Captivity Pageant

December 1979: Christmas comes for the Great Satan

It would be hard to say which came first, the unrelenting press attention or the public obsession. The story of fifty-some Americans being held hostage inside the U.S. embassy in Tehran provoked indignation but also piqued America's imagination. Scott Miller, a deejay at WOBL, in Oberlin, Ohio, had himself locked in a recording studio with only a sleeping bag. He spent part of every day tied to a chair, telling listeners he wanted to share the experience of the hostages. At the outset no one imagined that the Iran hostage crisis, which began on November 4, 1979, would go on for fully 444 days.

In Lawrence, Massachusetts, all the churches around city hall sounded their bells fifty times daily at noon to remember the American captives. In Columbus, Ohio, protesters marched to express their anger, chanting, "Nagasaki, Hiroshima, why not Iran!" In Manhattan 10,000 cabdrivers drove with their lights on to express solidarity with their captive countrymen.

Fall turned into winter. As Christmas approached, Tehran grew wet and cold. And the hostages waited.

By the third week of the takeover it was clear to the Students Following the Imam's Line—the group responsible for the hostage-taking—that the planned one-or-two-day occupation of the American embassy had become a prolonged siege. The students divided themselves into committees to handle the logistics of feeding, housing, and guarding their fifty-three captives—the number remaining after the imam, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, ordered the release of most of the women and African-Americans. Some of the fifty-three were kept in the basement of the chancery, the main office building, and in other spots around the compound, but the largest number were confined in the large, damp, windowless open basement of the embassy warehouse, a place the hostages dubbed the Mushroom Inn, because it seemed ideal for growing fungi. The space was divided into thirty or more cubicles defined by empty bookshelves. Each enclosure had a mattress, and some had a chair or a table. By December the stale air was cold and clammy, the toilets reeked, and life had settled into a dull routine.

The bookshelves were remnants of the library at the old American High School in Tehran, where in happier days the offspring of embassy workers had attended classes. The books from that library, thousands of them, were piled up in the same basement. Vice Consul Richard Queen was asked to sift through the books and start a lending library. Queen was a gangly, bookish young man who, despite his fragile appearance, had been an accomplished distance runner in high school. He brought to the task an appetite for detail, sorting the books by subject matter.

Overseeing this effort was Hamid, a slight man with a fair, angular face, reddish-brown hair, and a sparse beard, who because of his propensity to cheerfully mislead his captives was known as "Hamid the Liar." His hair and skin color were atypical for an Iranian, and he seemed to compensate for this with an overabundance of zeal. When Hamid played checkers he would jump over his own pieces on the board as if they weren't there—a clear violation of universal rules. When his opponent complained, he would explain, "In Iran we always play this way. These are my men, and if I want to jump over them it is up to me!" Hamid earned his nickname primarily by lying about the mail, routinely telling the hostages that none had come when everyone knew (from the other guards) that mail from the United States arrived daily in sacks. When he did hand out mail, he played favorites, rewarding some hostages and punishing others. In his role as library supervisor Hamid permitted books to be borrowed only after he had checked personally to make sure they weren't "CIA"—even though his English was rudimentary at best. Returned books had to be given first to him, so that he could check to make sure no secret messages had been written or inserted in them.

In his fractured English he wrote out rules:


1) You may never to take more than 20-twenty-20 of books from the month.

2) You may never to write in the twenty books your messages.

3) To stack you found them return your books—20.

4) A student good in English will check for messages you should not write, if he finds this library will be destroyed.

Fat books were especially prized. Don Sharer, a Navy pilot, read War and Peace and Moby-Dick. The embassy press officer, Barry Rosen, began a steady diet of prison literature: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago; MacKinlay Kantor's Andersonville; Billy Hayes's Midnight Express; the autobiography of the French prison-escape artist Henri Charrière, Papillon; and James Clavell's King Rat. Greg Persinger, a Marine, tackled a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, working his way through alphabetically.

The hostages were beginning to look ragged. Clean State Department and military faces sprouted stubble and then full beards; well-trimmed hair grew shaggy and then long. As the air chilled, they took whatever clothing the Iranians brought around and wore it in layers. Most looked as if they had fished their wardrobe out of a Salvation Army bin.

In what the students regarded as a "major concession," they allowed three liberal American clergymen to visit and celebrate Christmas with the captives. All three were chosen, according to a spokesman for Iran's Revolutionary Council, because of "their militant history against imperialism." Most famous was the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, the celebrated senior minister of New York City's Riverside Church. Coffin was a large man with sloping shoulders and long, curly dark hair that was retreating fast toward the crown of his head but still fell thickly over his ears. He did not seem ministerial, with his up-from-the-streets New York accent, earthy humor, and background as an officer in the Army and then in the CIA. But he had seen the light, left the Agency, and entered the ministry, achieving prominence as the chaplain of Yale University and a civil-rights worker long before he became nationally known for his often eloquent opposition to the Vietnam War. Accompanying Coffin were the Reverend William Howard, a tall, urbane, dignified African-American Baptist minister who headed the National Council of Churches and was a noted civil-rights and anti-apartheid activist, and Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a Catholic leader from Detroit who was famous for his advocacy of liberal issues inside and outside the Church. Coffin had defended the hostage-takers in public statements in the United States, saying, "We scream about the hostages, but few Americans heard the screams of tortured Iranians."

Presented by

Mark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. This article is drawn from his book Guests of the Ayatollah, to be published in April by Grove/Atlantic. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus