Book 8; Continent: Asia

The Houseguests: A Memoir of Canadian Courage and CIA Sorcery by Mark Lijek

  • 316 pages (approximately 303 pages to the Epilogue, which is worth reading for closure)
  • This is the perfect book for your “staycation”: Porchville never looked so good!

A grade-schooler in the 1970s, the hostage situation in Iran is the first news story I can remember making an impression on me. The other kids and I talked about the Ayatollah Khomeini as if he were a villain faced by the Superfriends on Saturday mornings. He wasn’t real to us. Nevertheless, at age seven, I was accustomed to happy endings and knew eventually the Americans would be allowed to come home. Sure enough, the hostage from my hometown returned to a hero’s welcome, complete with parade. Thirty-four years later, I was curious for an adult perspective on what happened.

Up to the 1970s, America and Iran had enjoyed good diplomatic relations. When the Ayatollah came into power, however, he decried the American government. Newly-minted diplomat Mark Lijek and his wife uprooted their lives from Washington, D.C. so Lijek could begin his career at the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, just in time for the hostage crisis. Lijek describes a State Department slow on the uptake, misjudging the political climate and fortifying the embassy grounds belatedly.

On the day of the takeover, Lijek and his wife, Claire, quietly left the compound with a handful of other embassy employees and the Iranian terrorists (Lijek’s term) took over. They hoped to escape to the nearby British embassy, but their path was blocked by demonstrating students who were likely part of the takeover. After sneaking from location to location, they were at last taken in by a pair of Canadian nationals at their home. There, four of the Americans hid for months, avoiding windows and hiding in complete silence any time a guest came to the door. The hosts entertained frequently to cover the increases in household groceries and trash. They even went so far as to approximate a turkey dinner for the Americans on Thanksgiving. Housebound, the Americans played Scrabble and read. They also listened to the news for word of what was happening inside the American embassy to the hostages. Eventually, Lijek and the others staying with their Canadian hosts posed as a film crew to sneak out of Iran with the aid of the CIA. This portion of their story became the basis for the film Argo.

A lifelong diplomat, author Mark Lijek’s writing style involves a lot of qualification. He stresses that his book is a memoir, not meant to be treated as an authoritative historical text. He points out that he has not interviewed everyone involved, for example. That said, his perspective adds a personal dimension to this piece of history. He has his own opinions about who the heroes were in that story, some unsung, as well as some thoughts about which people and institutions disappointed him during that time. He discusses President Carter’s actions and the circumstances driving his administration’s decisions in some detail. Lijek’s access to pertinent information through the State Department and his own direct observations in Tehran make for interesting reading on that topic.

Photo credit: Örlygur Hnefill / Foter.com / CC BY

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2 thoughts on “Book 8; Continent: Asia

  1. Pingback: Book 19; Continent: Africa, Asia | History Reading Challenge

  2. Pingback: Book 8; Continent: Asia | History Reading Challenge

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