“A Gentle Breeze Once Briefly Blew,” an excerpt by Nancy Matthews

In the summer of 1980, my husband Free and I were preparing to leave Cairo after nearly five years at the American embassy where Free had served as Deputy Chief of Mission. Many things had changed since our arrival. Egypt was still recovering from a series of Arab-Israeli Wars, and daily life was still challenging. The long negotiations that led to the historic Camp David Accords (1978) and the Egyptian Israeli Peace Treaty (1979) had made those years particularly exciting. But simultaneously there were also dramatic changes happening around us that were of great concern. These events would ultimately have a direct impact on my life.

In July 1980, the deposed shah of Iran lay dying in a hospital near Cairo, less than two miles from our house. The turmoil created by the Iranian Revolution and the hos- tage-taking were dominant issues that alarmed and confused Americans and Egyptians alike. We had known the last ambassador to Tehran well and many of the hostages were friends and colleagues. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had allowed the shah to come to Cairo in his dying days. The atmosphere was charged and the outcome unknown as we sailed from Alexandria that summer on the long journey home to Washington. Once in the States, we were suddenly aware of the influx of Iranians who had fled their country and were appearing in Washington and elsewhere. Although the hostages, who were held for 444 days, were finally released on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, the crisis endured. The events of those days created an atmosphere of suspicion, fear, and enmity between the United States and Iran that still lingers.

I could not then have known that at the end of November 1999, I would board a plane in London bound for Tehran on a cultural mission designed to open a window that had been closed for twenty years.

 

About the Writer

Nancy Matthews a graduate of Connecticut College, has spent most of her adult life in the international field, first as the wife of H. Freeman Matthews, Jr. a senior Foreign Service Officer, and then as Vice President for the Arts at Meridian International Center in Washington, D.C. She currently resides in Missoula, MT, where she is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Montana.