Speaking frankly; Frank Sinatra and Iran

As with many of the postings in this blog, the idea for this posting came from a rumour in wide circulation in Iran of Frank Sinatra owning a stake in a casino in Tehran, and performing regularly. The rumour goes on that Frank, a friend of the Shah’s brother and his wife, Queen Farah, and possibly a one-time lover of the Shah’s second wife, Soraya, was not the only superstar regular to perform here, but also the likes of Tom Jones and Dean Martin.
Frank Sinatra
Well, that is clearly a rumour that demands a little digging, right?
This particular Persian journey starts in an out-of-the-way town called Ab-ali (hereafter Abali for ease of typing) about 60 or so kilometres to the northwest of northern Tehran. The town, nestled (although that word has more romantic overtones than the town perhaps demands) at a height of about 2500 metres above sea level, has a population of around 2500.

Unassuming would be a massive overstatement for this particular hamlet. It is, to put it diplomatically, something of a nothing. With what look to be abandoned houses, a few trading but numerous closed-up shops, a handful of uninviting restaurants, ramshackle machinery rusting by the road, a ski resort that has probably not seen great skiing for some decades, and stray and mangy dogs roaming the highway verges, Abali is a town going nowhere. It might, it turns out, have been something entirely different in its heyday.

Visiting Abali now, during winter, however, you find rather simple slopes and really very run-down equipment and almost no facilities.

The road through Abali takes you to a high mountain-top, Mt Damarvand, as well as the Lar Dam, the latter being a major source of much of Tehran’s waters both bottled and tap. But passing through Abali you would be forgiven for wanting to increase your speed just to get past it. Or you would not even realise you were in a town.
Apologies to those residents of Abali, but if you take a step back you would see what I mean.
In the midst of this ‘dead town’ decay, stands a grand, but also somewhat run-down building. It is very much out of place. It is particular for its size. And it is particular for its obvious former prestige. Driving past it, on the Abali Road, you can only ask “what the hell is that glamourous old wreck of a building…. and why is it here??”



The Abali Road
The answer is the Abali Hotel, also called the Abali Casino at a certain time in recent history. The actual building dates back some time, although records are scarce. It is likely only talking to some village elders will tell us more about the building’s origins.



Abali Hotel, c.1963
What we can tell, however, as far back as World War II, the building was the property of the family of the then Shah of Iran, Reza Shah. This Shah, it should be noted, is the father of the Shah most of us now know as THE Shah of Iran; the Shah at the time of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran.



The Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi
On Reza Shah’s abdication, the property at Abali. along with billions of dollars of other properties around the country, were forfeited to his son, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi (pictured abOve). From 1958, the property was outwardly owned by a charitable foundation worth many billions of dollars set up by Reza Shah, called the Pahlavi Foundation (the Pahlavi coming from the family name adopted by Mohammed Reza Pahlavi).
At some point during this long period, the Abali Hotel was a major going-concern for, for example, Tehrani skiers looking for winter breaks on the nearby ski slopes. While advertised as a ski resort still, it is, to be honest, underwhelming. It was also a casino from 1970 onwards, as far as can be ascertained.
There is a literary reference to the Abali Hotel, in Tokens of God, by Iraj Azimzadeh, ,2007, p.189, his characters Colonel Ghassemi and Kaveh are around the hotel. It gives you a sense of the hotel’s trajectory:

Tokens of God book image

“Hotel Abali was nestled in the southern slopes of Alborz Mountain. The village of the same name was a popular summer-weekend getaway for Tehranies seeking cool mountain air, mineral baths and, until the Islamic government, gambling in the hotel’s casino. In the winter, they packed its ski slopes.”


1347129647330868_thumb                   38076602                    61303716

The Abali Hotel Today
To be sure, the Abali Hotel does seem to have once had a grand life as a world-class casino from at east 1970, until its closure. The rumours had it that Frank Sinatra played here every Christmas, and even owned a part. The same rumours also speak of Tom Jones, Sammy Davis Jnr and other brat-packers such as Dean Martin, frequenting the joint.
In any event, by 1978, the casino was shutdown, as were all gambling houses in Iran, by a Parliament of a country in turmoil. In 1979, shortly after the revolution, the revolutionary authorities took over the chattels of the Pahlavi Foundation, renamed the Alavi Foundation. And within what seems to have been just a matter of days, this was then also terminated, and the properties, including the Abali Hotel, were transferred to another foundation, the Foundation for the Oppressed, which – with its more than 200,000 employees and USD3 billion in assets – to this day still owns and operates the hotel as a guesthouse. This foundation is closely associated with, and usually headed by, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.

If you think there might be something more to this story, you are dad right. A whole lot more. And while this blog entry will stop at this point, the research continues and will – he says with a dash of trepidation, a modicum of anxiety, and some ill-at-ease – become a book. Yes, a book!
And it is already a heady and winding narrative, that only starts with Frank Sinatra and goes on to include La Cosa Nostra, JFK, Marilyn Monroe, The Shah of Iran and his three wives, Grace Kelly, Fidel Castro, both the FBI and the CIA (and a little State Department), the McGuire Sisters, and oh, so much more! Tom Jones I cannot yet promise, but who knows where the story will go.
So, keep watching this blog space for word on the book. But don’t sit in front of the screen eating popcorn – or holding your breath – awaiting its arrival. It has to be first written (argh!!!) and then a publisher found.

I will keep you informed on this spot, so please check back.



Myth-busting Continued: the Australian Flag Debate

The Top Myths in Australia’s ‘Flag Change Debate’

Today I heard that New Zealand has announced a referendum on whether or not to change the national flag, which makes me think about the debate, or lack of, about whether to change the Australian flag.

Let me start by declaring my own interest in the outcome. As a believer in plebiscite, I can happily support the current flag, or something else; whatever the majority of Australians want. However, what I PREFER is a flag that accurately represents the nation. I would like to see the flag changed, as I don’t believe the current one demonstrates sufficiently an autonomous Australia.

What I can’t stand, and thus the cause of this article, is those with a view who lie to coalesce others behind their view. There are so many who would seek, indeed have sought, to polarise a debate that really should not be, that makes me want to dispel a few of the leading myths; they are barriers of ignorance to decent debate.

blue ensign

The current Australian flag, or blue ensign

The myths are numerous, and largely propagated by the opponents of change, but include assertions that changing the flag means becoming a Republic, that thousands of Australians died ‘ for the flag’, and that our flag is widely, universally recognisable already.

The leading myth that seems to do the rounds is that thousands of Australians have died under, fighting for, the current flag since 1901.

Hereafter, some of the facts about the Australian flag, and addressing some of the myths associated with the national flag.

1)      Changing the flag means becoming a Republic and severing ties with the British Monarchy.

This is such a simple myth to discount; I find it extraordinary some people still believe it.

The flag debate, and the Republic debate, are two separate issues. Although they are often conflated.

Changing the flag does not necessarily mean becoming a Republic, as we saw in the case of Canada. Likewise, becoming a Republic does not of itself mean a change of the flag, as we saw in the case of Fiji.

The two are distinct debates, although both are about change in national identify, and one can be addressed without necessarily addressing the other.

2)      Changing the flag turns our back on the sacrifice of so many soldiers who died fighting for the flag.

If you examine this statement, it contains two assumptions:

a)      That Australian soldiers fight for the flag

b)      That the current Australian flag is the flag soldiers have fought and died for since Federation.

Both are erroneous, and give rise to the myth.

The current Australian flag, otherwise called the blue ensign, only became the national flag in 1954. Soldiers, who fought for Australia up to and including the Korean War, did not fight for, or under, the Australian flag as we now know it.

Prior to 1954, the use of the blue ensign as the national flag was strongly and actively discouraged. It was, if you examine the history of the blue ensign, designed as a result of a flag competition at the time of Federation, and rejected by, in particular, the military establishment. The Department of Defence was the greatest opponent of the blue ensign being adopted nationally (they thought it too ‘marine’). The blue ensign as we know and use it today did not become some glorious and romantic flag of the people, but rather served until 1954 as an instrument of Government.

In the early part of the century Australian soldiers mostly departed and returned under the Union Jack. In addition, often juxtaposed with the Union Jack, the Australian red and blue ensigns were, from 1901, used as banners or shipping flags.

And so, generations of Australians did NOT die for the Australian flag or even under it. The current flag was NOT the Australian flag during World War 1 or World War 2, or even the Korean War. The flag most often used in the context, WW1 and WW2, was the Australian Red Ensign, a naval flag that was broadly favoured for military use.

And of course in Korea, Australians fought under (for?) the UN, and the Red Ensign was still Australia’s official flag for another year past the end of that war.

red ensign

The Red Ensign

The second assumption underwriting this leading myth is that members of the armed services in Australia in the past century have ‘fought and died for the flag’.

Australian soldiers – my Dad among them, and others who fought and died during Australia’s wars, surely fought and died for our country? It is a subtle, but important, difference if it is to be used as the leading argument against change. You would likely have to poll a lot of soldiers and their families/descendants to find out why people fought in our wars. But I suspect ‘the flag’ is not the answer.

And prior to 1954, if one maintains that solders are unable to distinguish between a flag and a nation, and therefore do fight and die for a flag rather than a people or polity, then they fought and died for the red ensign, not our current national flag.

If you want numbers: as to how many have given their lives under what flag, then of the more than 102,000 Australian soldiers who have died since Federation, approximately 668 – around two thirds of 1% – have died under the blue ensign. The remainder, 1901-1954, died under (if not specifically ‘for’) the red  ensign. It is accurate to say that the Australian red ensign is therefore 99% MORE representative of those Australians who have died fighting for Australia than any other flag.

Further, if you speak specifically about navy, as an arm in itself, they fought under (if not for) the British White Ensign from 1911, when they were formed, until as late as 1967.

The evidence of the red ensign being the Australian flag until 1954 is overwhelming. By contrast, the blue ensign was rarely seen, its use being restricted to government buildings and schools.

Towards World War II, the Australian red ensign became popular, although the Union Jack usually flew alone or in a senior position to the red ensign. In WW1, the red ensign and Union Jack flew alongside each other in, for example, recruiting posters and the like.

The former head of the Returned and Services League in Australia, Bruce Ruxton, paid $25,000 for the flag kept by the prisoners of Changi. It is an Australian red ensign.

Sir Douglas Mawson’s flag in his time capsule in Antarctica is an Australian red ensign.

Flags carried by Australian soldiers of both world wars were Australian red ensigns.

The flags flying at the Australian War Memorial are overwhelmingly Australian red ensigns.

When Queen Elizabeth II came to Australia in 1954, she was welcomed by millions of Australians mostly waving Union Jacks and, that’s right, Australian red ensigns. And it was only during this visit that she proclaimed the current Australian flag, for the first time making the blue ensign the preferred colour.

As an interesting aside, the Prime Minister who brought in the change to the flag, Robert Menzies, in 1953 made the blue ensign the national design and removed the red ensign. He did so:

a)      without any recourse to the Australian people; and

b)      solely because, suffering communist paranoia, he wanted the ‘red’ removed.

One wonders if Menzies had gone to  a referendum, at a time when the argument was perhaps more valid that many Australians HAD fought and died under the red ensign, whether a change would have been agreed.

As a further interesting aside, if Liberal is your political colour, then you should note that the Liberal Party was not formed in 1945 under any Australian flag, it was formed under the Union Jack.

3)      The current flag is universally recognised as the Australian flag.

Perhaps the current flag is indeed ‘universally’ recognised as Australian…. as long as you poll only within Australia (and perhaps New Zealand).

Without a wide-ranging global poll to find out its real universality, it is impossible to say either way.

However, as an expatriate Australian having lived and worked in more than 45 countries, I can assure fellow Australians that the Australian flag is NOT widely recognised as Australian, and largely because it is not distinctive.

It can be, and often is, confused with flags of New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, a wide range of yacht clubs a, a few fire stations from what this poster suggests, and of course the states of Australia. Even the Boxing Kangaroo flag is more widely understood as symbolising Australia.

confused flags

As a demonstration of this, you might sit an Australian down with the wide range of national and other flags that are similar, and ask them to pick, for example, Samoa or Fiji, from the pile.

In 1985, Bob Hawke (then Prime Minister of Australia) was greeted famously in Ottawa with the New Zealand flag. The fact is, the current Australian flag is not at all distinctively Australian to the rest of the world, and this cannot be used as a valid argument against change. Many people, even those who are pretty good with flags, get the Australian flag confused for others, especially New Zealand.

It is notable that few if any get the Canadian flag wrong. And the debate in Canada before the change was similarly heated, similarly divisive, and racked with polarising hyperbole propagating pretty much the same myths as in Australia.

If you want universally recognisable, and distinctive, the current design is certainly not it.

There are many possible, distinctive, and nationally representative flags out there. In the same way change can come to national anthems (as Australia’s did in 1977), and to sporting colours (as Australia’s did in 1984), so too flags can change without rejecting the sacrifice of others, without changing the political system, and without turning our backs on a strong and universally-recognised design.

alternative aust flags

Let us debate about the Australian flag, whether change is desirable to reflect a very changed country and context.

But let’s leave out the polarising myths and emotive hyperbole.


UPDATE 1: Presumably in reply to the NZ Prime Minister’s announcement of a referendum, on 12 March 2014, the Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, said changing the flag was “not an issue that actually draws much attention in Australia”.

“There’s no great demand to change it and many Australians have fought and died under that flag, sadly,” she said.

“We have competed in Olympic Games under that flag and there’s a sense of pride in it.”


So, there’s the view of the current government. Let’s, in the meantime, watch how the progressive kiwis go!

World Gender Equality Report 2013 is out!

World Gender Equality Report 2013 is out!

World Gender Equality Report 2013 is out!

Not surprisingly, it is better to be a woman in the Nordics. The same cannot be said of Australia, wallowing down the ranks below Cuba, Nicaragua, Burundi, and the Philippines.

Australia; time to seriously lift our game!

Some Australia and asylum-seekers mythbusting

Australians are bombarded by political messages, promoted by insufficiently questioning and informing media outlets, that the refugees are a serious problem facing Australia, that asylum-seekers are to be feared, loathed, and turned back.

None of these things are borne out by the facts. None of these things should be allowed to stand by by free-thinking Australians.

Let’s address the top ten myths in Australia about refugees and asylum-seekers.

Note: While all figures in this blog can vary from year to year, they do not vary by much and are certainly always of a similar order.

Myth 1: Australia is being swamped by refugees

REALITY: The number of people arriving in Australia to claim asylum has risen in the last several years – despite extraordinary leaps in spending on border protection and offshore processing – by more than a third last year to 15,800 people, but Australia’s asylum seeker numbers, while politically hot and seemingly sensitive, remain numerically extremely small.

Remember that Australia is one of the hardest-to-reach countries in the world. The VAST majority of people looking to find asylum from persecution do NOT choose Australia.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says in 2010 that Australia received only 2.2% of the total asylum claims made in the 44 industrialised countries around the world.

By comparison, asylum levels in Australia continue to remain far below those recorded by many other industrialised and non-industrialised countries.

So how do we compare for asylum applications to those other industrialised nations with which we often compare ourselves (Sweden, Canada, France, US, UK, and Germany), for instance? In 2010, when our numbers were at their highest for many years we received only quarter of the number of applications received by Sweden, a country of only 9 million people, one fifth of those received by Germany, only around 17% of those received by France, and a third of those received by Canada. Australia is FAR from holding its own in industrialised company.  In other years, such as 2008, 2009 etc, we are well down in the 10-15% range of the numbers of asylum seekers of ‘similar’ middle income and high income destinations.

Myth 2: Australia is a magnet compared to other countries

REALITY: Nearly half a million – 493,000 – asylum claims were lodged in industrialised countries in 2012. Of this total, Europe received 355,000 asylum seeker claims, while the US and Canada combined received 103,000.

Major conflicts around the world are the greatest source of refugees. The conflict in Syria has unleashed on the world a eeugee exodus in the millions. Before that, Iraq was a major global source. As well as Afghanistan, which emitted 2.7 million refugees across 71 countries.

However, as with all such conflicts, the refugees flee on foot, and in far-from-robust vehicles, so they do not go far. More than 95 per cent of Afghan refugees are in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are in neighbouring Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon.

If one maintains the completely unsustainable position that Australia is a magnet, we are only the 47th ranked magnet in the world!

So then who are the magnet countries?

The ‘Top Ten’ magnets for refugees, in descending order of magnetism, are: Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Germany, Jordan, Kenya, Chad, China, USA, and the UK.

Remember: Australia is 37 places further down the charts.

Myth 3: Australia takes more asylum seekers because we’re a rich, First World country

REALITY: According to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, the reverse is true. And he is certainly true.

“The burden of helping the world’s forcibly displaced people is starkly uneven,” he said. “Poor countries host vastly more displaced people than wealthier ones. While anti-refugee sentiment is heard loudest in industrialised countries, developing nations host more than 80% of the world’s refugees.”

Refugees are overwhelmingly hosted by DEVELOPING countries, NOT rich, ‘attractive’ countries like Australia.

Myth 4: They’re illegal, queue jumping undesirables

REALITY: Asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat are neither engaging in illegal activity, nor are they immigrants.There is nothing at all illegal about those who arrive in Australia by boat. They have broken no laws.

The UN Refugee Convention (to which Australia is – although it is hard to be sure at times – a signatory) recognises that refugees have a right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive or whether they hold valid travel or identity documents.It should be thus. If there was war in Australia, we would all want, and probably make use of, that right to find shelter where there was no war. Who wouldn’t? Asylum-seekers are doing what many Australians would do if we had war in Australia.

Australian law specifically permits unauthorised entry into Australia for the purposes of seeking asylum. Asylum seekers do NOT break any Australian laws simply by arriving on boats or without authorisation.

Australia has a proud history of boat people and other asylum seekers becoming good citizens.

Myth 5: Most asylum seekers come by boat

REALITY: Statistics from 2008 showed at least 13 asylum seekers arrive through Australian airports EVERY DAY, more than 32 times the number of boat people supposedly ”flooding” across our maritime borders in that year.

A total of 4768 ”plane people”, more than 96 per cent of applicants for refugee status, arrived in that year on legitimate (but often obtained with fraudulent intent) tourist, business and other visas – compared with 161 who arrived by boat during the same period.

While the national media headlines, and the mouths of politicians, play up the ‘boat people’ threat, asylum-seekers coming by boat numbered just 3% (!!!) of those coming with the likes of QANTAS and Cathay Pacific.

While boat numbers have increased, still around 93% of asylum seekers who arrived by boat were found to be genuine refugees.

In comparison, those who arrived by plane – coming with valid, but often fraudulently obtained visas – despite being eligible for release into the community and not having to face years of detention on Nauru or Manus Island – were almost twice as likely to be rejected as refugees.

Only around 40% of asylum seekers who arrive at our airports – even though they are not incarcerated, turned around, or detained in tent camps on grim islands – are found to be genuine refugees.

Myth 6: Asylum seekers are taking Australian jobs

REALITY: The Federal Government released 16,000 asylum seekers into the community as they wait for their refugee claims to be processed. They receive about $220 a week from Centrelink, most of which goes towards rent and food, but they are on bridging visas which stipulate that they’re not allowed to get jobs. Nearly half of those asylum seekers are subject to the government’s “no advantage” rule, which means they could be in this limbo for many years.

Most asylum seekers want to work and will take jobs other Australians don’t want to do, report refugee agencies, but their visa conditions make work illegal.

Asylum-seekers do NOT take Australian jobs.

Refugees, once resettled in Australia, are Australia. So it is not possible to carry the argument they take Australian jobs. However, often just through lack of options, resettled refugees may tend towards low-paying and dirty/dangerous/degrading work, such as fruit-picking. If there should be anyone complaining about resettled refugees in Australia taking jobs, it might only be the Swedish backpackers on working holidays.

Myth 7: People from war torn countries cause problems

REALITY: According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, the number of settlers – people entitled to permanent residence, including people arriving in Australia on humanitarian programs – between July 2010 and June 2011 came from more than 200 countries and totaled 127,460.

Most were born in one of the following four countries:

• New Zealand (20.2 per cent)

• China (11.5 per cent)

• United Kingdom (8.6 per cent)

• India (8.3 per cent)

Myth 8: Refugees don’t assimilate or contribute

REALITY: Refugees have been coming to Australia for decades and the first big wave of boat people, from Vietnam in the 1970s, have proven to be successful migrants who have assimilated and added much to Australian society. After surviving perilous journeys by their courage and strength, these people epitomise the qualities admired and rewarded in Australian society.

Historically, refugees have contributed to the economic, civil and social fabric of Australian life and their success can be found in all fields of endeavour, and marked by their presence on the New Year and Queen’s birthday honours lists. If you care to do the research, you will find former refugees whose faces you definitely know, and admire.

Myth 9: Numbers are booming because Australia lacks tough border protection policies

REALITY: In 2007, the total population of asylum seekers, refugees and internationally displaced persons of concern to the UNHCR was estimated at 31.7 million people. By the end of 2011, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide exceeded 42 million and the number of asylum applications in 2011 was also the highest for almost a decade. The reason for the increase in numbers represents the upsurge in people affected by affected by war, military and social upheaval and human rights abuses, which is reflected in the fact Afghanistan continues to provide the most asylum seekers of any country in the world, with 36,600 last year, followed by the Syrian Arab Republic, Serbia, China and Pakistan.

According to the Refugee Council of Australia, “most people do not wish to leave their homes, families, friends and everything they know and hold dear. They do so as a last resort, to escape persecution and find safety and security for themselves and their families”.

The cost to Australian taxpayers of border protection – many billions of dollars per annum – far exceeds the cost to Australia of refugees. Border protection can never work as either a deterrent or a solution to border arrivals.

As border protection spending over recent years has increased dramatically, out of sight, border arrivals by both boat and plane continue to increase.

Myth 10: We can just turn the boats back

REALITY: Wherever they come from, most boat people ARE genuine refugees fleeing persecution and conflict. The boats aboard are often in poor condition, and turning them around will cause deaths among them.

And will do nothing to deter future embarkations. To assert that turning boats back deters further boats is simply demonstrating a complete lack of understanding for the nature of the issue.

Moreover, most boats arriving in Australia use Indonesia as a launching point for Australian waters. Indonesia’s president has indicated towing boats back into Indonesian waters is not an option.

It is also unlawful – not to mention immoral – for Australia to do it.