The View from The LA Wall”.
So here’s another excerpt, this one from Chapter 1: It’s the first-hand account of the Israeli bombing of Iran’s Gachsaran Oil Field, which kicks off the crash of the American economy, and eventually of America itself.
Update: Here is the Facebook page for the novel I set up, with all sorts of cool doodads. Go visit it!
Autumn, 2020—Floris, VA: Dr. Zhang Hui Zong
Dr. Zhang Hui Zong is a Chinese-American petroleum chemist. She was at the Gachsaran Oil Field in Iran’s Kohkiluyeh Province on July 5, 2014.
We are meeting in her family-clan’s home, located in the town of Floris, in Fairfax County, VA; the largest Chinese-American Identity Zone in the Washington, D.C., area. “We were lucky, we didn’t experience the violence of some other Identity Zones,” she explains. “Floris has always had a strong Chinese-American community. When Identity Zones were being organized—even before they were properly called ‘Identity Zones’—the people of Floris were already organizing themselves in terms of water, power, and access to food supplies. And of course, sector defense. When mobile indigents tried to muscle in on us, especially in ‘16, we were prepared, and managed to repel them. So far we’ve been doing okay.”
She lives in a family-clan, her grandparents, parents and younger siblings with their spouses all living in a single house. “Our family-clan started like a lot of others: Our grandparents couldn’t afford to live on their own on their fixed income that’d been killed by inflation; not to mention the mobile indigents roaming their neighborhood; so they moved in with my parents in ‘15, while my brothers and sisters found themselves financially wiped out right around the same time, so they moved back in with our parents. Four generations living under one roof, but you know something? It worked. It was more practical, it just made more sense to be living all together. We didn’t even call it a ‘family-clan’; people started calling it that in I think 2017 or ‘18,” she says.
(In fact, the terms “family-clan” and “open-clan” began to gain currency as early as 2015 in some area, though became widespread after the famed Saturday Night Live comedy skit in October 2016.)
Dr. Zhang’s parents and sibling are all medical doctors. Thus they have higher EBT allowances, and thus more access to food and other supplies, and receive Priority Protection from the local SecCom. “I should have been a doctor too,” she explains, “but when it came time to dissect a frog, I chickened out! Chemistry is what I always loved, and once I discovered petroleum, it was love at first sight. I just love oil, the sight and smell of it, everything about it.”
She is unmarried and unattached. “As a 35 year-old woman, I guess my window of opportunity passed,” she says a little wistfully. Like other women in similar conditions who live outside feminist or lesbian Identity Zones, Dr. Zhang is very embarrassed by her childlessness and her lack of a husband—though she is self-consciously aware of this embarrassment. “I was a hard-core feminist, in college and afterwards. ‘Girl Power!’ and all that,” she says with a self-conscious laugh she uses to mask her uneasiness. “It’s hard to believe how quickly that all went out the window. I thought feminism was an immutable truth. It didn’t occur to me that it was a superficial luxury you’d give up when you couldn’t afford it anymore, like facials or Belgian chocolates.”
We chat in the densely wooded backyard of her family-clan’s home on a warm summer day. We have a pitcher of iced tea and crackers with home-made jam, made from berries grown on the property. Dr. Zhang, incongruously, enjoys smoking a pipe. “I hope you don’t mind,” she says as she lights her pipe and puffs on it, richly aromatic smoke wafting around her and drifting into the nearby trees. “No one in my family smokes, it’s a horrible habit I picked up in China. My only excuse is that I find it just so relaxing.”
I make no objection as we drink our tea, our conversation punctuated by the sounds of gently fluttering leaves and the chirping of birds.
She is a small dainty woman, with a quick smile that often turns into a girlish laugh. Yet she is a remarkably still person, with an economy of movement which is worth noting. She blinks very infrequently. Her hair is black, straight, and shoulder-length. Her clothing is extremely neat, perfectly balanced between comfort, stylishness and practicality. When she chats casually, she speaks very quickly, her statements often made in the tone of questions. But when she speaks of subjects she knows well, or recounts events she witnessed, her voice assumes a naturally lower registry, her speech becomes slower and her sentences longer, with a clear and unflappable authority.
It happened in the morning in broad daylight in Iran, which made it the middle of the night back home in the States, which is something the U.S. media never got right. They kept saying that the Israeli attack was a night-raid, explaining that that was why they mistook the oil fields for a uranium processing plant, but that is just absurd. It was night in the States, but day in Iran. [Operation] Striped Shirt was a daytime bombing. Saying you mistook the oil fields for nuclear installations is like saying—I don’t know—that you mistook the Statue of Liberty for the Golden Gate Bridge. The Israelis knew exactly what they were targeting, there was never a doubt in my mind: They wanted to flatten Gachsaran. And of course they had to: It was the price they paid the Saudis for their assistance [in carrying out the airstrike].
That Sunday morning, I was all caught up with work but there was really nothing to do—Gachsaran was in the middle of nowhere, really, and though it was a nice city, I’d never really learned Farsi—which was why I was at the oil field hanging out with some friends just for fun, chatting and drinking tea when the bombing started.
No I didn’t hear any planes; they were too far away. It’s not that you heard anything. There was no sound of jet planes attacking, or the whistling sounds of a falling bomb or anything like that. It was completely silent—and then things started exploding.
I was in the main cafeteria, looking right at the main oil depot of Gachsaran, where all the oil from the various wells was pumped, and where it was collected in huge storage tanks before being loaded onto tanker ships—I just happened to be facing the big picture window of the cafeteria, looking right at the oil depot when the first bombs fell. There was no sound—nothing—just suddenly all these huge storage tanks simply exploded.
A split second later, the sound of the blast hit you. Like a movie that’s not in synch? Exactly. It was the loudest noise I’d ever heard in my life, just a single bang! that left my ears ringing for days afterwards, in fact I still have tinitis in my left ear because of it.
[Dr. Zhang pauses to scrape out the bowl of her pipe, then add fresh tobacco. It’s impossible to tell if this pause is self-conscious or not. She relights her pipe, and continues.]
The window blew into the cafeteria, flying glass splashing everywhere like a crashing wave of water. My face, ear and the back of my head were pelted by glass—I turned my face away as the first bombs exploded, just instinct—but we were lucky that it [the window’s glass] was tempered, because I was cut, but it was just little nicks, nothing serious.
But what really frightened me was the shock wave. People later told me that I was incredibly lucky: I was just far enough away that the blast wave didn’t kill me. But I was close enough that I felt it. It’s like a hand reaches inside of your body, and squeezes the softest parts. And not gently or slowly, it’s like, bam!, my intestines, my groin, my brains, all get squeezed and rattled by the blast wave, hard. I’ve never been raped, thank goodness, but I imagine it feels like that. Like something outside reaches inside, and hurts you with a purpose.
The first bombs fell about two hundred yards away from us in the cafeteria, while the next wave of bombs started falling further and further away, hitting all the big oil storage tanks. I remember walking towards the blown-out window after the first blast. I watched the rest of the attack. The bombs—missiles, really—were like white blurs coming down from the sky. Those missiles fell on each and every one of those storage tanks, one after the other, deliberately, implacably. There were dozens of storage tanks, each of them as big as a six storey condo, and they were all destroyed, all of them.
I don’t remember whipping out my phone to film, all of a sudden I was just doing it.
No it wasn’t fast, I guess we’re conditioned by movies, because you’d think that the missiles would fall one after the other, but they don’t. One would fall, destroying one of the huge storage tanks, and then there’d be a wait, anywhere from fifteen seconds to a couple of minutes. Then another missile would hit. The whole attack, from the first missile to the last must’ve taken a good thirty minutes or so1. The feeling I had [as the attack was happening]—the subjective sense that I felt was that there was nothing that I could do, no place that I could run to for safety, no place where I could hide and be safe. I became an instant fatalist. I consciously realized that all I could do was stand and watch and wait, and hope that I didn’t die as I filmed the whole scene on my iPhone.
The storage tanks didn’t explode up, like in a mushroom cloud like in the movies. The tanks blew down and out, like the giant hand of God had slapped the earth like it was swatting at a fly. The smoke that came out at first was gray, light gray, but it quickly turned flat black and billowy as the oil caught fire. The wind was blowing to the east, away and to the right of where I was looking, which was why oil smoke didn’t obstruct my view of the intact oil tanks as they were each destroyed one after the other. Again, incredibly lucky: If the wind had been blowing towards the cafeteria, we would have died from asphyxia or smoke inhalation.
Every missile that fell made an explosion that gripped my body. Just like the first one, but not as severe as the first one. Or maybe I had just gotten used to it, I don’t know. It got to where I was sort of looking forward to another missile’s explosion.
When the tanks were hit, they collapsed, oil spilled every which way, waves of it. Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil, spilling across the desert, and catching fire. You have to remember that Gachsaran was pumping close to six hundred thousand barrels a day, it was an enormous field. Its central depot was huge. Oil pooled two or three feet deep, like an ocean of oil. It reminded me of footage of tsunamis, of water rushing across the shore. It was just like that, only it was oil, thick and black and glittering under the sunlight.
No, no one knew at first if the Israelis were responsible, or the Americans, but everyone knew it was either one or the other or maybe even both. It was just assumed. That the Saudis were mixed up wasn’t even considered, but when it came out, everyone was shocked but not really surprised. But that was much later, when I was already back in Shanghai.
So as I was saying: The missiles had been falling for a good half an hour in that slow, stately fall, so when the attack finally ended, nobody was really sure it had ended. There wasn’t anybody who could suddenly jump up and tell us, “It’s over!” I remember that everyone in the cafeteria was ducking and hiding under tables and chairs. I remember clearly thinking of the old “duck and cover” Cold War PSA’s [Public Service Announcements]—I was too young for them, but I remember seeing them in my history classes at Stanford. I remember thinking that all the people in the cafeteria hiding under chairs and tables would not be saved if a missile fell on us. So it was best to just get a good view of what was going on, instead of trying to hide beneath a table. Which was why I was the only one standing [in the cafeteria], facing in the direction of where the bombs had fallen. The wind was blowing the smoke away, towards the city of Gachsaran, about fifteen kilometers away, and all the oil storage tanks of Gachsaran were completely destroyed. I remember clearly thinking at the time that it was the most spectacular thing I had ever or would probably ever see in my lifetime.
About Gachsaran: After about five or ten minutes or so of no more missiles falling, that’s when everyone slowly started getting up and started to do things. But it was slow going. Like everyone was a little bit stoned, a little bit in shock, as if everyone had just woken up from a deep sleep, and needed a while to get their bearings.
Slowly, in no real rush, we were evacuated. Everyone was in various degrees of shock: Iranians and foreign workers. We were all shuffled onto buses with no real urgency, and then sent back to our apartments in the foreign worker village. On my way back to the village, I saw Iranian firemen trying to stop the blaze, which was impossible. It was almost ridiculous, watching them trying to put out those fires. I’ve worked in oil fields all my professional life: It’s impossible to stop a big oil fire. Firemen at any oil field are practically for show. With a big oil fire, all you can do is wait for it to burn itself out.
[At the foreign worker village,] I made sure that the two techs working with me were okay; they were, they’d been sleeping in late, they were fine. That Sunday afternoon, we wandered around the village, looking in the direction of Gachsaran. We were ten miles away, but the horizon was black. The sky was perfectly clear, which made that black cloud even more startling. It was like a crouching black monster, rolling towards the city [of Gachsaran]. I don’t know how many pictures I took, I had never seen anything like it.
Because of all the smoke from the burning oil—that smoke can be severely toxic, it can easily asphyxiate hundreds of people if the wind blows the wrong way—the whole city of Gachsaran had to be evacuated, no two ways about it. Obviously, so did we, the foreign workers.
For the Iranians, we [foreign workers] were an easy problem to solve: Put us on a plane and kick us out of the country, which is what they did. Six hours after the attack, on Sunday [July 5], they ordered us to report to the airport on Monday morning at 6am, with no more than one suitcase and one carry-on. They put us on buses and drove us out to the airport.
No, already there was a communications blackout, so I couldn’t talk to my boss in Shanghai. I wasn’t sure if it was because of the attack, or because the Iranians had shut off outside communications. [It has been subsequently confirmed that Gachsaran’s non-essential communications infrastructure was shut down by the Iranians shortly after the attack. —Ed.] We tried getting the word to our bosses and our families, but we couldn’t. What I did was, I posted a bunch of tweets on my iPhone, and figured when there was broadband, they would get uploaded automatically.
That’s right. I had never been in a war zone, I had never witnessed an armed attack. So I had no idea what I was seeing. What? No [they did not mistreat us or blame us]. The Iranians, they just wanted to get all foreigners out of there; I got the feeling that they wanted us to clear out just so that they wouldn’t have to deal with the hassle of us—they had to relocate almost 100,000 people, which was the population of the city of Gachsaran. A few hundred foreign workers was just a hassle to be brushed aside, I understood them completely. Besides, with Gachsaran [oil field] destroyed, there was no reason for us being there. Already on Sunday evening, they [the Iranians] had confirmation that it was the Israelis, and of course they were gearing up for war.
No, the Iranians couldn’t have been politer; they knew I had an American passport, they knew I’d grown up in Chula Vista and gone to MIT. But they did not hassle me or mistreat me in any way.
My team and I were put on a plane to Shiraz [a regional city and transportation hub in southern Iran] the next day, Monday [July 6]. At Shiraz, at the airport, I finally got in touch with my boss in Shanghai. Yes, Monday morning, right before we were leaving Shiraz for Doha [in Qatar], I told him that Gachsaran had been destroyed. He had no idea. He had just assumed like everyone else that the Israelis had bombed the Iranian’s nuclear sites—not the oil fields. The Israelis were insisting they had attacked only the nuclear installations. My iPhone hadn’t had access to the internet at Gachsaran, but in Shiraz, my twitter feed uploaded with all my pictures. I couldn’t upload the video, there wasn’t enough bandwidth, but the pictures were enough. My boss saw them, then told me to get on a plane to Shanghai the second I got to Doha.
While I waited in Shiraz for my connecting flight, I got caught up on my email and Facebook feed. I managed to live-chat with some of my friends and my parents in the States—it was late Sunday night back home—but I wasn’t there in Shiraz long enough for anything except a quick touch-base.
No I wasn’t thinking about doing press. I’d never done press, actually. I was thinking of getting to Doha, and from there to Shanghai and tell my bosses all that I’d seen. I was already starting to put together a full report of what I’d seen.
There was Wi-Fi on the plane to Doha, so I kept on chatting with everyone on the hour-long flight.
Right. [The al-Jazeera reporter] Sharon [Lonahan] was waiting for me at my arrival gate at Doha. Sharon was friends with a friend of mine from MIT, Carl Sonnenberg. I’d been tweeting about the attack the whole time. Online, it was all about how the Israelis had attacked Iran’s nuclear installations. But I was like, “That’s not right, they bombed the oil fields.” When I said this in chat room, people called me a troll [internet provocateur] and dismissed me. My twitter feed showed all my pics, but nobody was paying attention. Gosh, I must have put out 25 or 30 tweets. Yeah, I’ve heard that kind of talk: That somehow my tweets were supressed somehow, but I don’t buy into big conspiracy theories or anything like that. Well, they suppressed my twitter and Facebook feeds later, but that’s a different story. I remember people [online] dismissing me because they said I was trolling, and not to be taken seriously. Anyway it doesn’t matter. My friends were all e-mailing me, asking me if I was alright. Carl’s email asked me the same, and told me about Sharon, asking me if she could interview me. I said sure, so long as I didn’t miss my connecting flight to Shanghai. So I met her in the Doha airport just as I was getting off my flight from Iran.
No, I had downloaded the video onto my computer, but my computer was stuffed in my bags and I didn’t want to pull it out. I never thought I was special or unique. Like with the Capitol Bombing, how many people saw that first hand? Thousands? Of course, which was why it never occurred to me that I would be a unique or special witness. Hundreds of other people had witnessed the bombing at Gachsaran right along with me. I saw literally dozens [of people] just like me, whipping out their cell phones [and] filming what was happening. I just asumed that those people would be interviewed and spread the news. I didn’t realize that I was the first non-Iranian eyewitness to what had happened. Or the first non-Iranian witness reporting what she saw from outside of Iran with an American accent. No wonder Sharon was so eager to interview me!
No, it wasn’t a big deal. Sharon was waiting for me as I deplaned. I recognized her because she was standing with a microphone in her hand and a cameraman next to her. She was wearing a yellow outfit, and she was really tall. She didn’t notice me when I went up to her; I’m kind of short and easy to miss! [Dr. Zhang is 4’11”. —Ed.] We moved over to the side and talked a bit. Then we had to wait until their control booth cued us up.
Then we went live.
I’ve seen the footage, and objectively, I look incredibly frazzled. But now with some perspective, I realize why that single interview had such an impact. First of all, it happened just as the commodities markets were opening in London. And second, Israel’s lobbyists and spokespeople and networkers had appeared on all the Sunday news programs, and they had been polished and persuasive, wearing nice suits and done up in make-up to look good on TV, working hard to assure everyone that their attack had been “safe” and “surgical”, and insisting that they had struck only known nuclear installations.
But then I show up, dressed in dungarees, practically, and I completely threw a monkeywrench into their careful narrative. My lack of polish, and my obvious emotional and physical distress, coupled to the fact that I was giving a first-hand account, gave me instant credibility.
No it wasn’t Sharon’s idea; she didn’t know I had the footage on my phone. I was trying to explain what I saw, but I didn’t feel I was expressing what I’d seen. So in the spur-of-the-moment, I just pulled out my phone and showed Sharon the footage I’d shot. I wasn’t even thinking that there was a camera there, or that the footage on my phone would be broadcast around the world. We were three people standing in a deserted arrival gate in the Doha airport. I just wanted Sharon and her cameraman to see what I had seen, to understand what I had witnessed.
I showed Sharon my footage, it lasted about eight minutes, which surprised me. I’d honestly thought I’d filmed a lot more, but I guess it was the shock that tricked my mind. I showed her all the footage, then we talked a bit more, she thanked me, and that was it. I ran to catch my plane to Shanghai.
No, there wasn’t any internet on the plane to Shanghai. Actually, I slept the whole flight, I was bushed.
Sure. When I got to Shanghai eight hours later, that’s when I heard oil had almost tripled after my interview. Because of little ol’ me! [Dr. Zhang laughs in amazement.] Oh I know it wasn’t me. It was the video. One thing’s to hear about something—another’s to see it.
1. In fact, records indicate that the attack, from first missile to last, had a duration of 37 minutes.
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