Memorandum for a Former Embassy

11.1 / All the World’s End

Memorandum for a Former Embassy

By Gelare Khoshgozaran December 18, 2019

If the world were a suspenseful movie in the auteur tradition or a TV production with a twisted narrative, it would conclude with an ambiguous ending. Take for example the infamously ambiguous ending of The Sopranos: the family gathers around a table at a diner, with the viewer not knowing exactly whether they are witnessing a dream or reality.

More artful narrative formatting would consist of multiple scenarios, where a scene plays out differently each time thanks to varied incidents that impede the course of events. Recall the scene in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blind Chance (1987): the protagonist runs to catch his train, and each time a relatively banal shift in circumstance completely changes the outcome. At the end of every war movie where the viewer is left to imagine whether or not the hero survived or died a patriot, there is somebody who imagines an end to all wars and patriotism. Imagining all the world’s ends includes imagining the end of all things within it that could create an alternate end of the world, and as such, a different temporality of living and dying on earth. What would the end of the world be like if there was already an end to war, torture, prisons and borders?

Krzysztof Kieślowski. Blind Chance (Przypadek), 1987; film still.

On September 11, 1973 the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown by a US-backed military coup d’etat.1 During a series of air raids, La Moneda (the presidential palace in Santiago) was bombed with Allende—who had refused to leave the palace, seek diplomatic protection, and live in exile—still inside.2 Chris Marker, the chronicler of international left movements, responded to the Chilean coup with a 20-minute film released in the same year. The Embassy (1973) is a poetic tribute to Allende before Marker went on to make his two-and-a-half hour documentary about Chile, La Spirale (1975). Introduced as “A Super 8 film found inside an embassy,” the film begins with a voice-over describing a group of people living inside an embassy, including the narrator himself who at some point states, “As there is no lab inside the embassy, these images of us remain in suspension, like us.” Time is conceived in the suspense of exposed and unprocessed Super 8 film rolls waiting in darkness, in the anticipation of the images to emerge and be looked at. Any time the film is viewed, history is revisited. As viewers, we do not know when or how the film was found, an unknown amount of time passed between the occurrence of its events and the emergence of their images.

The bombardment of La Moneda Palace.

From the voice-over we learn that the characters in The Embassy include journalists, photographers, writers, and left political activists who are not gathering at an embassy for debauchery or a champagne-laden holiday party, but are trapped. They include children and adults, and in one scene, an ambassador is seen cleaning up his overcrowded residence. Marìa is reading coffee beans because “she can’t read the news from outside.” Melanie is introduced as, “the children's turtle. That turtle fascinates us perhaps because she's the only living thing in this room who shuns our crossed feelings. She is compact and stubborn. She has her turtle ideas and no plainclothes man would make her change her mind.”

Empty buildings where nobody is allowed to live, empty lots where nobody is allowed to build, spaces of potential immunity that are protecting nothing but the air inside are landmarks in a political imagination of ownership, sovereignty, and territorialism. The power that designates a place a refuge and grants a person immunity does not do so indiscriminately. Embassies, like international airports, are worlds where borders manifest as passports, and personhood as citizenship. Lonely annexes to a nation’s territory, these buildings are tiny exiles themselves, their designation as arbitrary as any border or frontier. In their bizarre urban presence, awkwardly adorned with a flag and surveillance cameras, bulletproof windows and cemented welcomes, embassies are meant to represent sovereignty in architectural form—a three-dimensional seal of a nation on the urban landscape of a foreign land.

The location of Marker’s embassy, which is only seen from inside, remains unknown until the very end where the camera looking out through the window, tilts from the sidewalk and a long shot of Paris appears with a small Eiffel Tower at the distance: “What we call the past is somehow similar to what we call abroad. It is not a matter of distance, it is the passing of the boundary.” By displacing the militarized atrocities of Chile in the post 1968 Paris, Marker astutely depicts the crisis not as specific to a place and time, but a catastrophe at the verge of occurring anytime and in any place. Like Marìa, Marker turns to his coffee beans of fiction to break the news of a planetary crisis of authoritarianism, fascism, and the eternal entrapment of dissent.

Times of crisis—of war, violence, dictatorship, forced displacement, or imminent danger—necessitate a resetting of assigned use values. Under a staircase becomes a bomb shelter in wartime; the rooftops of connecting apartments pathways to escape the police; walking under a sheep skin on all fours among a flock of sheep the only way to cross a border; a barn a safe house; an abandoned building a hideout; and an overcrowded inflatable boat on an ocean a vulnerable vehicle to escape the solid violence of land. In Paula Markovich’s The Prize (2011) set during the military dictatorship in Argentina, a young mother and her seven-year-old daughter hide in an abandoned beach house with taped plastic windows, burying their forbidden books in the sand. The young child blows their cover when, during a school essay contest about patriotism, she writers about how the military has kidnapped and killed her father.

The Prize (El Premio), Paula Markovitch, 2011

The civil-military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s in the Southern Cone of Latin America led to the forced migration of a large number of people to Mexico, the UK, and other parts of the world. But many such cases of asylum seekers did not begin at the border, as is traditionally expected by asylum law. At the time, the mobility of political dissidents was highly limited as the military junta continued to kidnap, torture and illegally execute numerous activists and their family members. Therefore many cases of asylum began at the Mexican embassies in their home country. Under international law, an embassy and the ambassador’s residence are both protected by diplomatic immunity, and it was not only in Marker’s imagination that this inviolability was used to protect lives, as depicted in The Embassy.

Photographer unknown. Photo of Vicente Muñiz Arroyo, date unknown.

“Among the Chileans who sought diplomatic asylum in Mexico were prominent figures such as the widow of Salvador Allende, Hortensia Bussi de Allende, their daughters and grandchildren,” write Mario Sznajder and Luis Roniger. “The role played by Mexican diplomatic missions in other South American capitals was significant as well. In Bolivia, some 200 people took refuge in the Mexican Embassy, whereas the numbers in Uruguay in the 1970s were around 400. The Mexican ambassador in Montevideo, Vicente Muñiz Arroyo, is remembered by numerous political exiles as someone who went beyond his diplomatic duties to help the asilados, even fighting the Uruguayan security forces to save potential refugees.”3 Some refugees recall the ambassador’s giving up his bed and participating in daily chores of his overpopulated Montevideo residence.4

An assault on an embassy is similar to a declaration of war on a sovereign nation. Embassies are where fictional national heroes are created during fictional Daesh (The Islamic State) takeovers; where real suicide bombers detonate car bombs; where even the largest helicopter evacuations leave many behind; where journalists get slaughtered and where ambassadors make kabob and hand-feed their Hollywood sweethearts. Embassies are where revolutionary students find $22,000 worth of liquor, unpack and dump each and every bottle down the drain of the outdoors fountain of the ambassador’s house to declare an end to an era of debauchery by the corrupt heads of state. After the 1979 revolution in Iran overthrew the monarchy, the Shah flew to the US to receive treatment for his cancer. The revolutionary students pleaded with the US to return the Shah for trial in Iran. When their pleas went unanswered, the students seized the US Embassy in Tehran. What followed was the hostage crisis, the ending of the Irananian diplomatic mission in Washington, D.C. and a former US Embassy-turned-museum in Tehran today.5

There are currently thirteen properties belonging to the former Iran mission in the United States, all of which are either abandoned or leased to private parties. These properties include empty lots, residential and commercial buildings, with the majority in Washington, D.C. as well as NYC, Houston, Chicago and other US cities. The only such properties that may not be leased, demolished or occupied are the former Embassy—designed in the 1960’s by Francis Keally—and the adjacent Georgian style ambassador’s residence, built in the 1930s. The most circulated online images of these buildings are pixelated scans of a photo shoot from a 1975 issue of Architecture Digest with a feature about the Embassy’s newly commissioned interior design where “East meets West with grace.”6 Among other abandoned embassies in Washington, D.C., all properties of the former Iran mission are in the custody of the State Department, while the US sanctions on Iran prevent the US government or persons from spending funds on the restoration of a property belonging to a country under embargo.7 As a result, the buildings are caught in the complicated bureaucracy of international law, while their diplomatic status continues to deem them “inviolable” spaces.

Former Iranian Embassy, Washington, D.C. Photo by author.

I turned to the images of the embassy—as a representation of not only architecture, but a site of exceptional protection—to ponder what a shelter, a refuge, an asylum looks like. Peeking through the windows of the former Iranian ambassador’s house on Massachusetts Ave., the debris appears as much a part of its interior as the still hanging chandeliers; the exterior walls, the fading blue tiles on the fountain—still drunk from all the whiskey it once absorbed in 1979—the muck in the pool and wild grass register the passing of time as if on an ancient monument; the pile of rubble in the courtyard next to an upside down garbage bin against an algae wall: I am looking at the ruins of the past. Is it possible to learn about statehood from abandonment, to think about mobility by looking at a static building, and to realize it is not the algae or the ivy that makes a ruin a ruin? “Some spaces are ruins as soon as they are created, and consequently irreparable.”8

The reopening of this building as an embassy, and the “normalization” of Iran-US relations have been both the dream and dangling carrot of hope to many Iranians, Americans and Iranian-Americans. Turning the building in limbo to a shelter for refugees, the homeless, and those most vulnerable to state violence would be a radical repurposing, putting its immense potential for protection into practice—as in Marker’s fiction and Montevideo’s facts. When I think about all the possible endings to the story of an abandoned embassy in a state of decay, I imagine the day the seals are broken and the doors unlocked; the grass is cut and the rubble removed. On that day of reopening, there will be no refugees, displaced or stateless persons as there will be no states, embassies, passports, borders, and policed movement of people from one part of the ending world to another. Walking around the premise I step on a folded piece of paper, a memorandum for a former embassy: “The only hero at the suspenseful end of a war movie is the one who imagines an end to all wars.”

Notes

  1. For more on this history, see the National Security Archives: https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8i.htm.
  2. Hugh O'Shaughnessy, “Chilean coup: 40 years ago I watched Pinochet crush a democratic dream,” The Guardian, 2013. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/07/chile-coup-pinochet-allende
  3. Mario Sznajder and Luis Roniger, The Politics of Exile in Latin America. (New York: Cambridge University Press 2009), p 129. See also Silvia Dutrénit and Guadalupe Rodríguez de Ita, Asilo diplomático mexicano en el Cono Sur. (Mexico: Instituto Mora and SRE, 1999).
  4. Teresa Bouza and Martina Castro. "Refugiados." Duolingo Podcast, 2018. https://podcast.duolingo.com/episode-13-refugiados
  5. For more on this history see: https://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/15/world/meast/iran-hostage-crisis-fast-facts/index.html and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear-usa-timeline-idUSKCN0UU13I.
  6. Day Walters, “The Iranian Ambassador's Public And Private Worlds: A Magnificent Blend of East and West in Washington, D.C.” Architecture Digest, November/December 1975, [p 64-69].
  7. For more on Iran Sanctions, see: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/Pages/iran.aspx
  8. Natascha Sadr Haghighian. Exhibition printout, Ankersentrum (surviving in the ruinous ruin), The German Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale.

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