Real heroes behind Argo hostage drama in S'pore

The then Canadian ambassador to Iran, Mr Ken Taylor, and his wife, Pat, housed stranded American diplomats in their home during the 1979 hostage crisis in Teheran.

While at work one day, research scientist Mrs Pat Taylor received a telephone call from her diplomat husband, Ken, informing her that they would be having house guests.

It sounded innocuous enough a statement but Mr Taylor was then the Canadian ambassador to Iran, and in Teheran in 1979, nothing was straightforward.

Mrs Taylor, 84, recalls: "I said, 'Fine, just talk to the butler and get the rooms ready.' I thought it was only going to be for a few days but, of course, it turned out to be three months."

The house guests were six Americans, four diplomats and two wives, on the run after the United States Embassy had been seized by Iranian revolutionaries. They were then housed by the Taylors and immigration officer John Sheardown.

The Americans eventually escaped by posing as a Canadian film crew scouting for locations.

The events were later dramatised in the Canadian television movie Escape From Iran: The Canadian Caper (1981) and, more recently, in the Oscarwinning film by Ben Affleck, Argo (2012).

The Taylors are in Singapore at the invitation of Swiss bank Lombard Odier to meet their clients and to talk about their diplomatic life as well as about financial risk management. Mr Taylor retired from the foreign service in 1984, entered the private sector and later took up chairmanship of the consulting firm Taylor And Ryan in 1991.

Argo has once again cast the spotlight on the Taylors. While calling the movie a "very exciting drama", Mr Taylor, 79, also says in his rich bass voice: "It was purely a Hollywood production and Hollywood isn't about history, it's about entertainment.

"Here's the predicament for Ben Affleck as he said, 'Everything went so smoothly, how am I going to make a movie out of this?' So it naturally evolved into the car chase of the decade at the airport and the tension and the animosity between the Iranians and the six at the bazaar, which never took place."

Argo was criticised for various historical inaccuracies, including minimising the role of the Canadian embassy in the rescue of the fugitives.

Details, too, were off, say the Taylors.

For starters, two of the Americans stayed at the Taylors' and four stayed at Mr Sheardown's house, rather than all six holing up in one place.

And while Argo portrayed a female staff member as a key character, Mrs Taylor notes: "We had no women staff, they were all men."

The movie also showed the guests running to the basement to hide but, in actual fact, the Taylors had no basement. Instead, the Americans had to remain upstairs whenever the Taylors had to receive guests.

The portrayal of Iranians was also very one-sided. As Mrs Taylor was working with the Iranian Blood Transfusion Services organisation, the Pasteur Institute, and giving lectures at Tehran University, she saw a very different side of the people.

She says: "At the Blood Transfusion Services, all of my colleagues were very protective of me."

Once, when she received a threatening letter, they tracked down the typewriter on which it was composed. And she was later reassured that the note was written by a disgruntled nurse who had threatened others before.

The fact that she was a working wife ended up helping the fugitives leave Iran as well. When she received a lump sum of her backpay, her husband asked her for the money as he needed to buy six tickets on three different airlines, "just in case".

Asked why they took such a big risk then and Mr Taylor says simply: "The initial thought and impulse and reaction was more, 'This is the right thing to do.' You got six American diplomats in jeopardy, that if they weren't offered sanctuary, they would find themselves back at the US embassy to an unknown fate. The Canadian response was, for your closest ally and fellow diplomats who broke no laws, you're going to give them every possible help you can."

Mrs Taylor points out the situation in Teheran then was unpredictable and risky "irrespective of the fact that there were six people in the house".

In fact, she used to lug a big bag with her to work every day. It contained a toothbrush, toothpaste, a change of underwear, a book to read, medication and so on. She called it her hostage kit.

Then again, the Taylors are no strangers to challenging situations. They got married just before their first posting to Guatemala in 1960. There, they experienced a coup d'etat. Later, they arrived in Karachi after an Indo-Pakistani war.

Still, "there's no training for a revolution", says Mr Taylor.

Mrs Taylor muses: "This whole experience just underlies the risks that all diplomats take. You just don't know what you're going to confront when you go on a posting. There's a lot of courage in order to take on a job like this. We have to salute diplomats from all countries who might do this."

Hail the couple for their bravery though and she demurs. She says: "This was something that anyone might respond to. You just never know what powers you have, I suppose, until you are asked to use them.

"It just happened that we were there and that it happened to us. But we feel quite strongly that just about anyone might have done the same thing."

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