by David Burns
A retired American diplomat looks back on his first overseas assignment – as Cultural Affairs Officer in Damascus, an assignment that led to an amazing Arabian adventure. — Publ.
In March 1955, I abandoned graduate studies and went to Washington for training in the U.S. Information Agency’s second officer training class. When that was completed, I was told, “You are being posted to Damascus.” “Great!” I said, “Where is it?” I flew to Kansas, and on June 8, Sandy and I were married. The next day we flew by TWA Constellation, which had sleeping berths in First-Class [now, sadly, just a memory!], mitigating long hours in a piston-engine plane. Following honeymoon stops in Paris and Rome, we landed in the Syrian capital. Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer [libraries and English teaching] was a marvelous assignment. Sandy and I [two for the price of one] plunged in and, despite culture shock, it was wonderful. We worked hard, but also enjoyed picnics amid the apricot and almond groves of the Ghouta (water from the Anti-Lebanon makes Damascus an oasis), went across the desert to Palmyra, up Mount Hermon on mules, saw “Rome” at Baalbek, Petra when it was pristine, and Crusader castles. Our first child was born in 1956 in the hospital of the American University of Beirut.
Then Gamal Abdel Nasser took control of the Suez Canal and blocked the Straits of Tiran, the narrow outlet to the Red Sea. On October 29, 1956, Israeli troops invaded the Sinai and raced for Suez. Two days later, military forces of Britain and France invaded Egypt. When the Soviet Union threatened to intervene on behalf of Egypt, the United States feared a larger war, and forced the British and French to withdraw. This came too late to help our embassy, and Damascus erupted in anti-Israel (and anti-U.S.) rioting. We were given a half-day to pack, and our convoy drove over the mountains to our “safe haven.” Sandy, our two-month-old baby, and I camped out in a Beirut apartment hotel. Nobody knew when or if we might return to Damascus. In the meantime, I helped out at the office of the Beirut U.S. Information Service, producing, among other things, a sound-and-light show on the occasion of the death of Toscanini [emphasizing his years at The Met and NY Philharmonic]. When we could afford it, we treated ourselves to world-class food at Lucullus, and if we could find a baby-sitter, went dancing at Les Caves Du Roi.
I was a fairly recent Princeton graduate (’53), and struck up a Tiger friendship with Tom Streithorst, a classmate who was trying to break into journalism as a freelance, with a day job as Editor of Middle East Forum. Through him, we met several Lebanese politicians, including the Druze chieftain Kamal Jumblatt. My esteem for Tom’s editorial judgment soared when he printed my profiles of Middle East cities (the first was “Damascus”). Tom had one of the earliest heart transplants.
Another Princeton Tiger was Bill Stoltzfus. Bill and his wife Janet had just been assigned to Saudi Arabia. But he had a problem: he loved his new Chevrolet sedan and they could sure use that car. But how to get it there? The Canal was blocked, and for months, maybe years, the only way to get a car from Beirut to Jeddah was around the Cape of Good Hope. The best estimate was a year, port-to-port. Bill thought there was another way, and he asked if I was game to join them – across the Arabian Desert! “Well,” I said, “I’m just waiting for another assignment, and until that comes. . .Sure!” My Job Description: Digger and [though Bill was too nice to say it] Designated Hostage.
No American could have been better prepared than Bill Stoltzfus for what might otherwise have been foolhardy. His parents were Presbyter-ian missionaries, his father principal of a boy’s school in Aleppo and later president of Beirut College for Women. Bill was born in Beirut in 1924, and grew up speaking Arabic. He entered Princeton in 1942; after a couple of years as a Navy pilot, he returned to study politics, economics, and history at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Affairs, with the legendary Philip Hitti. After graduation in 1949, he joined the Foreign Service. He was first an intern at the State Department, followed by assignments in Alexandria and Benghazi. He then attended Arabic Language School in Washington and Beirut, concentrating on the written language (a classmate was L. Carl Brown).
Bill and Janet were married in 1954 in the Princeton University Chapel, and posted to Kuwait. Transiting Beirut in January 1957, Bill was just back from the first state visit to the United States of a Saudi monarch. Saud ibn Abdul Aziz al Faisal was the eldest of Ibn Saud’s 38 living sons. [Ibn Saud was a disciple of Mohammed Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahab, Islam’s 18th-century Martin Luther, who preached that the faith must be purged of corruption. Ibn Saud became the scourging sword of Wahabism, a zealot for Allah in Arabia’s inner desert. The Old Lion reared his son in the stern tradition of the Bedouin. The young prince’s formal schooling consisted of the Koran, and ended at 13. But he learned the slashing swordsmanship of Arab horsemen, and as late as 1929, was dealing with a domestic crisis by chopping off the heads of captured tribesmen.]
Oil made the Saudis important. On his visit to the United States, King Saud traveled with a 65-man entourage – and Bill Stoltzfus, interpreter. Thanks to this personal relationship, Bill had a laissez-passer signed by the King, embellished with beautiful calligraphy and enough gold seals and red sealing wax to impress even the illiterate. Bill equipped his car with cans for gasoline and water, a tool kit, and (what proved to be essential) two extra wheels and tires, and an air pump. Janet left their baby in Beirut with a friend, having made arrangements that the baby be entrusted to a specific stewardess on Middle East Airlines. Janet would retrieve the baby when the plane landed in Jeddah.
The three of us set off – Beirut-Damascus-Amman, then south to intersect with Tapline. [The Trans-Arabian Pipeline carried Saudi oil 1,200 kilometers to the Mediterranean. The line went originally via Jordan to Haifa, then part of Palestine; establishment of Israel resulted in its diversion to Sidon, in Lebanon. The pipeline was eventually superseded by supertankers.] The road alongside Tapline was graveled and easy, and the pumping stations (which still had Haifa names – H4, H5) offered us sleep, food, water, and gasoline.
When we saw flaming gas flares lighting up the night, we knew we were nearing Dhahran, Aramco’s Levittown in the desert. It was a PX in a sandbox — ranch houses with dish-washers, bowling alleys, ladies’ socials, nightly movies, and black-market Scotch at $40 a bottle. Dhahran was home to the foreigners, mostly American, required to get oil out of the ground and move it to market. The country was heavily dependent on foreigners to run electric and water plants, airports, and the airline. “We have only one thing in common,” said an Aramco employee “They have oil, and we want it.” The United States built an airfield at Dhahran with 10,000-foot runways capable of landing big bombers.
After Dhahran, it was good-by America and hello sand. From this point on, there were no roads of any kind, just a vast empty expanse. The best way to visualize this is to recall the dramatic opening sequence of the film “Lawrence of Arabia.” One Aramco employee called the interior “the world’s biggest parking-lot.” Bill’s plan was to follow the trucks heading to Riyadh. Excellent plan — except when the tire tracks diverged. We chose the ones heading west. There were many stretches of loose gravel and stones in the reg and hamad areas. Wind and sand had eroded some areas to bedrock. We tried to avoid soft sand in the ergs, but nonetheless got stuck a half-dozen times. This was my cue to dig, hoping to get the wheels down to where enough moisture remained to make the sand firmer. If that didn’t work, we would deflate the tires, and then re-inflate them when unstuck. [This worked, but it also destroyed two tires. Thanks to Bill’s foresight with extra wheels and tires, we were able to continue.] If all else failed, a blanket under the tires gave some grip. Pushing helped a little.
We had brought enough food, but finding water and gasoline was a constant worry. Bill stopped every truck-driver or nomad to ask directions. A typical oasis was a collection of falling-down adobe hovels, with not much of anybody in sight. We used a goatskin to haul up water from the well; it looked highly dubious, but the floating insects (?) eventually settled out, and we had disinfectant tablets for our water can. It took time and a lot of asking, but Bill would eventually locate someone who remembered that Abdul Fulan might have had “some gasoline a month or two ago.” After finding Fulan, and waking him up, he would totter out to a rusty oil drum and brush off the dust. “Might be something left.” Next trick was to siphon gasoline out of the drum and into the Chevy’s tank and our jerry cans. This usually resulted in a sickening mouthful of gasoline, but enough fuel to make it to the next oasis. Fulan had only a vague idea of which track might end up, “insh’Allah,” in Riyadh.
When we finally got there, we found a chaotic construction site choked with swirling clouds of concrete dust. The Saudis were determined to equip their capital with proper ministries, and every building had a sign – Ministry of This, Ministry of That; but it was hard to tell whether a specific site was demolition or construction, as both conditions looked about the same. The Saudis were determined to make Riyadh a capital. They built a hospital with fine equipment, unfortunately most of it gathering dust for lack of trained medical people to use it. Riyadh’s best “hotel” had rooms; the rooms had beds; and there was running water. But just above every tap was a blunt message: “WARNING: Do NOT drink this water. It is contaminated,” and the sign specified with what.
About a day out of Riyadh, we came across a dozen black tents surrounded by fierce-looking guards, gold daggers and machine pistols thrust into bullet-studded bandoleers. This turned out to be the encampment of a prince. Arabia, then and now, has no shortages of princes: the 322 (!) sons of King Saud were scattered widely, and each received a generous allowance for palaces, cars, and travel.
When our prince learned that Bill had just returned from traveling with his father, we were REQUIRED to accept his hospitality. This would have happened anyway, as every Bedouin host is obliged to honor his guest. The palaver was long, and full of ritual phrases and the requisite allusions to Allah, and Mohammed, “Peace and blessing on his name. . .” The prince was proud of his ancestors. Bill for his part recalled the great deeds, strength, and courtesy of the dignified old tribes of central Arabia. My Arabic was so rudimentary as to render me effectively deaf and mute, but I THINK most of the talk was elaborate mutual flattery.
Then we got down to coffee: qahwah ‘Arabiyah, is as sacramental as tea for a Geisha. Green beans were roasted over the fire, and the brass mortar and pestle rang as the blackened beans were pounded to powder, and then boiled. Just as the pot threatened to froth over, the servant dropped in cardamom seeds. The brew was poured it into a pot with a palm fiber in the spout to serve as a strainer. No sugar. We were given tiny cups without handles. After the obligatory three servings, Bill signaled ‘all done’ by rapidly shaking his cup. Our host passed around the mabkhar hand censer, perfumed with frankincense.
Coffee was the warm-up. We sat on rugs around a copper tray heaped with mutton and baby lamb, roasted over a spit. The meat had been rubbed with cinnamon and basted with clarified goat butter. We had knives to cut off what we wanted, dipped the meat into powdered cumin, and used rice to work burning chunks into a mouth-size bolus. The first course was meat, with meat for the second course, followed by a third course of . . . more meat. Then came a few dates and flat rounds of unleavened bread. And more qahwa. We had encountered a prince that, as the Bedouin saying goes, “makes coffee from morn till night.” In other words, a generous man, worthy of praise
After a fitful lie-down (too much qahwa?) we set off west, once again following distant trucks. We slept in the car and took turns driving, as we simply HAD to get to Jeddah in time to meet the plane and baby.
Then came the sandstorm. The storms have many names – harmattan, khamsin, shamal. In this part of Arabia, the usual name is haboub. Strong winds whipped up twisting clouds of sand and the sky turned an ominous red. We turned on the headlights, which did no good at all. The dust was so thick we could not see the ground, and there was no possibility of following a track. The powdery dust boiled under every barrier; the rolled-up windows were ineffective. Our hair and clothing were covered in dust and we inhaled it with every breath. But we had to keep moving if we were to reach Jeddah in time to meet plane-and-baby. Bill was worried that grit would ruin the engine, so Janet donated a nylon stocking. We fitted this over the engine’s air intake, and it probably helped. But sand and grit pitted and frosted the windshield so thoroughly we could not see through it. We had to drive the remainder of the way leaning out the car. The storm abated after half a day.
Unfortunately for us, the tracks made a beeline straight for Mecca. We stopped at a ceremonial arch ten miles from Mecca. Well, we could not, for every reason, follow the trucks into the city. But how to get through the mountains of the Hejaz? The sunset was beautiful, but it got dark very quickly. We saw campfires in the distance, but no way to tell how far away they were. Bill hoped shepherds or a camel-driver would act as a guide, but we couldn’t get far in the dark.
Well after midnight, a pickup truck pulled up beside us. Bill explained that we needed a guide. The driver and his helper practically leaped out of their skins. “Oh, sure! Certainly! No doubt! We know the way! We know exactly the route! We are guides! No problem! We’ll get you to the Medina-Jeddah road very quickly.”
We set off in the pitch-black of night, following the aimless turns of the pickup truck – up this wadi, left into that wadi, double around, right into wadi number three . . . and so on. There was no road, scarcely a path. Our car would pitch up, and then bang down hard on the rocks. The crash was so loud we were sure it must be the oil pan cracking. Two hours of this, and we were deep in the mountains north and east of Mecca. We weren’t in Mecca — but we had no idea at all where we were.
The pickup truck stopped, and the driver and helper came back. They were terribly apologetic. “We’re lost. We do not know the way. We cannot continue. We don’t know which direction to go. We cannot find the Medina-Jeddah road. Very, very sorry. I guess you’ll have to stay here.” Janet, thinking of her soon-to-be-airborne baby, looked at her watch, very distraught. The baby was coming; we had run out of time
The driver’s tone changed. “Well, MAYBE we could remember. Maybe. We MIGHT be able to get there. Well, I’ll bet we COULD find the road. You are rich Americans. Just give us two hundred dollars! That will help us remember. Give us the money and we’ll get you to the road. Or, your choice. Maybe just stay here — forever!” Bill looked grim; Janet said to Bill, “Show him your pass.” This was extracted and explained.
“I have just returned from an extremely important trip with King Saud. I was with him every day. He knows me very well. He and I became very good friends. He gave me this letter. It requests that every official and every subject of his Kingdom extend the utmost courtesy and respect to ‘My honored guest, Mr. William.’ Look! Here is his signature. Here is his Royal Seal. The king will soon learn that his guests have been mistreated. He will learn who has done this. I assure you that King Saud will be angry. He will be very angry. He will find you. He will punish you. And I pity you. Because his punishment will be severe!”
Well, this did the trick. The predatory thieves, which is who they were, made abject apologies, got back in the pick-up and within an hour we were on the Medina-Jeddah road. We realized we had had a very close call. Bill’s cool, and his fluent Arabic, and fluent cuss words, saved us.
We thought we had clear sailing. Then the clutch started to slip: the engine was going 100%, but the wheels were turning maybe 50%. Bill got out and got under, but neither of us had any idea what to do. Auto repair and diplomacy are not closely related. It was now almost ten o’clock in the morning, and plane-with-baby was due to land a little after eleven. We were sunk in despair. Then a truck came along, with an African-looking fellow sitting beside the driver. The passenger said he was from Sudan and was a fitter, a mechanic. The truck driver said he simply could NOT stay. But the Sudani fitter said he would stay and keep the car moving. He got out his spanner wrench, tightened a nut under the chassis, and we set off again. He had to get under and tighten it again every five miles. We drove the last twenty miles on a bad clutch, one of us leaning out the window so as to see the road. But we made it, limping into the airport just as the MEA flight was on final approach.
I caught the return flight to Beirut, where we lingered another month. Then, at last, an assignment: Director of the Iran-America Society in Isfahan. Great! And this time I knew, more or less, where the post was. When we evacuated Damascus we had left our car behind. I arranged to have it driven across the Syrian Desert, following the Nairn Bus Company route. We flew to Baghdad, picked up the car, and Sandy, baby and I headed over the Zagros mountains to Kermanshah and Hamadan. We drove along what little remained of what I thought of as “formerly a road;” it once carried American help to the Soviet Union during the dark days of Stalingrad. We passed Darius’ Sassanid rock relief, Behistun. We stayed overnight in the capital to check in with my boss at USIS Tehran, then drove south, past the “holy city of Qum.”
In Isfahan, we moved into a classic Persian villa with a lovely garden. It was across the river, near the quarter inhabited by Armenian artisans imported by Shah Abbas to decorate the glorious mosques he built. Sandy thought the floors of the villa looked dusty, so she started sweeping with a broom. And swept. And kept on sweeping — until she had exposed the straw in the adobe. Our baby was nearly brained when the Iranian cavalry polo team whizzed a ball past his head. And I was so busy trying to get the Iran-American library and English teaching program up and running, we had no time at all to see Isfahan.
A vignette: the Iranians who ran the Society, and Sandy and baby and I, went for a picnic. I was sitting under a shade tree with my To-Do List. I’m sure I appeared lost in thought, as I intently added must-do items. A member of the Board came over, and was impressed: This young American is a Persian at heart! He’s composing a poem!
Sandy and I promised ourselves we would really see Isfahan – after we returned from home leave. That never happened. The Director of the U.S. Information Agency was an Eisenhower Republican. While in Hawaii, so far from Washington he perhaps thought he could let loose with what he really thought, newspapers quoted him saying Democrats are dumb, hurting the country, not good Americans, and so on. Lyndon Johnson was Majority Leader of the Senate. I have no idea what Johnson said, but I can imagine: “Well, let’s just teach that pissant a lesson!” The USIA appropriation was slashed, and there were huge cuts in programs and people. My job was eliminated, and we never made it back to Isfahan from home leave. We eventually did see Isfahan (and returned to Damascus) forty years later.
David Burns graduated from Princeton and did graduate study in France on a Fulbright, at Johns Hopkins [SAIS] and Howard U. In addition to Damascus and Isfahan, he served in Salisbury, Rhodesia [now Harare, Zimbabwe], Tunis, and was Public Affairs Officer in Bamako, Mali, studied Arabic at FSI Tangier, and was PAO Algiers. He was, 1978-1990, Director of the Climate Project, American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has also been a professional musician, and his articles have been published in many magazines and newspapers.