If you liked ARGO, you will love The Man Who Fooled SAVAK, a similar story based on true events.
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We decided to reprint this interview with Douglas Roberts about what inspired him to write such a book. The interview was originally published June 19, 2011.
Inspired by true events in the early 1970s, The Man Who Fooled SAVAK captures what it is like to live in a dictatorship with secret police monitoring your every move – an atmosphere of fear that still pervades today in many countries in the Middle East.
What makes Doug’s book so appealing is that what he wrote today about events 40 years ago is still going on today in many parts of the Middle East. And all of these events are carefully woven into a love story that will make you fall in love all over again.
Q. The release of your book coincides rather well with Arab Spring. When did you start writing it?
A. In the summer of 2008. A woman I’d met on line named Erica Murray was interested in Iran so I started writing to her about it. I started doing some very preliminary research into the history and politics of Iran in 1971 in order to refresh my memory of things I had experienced when I was in Iran during that time. The book was completely finished several months before the uprising in Tunisia.
Q. Even though that was 40 years ago, there are many common elements with what is happening across the Arab world.
A. Yes, especially the fear people experience when living under an autocratic regime is something I hope I have captured, and as the book proceeds, the breaking out of that fear. Perhaps it will give people hope. Just like in my book, the methods used by various dictatorial regimes to maintain control seem to be taken from a common playbook: trample a free and independent press, keep the people fooled, use an iron fist to silence dissent, eliminate fair trials, use torture to extract confessions – the list goes on and on.
Q. But when you wrote the book, you weren’t thinking about that.
A. (laughs) True! I don’t have a crystal ball and the Arab Spring was as big a surprise to me as the rest of the world.
Q. Can I ask you about one of the characters in your book? Was there really a Junior?
A. Yes there was. I think Junior made the story possible to write. We really did sell our liquor and cigarette rations to him. I recently learned from a fellow who served in ARMISH/MAAG just before I arrived that Junior mostly dealt with the domestic workers, the Iranian nationals who worked at the bachelor quarters where we lived.
Q. I’d like to ask you about another character, Mihan Jazani. She is a historical figure, the wife of the Bijan Jazani who founded one of Iran’s guerilla movements. It appears that she’s a friend of yours on Facebook.
A. (Blushes) Um, well yes…so it would appear. (laughs) Actually, Mihan Jazani doesn’t like Facebook and never uses it. The Facebook account was set up for Mihan by her granddaughter, Aida. Aida and I exchange messages occasionally.
Q. How were you able to remember so much about what happened then? It was 40 years ago after all.
A. I was assisted in several ways. I had some writings I had done about Iran when I was in journalism school at Kent State in 1972. I had a large number of slides that I’d taken when I was there. Those were crucial in reviving old memories. A huge help was finding a 1977 map of Tehran on the (now defunct) Tehran American School website. I was able to use the exact names of places, even street names. The fellow I’d mentioned earlier who told me about Junior had sent me a copy of the ARMISH/MAAG directory, which was very useful. Finally, talking to people I worked with at that time was extremely important, namely Heidi Eftekhar and Barry Silver, who are characters in the story. I obviously couldn’t remember all events specifically, but I found I could generate them as needed by being very specific in my language. I would take seeds of ideas and extrapolate and grow them into full blown events. For example, a certain lecherous officer really did say to Heidi, “I think you’re a woman who needs a lot of loving.” I took that and ran with it. Last, but also important, the Internet was a valuable tool in researching the historical incidents in the book.
Q. So, where does the novel part come in?
A. Some of the human rights related events are novelized, but they’re very accurate in their portrayal of the times. I’ll leave historians to figure all that out. They will have their work cut out for them because I’ve spent a lot of effort weaving the story line into the history of those days.
Q. How close is your character Doug Roberts to the way you actually are?
A. That’s a really good question. (laughs) I had originally intended that Doug the character would be an extreme version of myself. But after having read my book now over and over, I’ve come to see that what’s extreme are the circumstances he’s in. Doug the character is a lot like I was back then: ok in the smarts department, and a little too cocky sometimes. He’s not very romantic or knowledgeable about women, but does all right in spite of himself. (laughs) There’s an element of male fantasy in the book I suppose. In the story, I have two charming female lunch companions in addition to Fari my Iranian girlfriend/fiancée.
Q. But you really were friends with Heidi Eftekhar your co-worker in the story.
A. I still am. Heidi and I communicate regularly by email and her input on the book was immensely helpful. Miss Farou is the fantasy. She actually didn’t like me all that much. (laughs).
Q. I get the impression you had a lot of fun writing your book.
A. It was pretty trippy for me at times. I would totally submerse myself in it. For example, I had written the scene describing how I spent New Year’s Eve in Iran just a couple of weeks after New Year’s Eve in real life. When someone asked me about how I’d spent my New Years, it shocked me as to how much effort I had to put into pulling up what I’d actually done versus what I’d just written. That was a little scary.
Q. What do you think people will get out of your book?
A. I’m sure everyone will get a little something different, but what I’d like for people to take from it is that, like in the story, life may present you with some extreme circumstances. When that happens, keep a level head and your wits about you. Try to see beyond what appears to be happening on the surface. There will always be some good things happening at any given moment. Try to focus on that. To get through your ordeal it’s a good idea to engage all your friends to help you and your faith if you have that. Most important of all: never give up.
Available in print Feb 2013
Outer Banks Publishing Group
BISAC: Fiction / Espionage
“I was completely surprized…especially to know only now how this quiet person had gone against all odds, exposed himself to so much danger and took the risk to do something that he believed in and acted upon to bring resolve. I must say that with all that he was going through, he did not show it.” – Heidi Efteckhar Silver, a character in the novel, The Man Who Fooled SAVAK.
Doug Roberts exciting novel, The Man Who Fooled SAVAK, came into being with the help of his long-time friend and co-worker, Heidi Efteckhar Silver, who helped him remember a lot of the details of his daring escape from Iran forty years ago. Mrs. Silver, one of the major characters in the book, played an integral part in helping Doug smuggle his then fiance and her mother out of Iran when the secret police, SAVAK, would not allow them to leave. SAVAK watched the family closely because they wanted the family to lead them to the husband and father, who was a human rights activist and lawyer who had escaped a decade earlier. Here is Mrs. Silver’s thoughts on The Man Who Fooled SAVAK.
Q. Not many novels use the names of real people but Doug Roberts in his book The Man Who Fooled SAVAK, portrays you as being a friend and co-worker in the Administrative Services office in the U.S. military advisory unit to Iran, ARMISH/MAAG. I find that rather remarkable.
A. Since Doug’s story is based on a real life experience, it’s great that he has used people’s real names in his story. Most things mentioned in his book did happen. Technology, such as Facebook, also played a big role in Doug being able to find some of the people he had worked with in ARMISH/MAAG, such as myself, and hear more stories from them that made his book more authentic and I am glad I was part of it.
Q. Did you know why Doug was sent to Administrative Services before leaving Iran?
A. I had absolutely no idea. I must say that Captain Seaman and Del, with whom I worked closely had great respect for Doug and kept his ordeal, which was extremely serious, strictly confidential.
A. I found him to be a pleasant fellow, who was very easy to work and get along with. I was completely surprised when I read “The Man Who Fooled Savak,” especially to know only now how this quiet person had gone against all odds, exposed himself to so much danger and took the risk to do something that he believed in and acted upon to bring resolve. I must say that with all that he was going through, he did not show it. He exercised great care in keeping the situation under wrap. This also speaks of Doug’s strong and determined character which is well played out in the book.
Q. What did you think of the book.
A. I thought the book was amazing. When I was reading the book, events played out in front of my eyes. His description of the culture, food, the Iranian way of life and their hospitality is so authentic that it also took my life for a review during those years in Iran. The amazing thing about this book is that Doug, as an American GI, who was stationed in Iran for a brief period of time witnessed the signs of the revolution which came about only a few years later.
Q. Would you recommend this book to your friends.
A. Absolutely. Especially young adults. My own children, who are now young adults, were very small at the time and knew nothing when we had the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This book is not only intriguing and entertaining, but also has a great historical value. During the 2009 uprising, I found myself explaining to my boys, their friends and even some of my friends how all this had come about. Doug has done a great justice in describing what was going on in Iran during the Shah’s reign which lasted nearly 37 years before he was overthrown during the 1979 Revolution. I think those who read this book today will not only be intrigued by the story, but will also learn about Iran and gain great respect for this ancient country, with rich culture and history whose people are kind, friendly and hospitable, but have suffered much in the hands of politics.
Published June 2011
I happened to look in my rear view mirror to see a black Mercedes sedan zoom up behind me then pass. It shot around me at an extremely high rate of speed and was soon out of sight. “Wow, where’s the fire?” I though. A few minutes later as I was about to make my final right turn off the main highway, the same black Mercedes shot out of the intersection I was about to turn into. It turned left and roared past me, heading west toward Tehran.
I took my foot off the accelerator, my stomach feeling queasy with deep apprehension. I had caught a glimpse of the driver’s face with dark glasses and thick mustache. It seemed vaguely and ominously familiar. I slowed the car and idled toward the vacant lot where I was to meet Junior, afraid of what I might find. I could see Junior’s old Peykan in the distance, the driver’s door open. I was sure I saw him move and at first I thought he was about to get out of the car, but as I got closer I could see Junior’s body suddenly fall forward against the steering wheel, sounding the car’s horn.
“Oh no! Please God! Oh no! This can’t be!” I said over and over. “Oh Jesus, no!”
I pulled my car alongside his. My knees were shaking as I got out of the car, and walked toward Junior. As I approached, I could see the back of his head was covered with blood. He had been shot, execution style. I pulled his torso off of the steering wheel to stop the horn from sounding, and then I lifted his left arm to feel his wrist. I thought I detected a faint pulse, but then a few seconds later, it stopped.
The only pulse I could feel now was my pounding heart, ready to burst through my chest. Flooded with a mixture of fear and sadness, I tried to ponder what to do next.
“We’ll need to notify his wife,” I remember thinking. I started searching his pants for a wallet with an ID, but I found nothing. The only thing I found was a large roll of bills in the left pocket of the old tweed jacket that Junior always wore. My hands were shaking.
“My god, this is a lot of money! His wife is going to need this,” I thought as I crammed it into the pocket of my fatigue jacket. I looked across the vacant lot to see an old man who was walking with a shuffled gate toward me from one of the distant houses. I waited for him as he approached. When he came up to the car, he was shaking his head.
He looked at me, quizzically. “SAVAK?” he asked.
I nodded. “Bali Agah. SAVAK.”
The old man started shaking his head again. “Shah very bad. Very bad man.”
I nodded. The old man and I stood together in silence appraising the ghastly scene.
“You want me call police?” he asked.
“Yes, you call the police. Don’t tell them I was here,” I said in my best Farsi.
“I no tell. We see nothing.”
At that moment we heard a siren somewhere in the distance growing louder.
“I need to leave now,” I said.
“You go! Boro! Boro! Zud bash!” (Go! Go! Hurry!) exclaimed the old man waving me away vigorously with his hands.
I stepped away from the old man and got into my car, knees and hands still shaking. I turned the key in the ignition and headed out to the main highway by first going around the block. I waited until I heard the siren stop and then proceeded. As I drove, I kept checking the rear view mirror, side streets, and intersections for any sign of a black Mercedes. But it had done its dirty work and was long gone. When I got back to the Teamhouse, I unloaded my car and took the goods up to my room. The boxes seemed incredibly heavy and my shaking knees complained at the load as I came up the stairs the last time. When I had finished, I collapsed into my bed and started sobbing again. “Junior, I am so sorry man,” kept repeating as though he could hear me.
I looked at the huge roll of cash, and was suddenly struck with an irrational fear that Lou might think I was trying to cheat him. I counted out what I felt Junior would have paid him that day and put it in an envelope, then slipped it my desk drawer. I took out a sheet of paper, and scrawled simply, “Lou, bad news. Junior’s dead. SAVAK shot him.” I placed the note on the desk where he could find it then walked downstairs to my car.
I dreaded having to tell Fari what happened, but forced myself to the car. When I walked into the house minutes later, Fari emerged from her room to meet me and immediately stepped back. “Oh my god, Doug! What happened? Your eyes are all red!”
“Fari, Junior’s dead. SAVAK shot him in the…in the…back of the head,” I said with my voice breaking.
Fari put her arms around me and held my while I continued to weep. “Doug, this is awful.”
I put my face down onto Fari’s shoulder. “Junior was a good person,” I said through my tears. “He didn’t deserve to die.”
Published June 2011
When I heard this sad story on NPR radio this morning it moved me so much and reminded me of Doug Roberts novel, The Man Who Fooled SAVAK, a suspenseful love story based on true events. This is the kind of repression that still pervades a lot of the Middle East today as it did forty years ago when Mr. Roberts staged the successful escape of his fiancé and her mother from a repressive and threatening Iran.
In January of this year in Pakistan, the governor of Punjab province, Salmaan Taseer, who was an outspoken defender of civil rights, was gunned down for criticizing the hardness of Islamic law. He was merely sticking up for a Christian woman who was accused of blaspheming Islam. Her punishment: death.
His daughter, Shehrbano Taseer, is a journalist in Pakistan, and she talks to Steve Inskeep, host of NRP Radio’s Morning Edition, about her father’s legacy and her own fight against extremism.
Here is part of that interview:
“INSKEEP: And it was not that your father committed this alleged act of blasphemy, but merely spoke up for the rights of someone who was accused of blasphemy and asked for her to be accorded mercy. This is what many clerics described as itself being blasphemous.
Ms. TASEER: Yeah, because my father had criticized the law. He had criticized the misuse of the law.
INSKEEP: Did anyone speak up for your father after his murder?
Ms. TASEER: There were three people who believed that this law was being misused and that this was an unfair allegation of blasphemy. There was my father. There was our federal minister for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, and there was Syeda Imam, who is a parliamentarian. And she had tabled a bill in the national assembly trying to water down this law and stop the misuse. And two out of three of these people are now dead. Shahbaz Bhatti, our federal minister for minorities, was gunned down outside his mother’s home two months after my father was shot dead.”
You can read the rest of this moving interview or listen to it on the NPR site. And if you want to read more about a similar story with a much different outcome, download a copy of The Man Who Fooled SAVAK, available on the Kindle, Barnes and Noble NOOK, Apple iBooks and in various ereader formats from Smashwords.
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