The Middle East | Trick or Treat?

Author Note:

With the Halloween holiday coming up tomorrow the author recalls how travel in the Middle East was sometimes a matter of “Trick or Treat” when passing through immigration or upon entering a foreign country. 

What follows are a few brief vignettes of the author’s experiences (or misadventures) as a young Foreign Service recruit learning the ropes. In future messages the author will attempt to explore these incidents in more depth.

 Baghdad, Iraq

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In late 1978 Karachi RCO Roberson asked me to join a technical team whose mission was to install and test a Collins High Frequency (HF) single-sideband radio system in Baghdad, Iraq. My previous training on the Collins radio at SECSTATE qualified me as an ideal candidate.

I didn’t know much about the politics of Iraq other than a socialist ruler named Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr had been slowly losing control of the country to a relative named Saddam Hussein. The bottom line was that Iraq was tight with the Soviet Union, which provided them arms. The United States did not have an embassy in Baghdad and U.S. representatives were working out of a U.S. Interest in the Belgium embassy (where we would install the HF radio system).

On the flight into Baghdad I sat next to veteran OC/PE tech Joe P. who had flown from Washington, D.C. As our flight began its final approach an English voice blared out over the intercom, “Ladies and gentlemen, please make available your shot records. If you do not have a current smallpox certification stamp you will be immunized upon entry into Iraq.”

Joe laughed and said, “Reminds me of West Africa. You’re not going to want to get a shot here. They reuse the needles. Let me see your shot record.”

He perused my record like a doctor would.

“Your smallpox vaccination has expired. I always keep an unused stamp in my shot records for occasions like this.”

Joe paused and added, “I can turn the 1977 into 1979 by adding a short curved line.”

“Go for it.”

Joe reached into his briefcase and removed a blue pen to match the ink color.

Sure enough, they had a smallpox immunization assembly line in the Baghdad International Airport terminal. When the stern looking nurse squinted at my shot record Joe shoved his black passport in her face and said, “We’re diplomats, we have an important meeting with the Iraqi secretary.”

Outside the terminal Joe laughed at his trick and I gave a sigh of relief.

Istanbul, Turkey

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In early ’79 I flew from Cyprus to Istanbul to help out the American Embassy with radio issues while the resident CEO-R tech had gone on home leave.

Sitting next to me on the flight was a passenger named Elsa. She fit the Swedish female persona: Blond hair, stunning blue eyes, a perfect figure, and a pleasant personality. Uncharacteristically, I let her know from the get go that I was a diplomat. She was a post-grad student at a Swedish university studying history. Her visit to Istanbul was ostensibly to gather information for her thesis although she talked a lot about the food. I offered to take her out to dinner that evening and she accepted.

The flight went without a hitch. Elsa accompanied me through Turkish immigration at Istanbul International Airport (called Ataturk). I told her that I possessed a diplomatic passport so I could go through the baggage check unencumbered. I would wait for her in the arrival hall.

I smiled at Elsa while I showed my black passport to the immigration official. He wasn’t at all interested in my fawning over the beautiful Swedish damsel.

He said, “Open your luggage.”

“Look,” I said, “This is a diplomatic passport. I’m not required to open my luggage.”

“Do you have something to hide?”

Only a half dozen radios for the embassy along with my tool case. “No.”

“Open it,” the Turk said sternly.

Elsa glanced at me in a new light. No longer was I the friendly American guy that worked for the American embassy. I might be smuggling contraband for all she knew. She said, “I must go.”

“But, Elsa,” I said, as she moved into another line.

The Turk demands continued. “Open now or I take you to interview room.”

“I want to call my embassy.”

Elsa had already passed through the baggage check. She paused and turned behind at the exit, Her expression said it all.

Another Turk official arrived and motioned for me to follow him. What kind of mess had I gotten myself into?

After about five hours sitting in the interview room guarding my luggage an embassy official came and bailed me out. The woman hadn’t seemed at all surprised by my predicament. I called it harassment.

That evening, although I still wanted to treat Elsa to dinner, I had never asked her where she was staying.

I never saw her again.

Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

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In February of 1982, I stood in the passport control line at Dhahran Airport. In front of me actors Wilford Brimley (the Quaker Oats commercial guy) and Robert Duval (True Grit, The Godfather, et al.) were making small talk about the terminal.

Brimley turned to me and said, “You with ABC?”

I said, “No, I’m with the American embassy.”

And that was the end of our conversation as the immigration official wearing a dour expression stamped their passports without fanfare.

Outside the terminal, I grabbed a taxi. The driver knew the location of the American Consulate General Dhahran.

A sudden noise baffled me. It sounded like someone had tossed pebbles on the roof of the taxi. The frequency of the rat-tat-tat increased.

The driver stopped the taxi. I had difficulty seeing outside. Chunks of hail bombarded the windows. Arabs got out of their vehicles and raised their arms to the heavens, as if a miracle had occurred.

The driver left me in the taxi. He wandered around seeking confirmation of the miracle. I wondered if this weather event had ever happened here before? I smiled and thought, Maybe Duval and Brimley were making a movie that required Hollywood produced hail.

Later, I asked at the American Consulate how it could hail when it was hot outside. The short answer was that the hail had formed at high elevations within the clouds (where temperatures were much lower) and during a storm air currents rose and fell inside the clouds, thus allowing the solid hail to fall.

Somewhere in the Desert of the Sudan

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In the summer of 1981 I was flying from Nairobi to Khartoum on a Sudan Airways flight. The flight was packed with mostly Sudanese, a few Kenyans, and a few more Caucasians.

After passing over the Sudanese border on the way to Khartoum the stewardess announced that we would be “making a stop” (at an undisclosed location in the Sudanese desert). The pilot immediately reduced altitude and landed minutes later on an airstrip in the middle of nowhere. The anxious passengers (including me) were asked to deplane while guards with AK-47’s removed the luggage from the belly of the plane. The pilot had assured us this was part of an immigration procedure.

For the next uneasy hour the guards demanded that each passenger remove their passport and identify or sometimes open his or her luggage. Meanwhile, the pilot and the crew stood off to the side, like this was a normal procedure. I showed the guards my diplomatic passport and they left me alone.

When the exercise was completed the luggage was returned to the belly of the plane and all the passengers were allowed to return to their seats. The remainder of the flight to Khartoum was uneventful.

I asked around at the American Embassy Khartoum. The Communications & Records Officer said he would enquire about the incident in the Sudanese desert, but I never heard back from him. It remains a mystery to this day.

Author note: Have any of you readers experienced a similar incident in the Sudan (or elsewhere)? I would like to hear your story.

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