The elements of the story remind one at first of a novel by Graham Greene: Rocked by revolution and a new religious fervor, an exotic country casts an angry eye upon the English-speaking foreigners and demands vengeance.
But call the country Iran, see America through the fanatical eyes of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and you will begin to relive the story of the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Tehran from Nov. 4, 1979, through Jan. 20, 1981.
The day-by-day story of that long siege is the stuff of nightmares, and in "The Destined Hour," former hostage Barry Rosen and his wife, Barbara, tell their tale in harrowing, moving detail. They remind us painfully that the "happy ending" of the hostages' release came after 444 days of torturous physical and emotional hardship, and that the legacy of that siege is far more than just a memory. Even now, the Rosens tell us, they are still adjusting, for the siege changed them both.
The book begins somewhat slowly with Barry's description of his years in Iran as a Peace Corps volunteer during the late 1960s and his subsequent graduate studies in Iranian politics and culture.
A native New Yorker, he eventually married another New Yorker, and when he returned to Tehran in 1978 as press attache' at the American Embassy, the biggest conflicts Barbara and Barry Rosen thought they faced were domestic and religious -- how to reconcile Barry's Jewish family with Barbara's Catholic family.
That perspective changed dramatically when Barry and his colleagues were seized by Iranian protesters, threatened at gunpoint, handcuffed, blindfolded, and imprisoned in a succession of basements, cells and barred rooms. Although various clergymen and other visitors to Iran periodically brought back word to America that the hostages were being "treated well," Barry's narrative should force even these optimists to think again.
In one six-month period, for instance, Barry was allowed a total of less than one hour of outdoor exercise. Unbroken weeks of enforced silence were calculated to isolate further and demoralize the hostages, making them dependent on their captors not only for food and bathroom privileges, but for any scrap of news that hinted at their fate.
This dependence exposed the captives to cruel games -- most chilling on the night of Feb. 5, when prison guards masked like executioners woke Barry and his cellmates, blindfolded them and lined them against the corridor wall. The guards then ordered the prisoners to drop their trousers, stuck gun barrels in their backs, and fired. The shots were blank, but the terror and the humiliation had hit home.
While some hostages took refuge in sleep, and others succeeded in bolstering their spirits by talking back to or playing small pranks on the Iranian guards, many, like Barry, began to suffer the malaise of depression. Although he was never less than defiant in his attitude toward his captors, Barry endured spells of terrible anxiety. During his worst attack, he writes, "My pulse raced too fast to get a count. My heart had become a crazed pump, sending excruciating pulsations throughout my body. My limbs jerked like a puppet's, and I had no control over the terrifying throbbing in my diaphragm." Barry was eventually given anti-depressant drugs to help him sleep, but an initial examination by an Iranian physician yielded only the following diagnosis: "Your problems would disappear if your country would hand back the Shah to where he belongs."
Barry's impressions of his prison guards come through vividly in their names alone -- "Handcuff Man," "Gun Waver," "Joker," "Adolf" and so on. But other guards could provide their prisoners with ample reading material to fill the unending hours of captivity. A few even slipped their captives extra food and showed both compassion and courtesy. The small gestures of these few guards, however, were not enough to prevent two hostages from attempting suicide, or to keep others from despair.
What did keep many demons at bay, however, was the hostages' determination to give each other comfort even when they could not speak, often simply by winking or making eye contact. They further bolstered their sagging spirits through their resourcefulness in communicating news: Barry, for instance, learned of the shah's death through a message carved in a bar of soap.
While the families of the hostages obviously did not need to resort to this kind of subterfuge, they also took comfort from each other -- a point made powerfully by Barbara's narrative, which is skillfully intercut, in alternating chapters, with Barry's.
Barbara's story is hardly that of one who waits passively or fretfully, as anyone who viewed her many television appearances during the months of the siege can attest. Her journey from the reserved woman who would excuse herself early from Washington's diplomatic parties to the forceful, straightforward spokeswoman for her husband's cause seems to surprise -- and trouble -- no one more than Barbara herself.
Living with her parents, her two small children, and her sister's family in her parents' home in Brooklyn, Barbara felt at the start of the crisis that "there were too many people to talk to for me to need a psychiatrist." Nevertheless, the stress took its toll -- in the long hours of her "sleep of the emotionally dead," and physically, in neck and lower back pains. An intelligent woman lacking only in self-confidence, Barbara quickly grew disillusioned with the networks' cursory treatment of substantive issues in favor of footage of Barry's mother weeping, for instance, or a blindfolded hostage (incorrectly identified as Barry) being paraded through the embassy grounds.
"It was the 'soap' of 1980," she writes of the media's coverage. "Every effort was made to sell it as a continuing story." Rather than allow the networks to "sell" her, however, Barbara resolved to use the media for her own purposes -- not to focus attention on herself, but on ways to free the hostages.
The many paradoxes arising from her role as activist were not lost on her. While Barry languished in an Iranian cell, Barbara flew to Europe to meet with Helmut Schmidt and the pope. Partially as a result of her appearances on television, she was named "Mother of the Year," although she believed that the emotional toll taken by her husband's plight had made her a poor model for any mother. Most ironically, she tells us with engaging candor, Barry's long captivity forced her into a new, more independent role both professionally and in her marriage -- one that she would not have forged for herself if her husband had not been taken hostage. As a result, she writes in the epilogue dated "One Year Later," "the lasting effects of his captivity seem to have settled on the unexpected person" -- herself.
For both Barbara and Barry, though, one year may be too short a time to evaluate the lasting effects of more than a year's captivity. The children's initial wariness of their father may have disappeared, but some of Barry's symptoms remain, as do Barbara's career conflicts and the gratitude for life mingled with sadness and guilt over the loss of the eight servicemen who died in the aborted rescue mission.
Because "The Destined Hour" is more a candid report than a meditative reflection, one suspects that as their gaze slowly lifts from the past, the Rosens will begin to view Iran and themselves in still another light--a perspective that only they can show us, and perhaps one that they cannot yet envision themselves.