk of the cab. The driver insisted the bag stay in the trunk until he was paid. The doorman suggested I go the front desk to change some money to pay the driver for the fare, airport pick up charge and the scenic tour of the suburbs of Cairo. I was not about to leave my bag in the trunk of the cab while I went inside the hotel so insisted the driver come with me.

After paying the driver we walked out to the front of the hotel to see the driverless cab moving slowly down the hill while the doorman watched in amusement. The driver, who had not turned off the engine, started running after his cab with me in “hot pursuit”. We caught up with the cab about a half mile from the hotel and jumped in, the driver in the front seat and me in the back.

The driver turned the cab around and drove back up the hill to the hotel where he asked for payment to cover his gasoline for the return trip up the hill. The doorman intervened and I retrieved my bag from the trunk of the cab and carried it inside. The front desk manager gave me a warm and smiling “Welcome to Cairo!” greeting.

The meeting with the Government was brief and friendly but they made sure I understood doing business with Egypt was different to western countries. I was given a copy of the tender documents and introduced to a local trading company who would act as a representative throughout the twenty year contract to make sure everything went smoothly and we received payments on time. The tender closing date was one week away and I needed time to prepare a proposal with the help of an English speaking person and have it checked by the company’s attorney. I declined the offer from the local trading company.

While I examined the tender documents and arranged for my travel out of Egypt I had some R&R time to explore Cairo. The Giza pyramids and the Sphynx were only about five miles southwest of Cairo so I arranged a taxi to take me there and to the jewelry souk. Beggars lined the streets harassing everyone who passed especially foreigners. One disgruntled beggar turned his monkey loose to attack me when I refused to hand over money.

I knew little about Cairo, except for the pyramids and Shepheard’s Hotel on the Nile favored by wealthy foreigners, writers, British, French and American military officers and famous for its “American Bar.” It had been rebuilt after being destroyed in the Egyptian Revolution in 1952. I had to see it and check out the bar just to say that I had been there.

After an infected ear, caused by the hotel swimming pool, and food poisoning from a local restaurant I was ready to leave Cairo. I flew to Tehran on advice that Beirut was no longer safe for foreigners and Tehran was the next best city to find English-speaking secretarial help.

The immigration official at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport politely advised me I didn’t have a visa to enter Iran. I said I believed entry visas were available at the airport. The official pointed to a counter beyond immigration and when I asked how to get there without a visa he smiled and handed back my passport. I was learning fast so placed $20 in my passport and handed it to him for further inspection. The gate opened and I walked to the visa counter paid $50 and returned to the immigration official. He politely stamped the passport and allowed me to enter the country.

It was a short walk to a booth in the carpark where I bought a ticket for a taxi to the Hilton Hotel. The taxi was called up, I loaded my bag into the trunk and handed the ticket to the driver. He didn’t speak English and I didn’t understand Farsi. We left Mehrabad Airport and entered the wide street that circled the Sharyad (now Azadi Tower) and followed the motorway across the city to the Hilton Hotel overlooking the Alborz Mountains. It was June but there was snow on the peaks.

I walked through the grand lobby of the Hilton Hotel, carrying my bag, and gave the front desk my name. The manager looked through the reservation book and advised they had no record of my booking and there were no rooms available. I produced my passport with $20 inside so he could check my name again. This worked and a room overlooking the mountains became available. A porter appeared to show me to my room. He carried the door key and I carried my bag to the room where another tip encouraged him to hand over the key.

After returning to the front desk to organize an English speaking person to type the tender response I decided to explore the huge lobby with its busy garden restaurant and bar. Western music was coming from a piano player, dressed in a dinner suit, and the fashionably dressed Iranian women were laughing and talking as they enjoyed French champagne and the caviar from the Caspian Sea. I wondered what the poor people were eating.

I turned to go to my room and begin work when I saw a stunning Iranian girl in a long, low cut black gown with sparkling jewelry around her neck walking across the lobby towards the restaurant. She held a heavy gold chain attached to the collar of a large cheetah walking gracefully beside her as she walked into the restaurant and joined a table of friends. After kissing everyone on the cheek she sat down and the cheetah silently crouched beside her. That was Tehran in 1972.

Alborz Mountains, Iran (1972)
Alborz Mountains, Iran (1972)

Tehran was a fascinating and cosmopolitan city with heavy French, British, American and Russian influence. The people were friendly, the restaurants were excellent, fresh caviar was affordable and the alcohol flowed freely. There were no beggars with monkeys in the street, the souk and carpet stores were fascinating and the smiling, happy women were immaculately dressed. The wealthy, the merchants, the middle class, the hotel and restaurant workers, taxi drivers, farmers and most everyone else were happy. Mohammed Reza Shar Pahlavi controlled the discontented Iranians with his secret police, the Savak. Each morning and afternoon as I worked in my room the helicopters flew past the hotel from and to the Shah’s summer palace on the other side of the Alborz Mountains overlooking Ramsar and the Caspian Sea.

After two days of work I had a draft tender proposal for the Egyptian Government ready for the lawyers to vet. Then I discovered there was no way I could securely send the proposal to my office for final approval, and international telephone calls had to be booked several days in advance. Quickly I flew to Bahrain, where I had business contacts, telephoned my office and finalized the proposal two days before the tenders closed. As I didn’t have a visa to re-enter Egypt or the time to get one I had to make other arrangements for the document to be delivered to the Egyptian Government. I called on another contact to help. He was in Lebanon the country I was advised to avoid.

Tension between Israel and Lebanon, and between the Lebanese Christian and Moslem population, was increasing. In December 1968, Israel had bombed the Beirut International Airport destroying fourteen civilian airplanes. In May 1972 PLO terrorists hijacked a Sabena Airlines flight to Tel Aviv; and on May 30 Japanese Red Army terrorists serving with the PLO killed 26 civilians at Lod (now Ben Gurion) Airport. Lebanon was expecting retaliation.

On June 11, 1972 I flew from Bahrain to Beirut on an early morning flight. My contact there had agreed to hand the tender document to the pilot of a Middle East Airlines flight to Cairo later in the day. Another contact would meet the flight at Cairo Airport and deliver the envelope to the Egyptian Government the following day.

My contact suggested we meet for lunch by the pool at the Phoenicia Hotel. His office was a short walk from the hotel on the Corniche but he thought it would be safer if we met elsewhere.

The flight arrived at the heavily fortified Beirut Airport and as I had no baggage I quickly passed through customs and found an English-speaking taxi driver. He agreed to take me to see the American University of Beirut and its huge gardens overlooking the Mediterranean, and show me some of the popular places for foreigners in the city known as the “Paris of the Middle East”. He happily agreed to stay with me for the day and be paid in US dollars.

After a short stop at the American University we drove to the busy Martyrs Square, the Grand Serail, along Rue Georges Picot and through the magnificent Raouche district with its wide streets, high rise apartments and magnificent water views. It was a favorite place for foreigners. He suggested I walk along the seaside pedestrian promenade (the Corniche) to see the spectacular Raouche (Pigeon) Rocks and the boat harbor, ending up at the Phoenicia Hotel. He would wait for me there.

The streets and the Corniche were strangely quiet, there were few boats. The sky was cloudless and the wind from the Mediterranean was strong enough to cool me down. As I walked along the promenade I frequently looked up at the sky searching for the Israeli Air Force jets. The few people I passed stopped talking to stare blankly at me, perhaps thinking I could call in the jets. I stopped to admire the Pigeon Rocks and found my way to the Phoenicia Hotel and the café by the pool.

The café was busy when he arrived and introduced himself. We talked about the expected Israeli retaliation for the massacre at Lod Airport and he suggested we eat quickly and I try to get an earlier flight back to Bahrain as the airport and the hotels along the water were likely targets.

Pigeon Rocks, Beirut by Paul Saad
Pigeon Rocks, Beirut

My contact left with the envelope containing the proposal for the Egyptian Government and I enjoyed the view a little longer before finding my taxi driver asleep in his old Peugeot taxi. There no earlier flights to Bahrain so I explored some of the lesser parts of Beirut from the back seat of the taxi. I didn’t want to hang around the airport so felt safer in the taxi exploring Beirut.

The now anxious driver dropped me off at Beirut Airport late in the afternoon. I checked in for the flight and went to the departure area to wait. There was nowhere to sit as the departure area was full of people waiting to catch their flights out of Beirut to anywhere. I walked aimlessly around trying to avoid the windows but wanting to check on the incoming aircraft to make sure Gulf Air had arrived.

After several circuits of the departure hall I decided I needed a drink. The bar was closed, only essential staff were on duty at the airport. Soldiers were everywhere, standing motionless but holding their automatic rifles ready as they studied the crowd. They made me more nervous as I walked aimlessly around trying to not appear nervous, looking for something to drink.

I found a vending machine, pulled some pounds out of my pocket and inserted a note in the slot to buy a can of coke. The can dropped noisily to the bottom of the machine attracting the attention of everyone in the hall including the soldiers with their menacing rifles. They were all now looking at me. As I retrieved the can from the machine it slipped out of my hand and exploded when it hit the floor spraying coke everywhere. Someone muttered “holy shit” – I think it was me. People moved away as the soldiers came running towards me. I slowly picked up the empty can, dropped it in the bin and smiled at the nearest soldier. As I didn’t want to reach into my pocket for more money, start the next war or become a martyr I walked slowly away towards the bathroom.

Three months later Israel bombed PLO bases in Syria and Lebanon in response to the Munich Olympic Games massacre. In 1975-76 the Phoenicia and the other hotels along the waterfront were destroyed during the Battle of the Hotels in the Lebanon Civil War. My Middle East visits for the rest of the 1970s were to Bahrain and Tehran, the new Paris of the Middle East. I preferred cheetahs to monkeys anyway.

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Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock

Ken Peacock, a former senior Australian executive of a mining company, first visited China in 1972 at the end of the Cultural Revolution and before diplomatic recognition by the Australian and US Governments. This was the first of many visits to China during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, he traveled throughout China with a trade delegation and revisited Shanghai where he stayed at the Shanghai Mansions Hotel and discovered the “Last Bottle of Gin in China”.