According to time-honoured tradition, fairy tales have an ordinary, not to say drab beginning, a middle full of horrible events, and a happy end. One favourite theme is the transformation of a plain, often suffering girl, into a princess, and, even, a frog into a prince.
Farah Pahlavi’s story could have been one such fairy tale. The only child of a middle class Iranian family, she was chosen, one might say by fate, to become the Queen of Persia and Empress of Iran.
Her life story, however, is the reverse of a fairy tale. All the happy events are in the beginning with the horrible ones coming in the middle. The ending is ordinary, not to say drab.
Farah”s book starts with a fast-paced narrative of her childhood in the chaotic days that followed the Second World War during which Iran was invaded and occupied by the Allies. By 1945 when the Allies withdrew their forces from Iran, the defeated army had emerged as the only Iranian institution capable of reuniting the nation. That army’s symbol was Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the 26-year old Crown Prince who had succeeded his father Reza Shah as the new King of Kings (Shahanshah). Farah recalls how average Iranian families, like hers, looked at the young Shah with a mixture of awe and admiration. The fact that Farah’s father, who died in her childhood, had been an army officer may well have reinforced that vision of the young Shah.
What few people knew at the time was that the new Shah’s private life was in disarray. He had been forced to marry Fawziah, an Egyptian princess and a great beauty, as part of a political arrangement made by his father Reza Shah. The marriage had produced one daughter, Princess Shahnaz, but had not solidified relations between the young couple. Many who knew the Shah and Fawzia at the time were convinced that their marriage would not last.
Farah, however, could not have known that. At the time she was a seven-year old girl, just starting her education at a school in Tehran ran by French Catholic nuns. It was not until 12 years later that Farah married the Shah. In between the Shah had had another unhappy marriage with an Irano-German beauty named Soraya Esfandiari-Bakhtiari.
There is no doubt that the Shah loved both Fawzia and Soraya passionately. Fawzia, however, had always hated living in Iran and never warmed up to her arranged marriage. As for Soraya, her failure to produce an heir to the Peacock Throne was a major handicap that the Shah could not ignore. It was with the utmost reluctance that the Shah, pressed by the politicians, agreed to divorce Soraya.
The search for a new wife for the Shah lasted more than a decade with dozens of candidates entering the field and leaving it. These included the Italian princess Gabriella, the Hollywood film star Grace Kelly who, later married Prince Rainier of Monaco, and half a dozen Persian beauties from local aristocratic families. But the Shah, still broken-hearted, would not be moved. By the time Farah appeared on the scene as a possible wife for the Shah, many had concluded that the monarch, then aged 40, would not marry again. But as we know, he did.
Farah narrates her first encounters with the Shah with just the right measure of intimacy and distance. And, in this reviewer’s view, those parts provide the best sections of the memoirs. It is not difficult to see why the Shah was first intrigued and then won over by Farah’s beauty and, more importantly perhaps, unself-conscious simplicity. It was the first time that the Shah was choosing a mate for himself. It was also the first time that he was encountering an independent minded, responsible and disciplined middle-class Iranian girl.
At the time of the encounter Farah was a student of architecture in Paris, looking forward to a professional career in Iran’s building industry, then at the beginning of an historic boom. Aged 19, she had not thought of marrying anyone, let alone the Shah. But, so it seems, the old boy managed to seduce her, not with his big job as king or his lofty titles, that included “The King of Kings”, and “The Focus of Universe”, but with his warmth and humanity. Although twice the age of Farah, the Shah appeared to his future queen as fragile, even vulnerable; someone she needed to cuddle and protect.
Farah devotes nearly a quarter of the memoirs to the happy events that, in fact, represent a brief episode in her 20 years as queen. It is as if she wants to recapture those fleeting moments, to suck the lost drop of their taste. In psychiatry this is known as acute nostalgia.
The middle part of the book in which Farah relates her many activities as queen is the most disappointing section of the book. She either tells too much about matters of little or no importance, or tells too little about matters that did really matter.
More than any other woman in contemporary history, Farah had the occasion to meet world leaders over two decades. And, yet ,nothing of note emerges in her narrative of those encounters. All we get is an avalanche of cliches, as if Farah were still the queen and obliged to use diplomatic double-talk. Apart from Anawar Sadat, who receives much deserved praise for playing host to the dying Shah and his family, Farah does not tell us which foreign leaders betrayed the Shah and which remained loyal to him to the end. The reader has to read between the lines to catch a glimpse of what Farah feels about the many kings , presidents and prime ministers who had courted, flattered and used the Shahs favours before abandoning him in his hour of need.
We catch a glimpse of Farah’s bitterness in the chapters she devotes to the Shahs final odyssey in the United States. Farah’s narrative shows that anyone who thinks that a superpower would be prepared to sacrifice its interests for the sake of friendship is a fool.
The Shah had been a friend and ally of the United States at least since the mid-1950s. In fact, the main point of attack against him by his many political enemies was that his regime had become part of an American global network to dominate the world. In 1979 the US did not have a closer ally and friend than the Shah. At the same time the Shah had cultivated, and often bought, the friendship of many influential Americans over the years. He had helped finance the election campaigns of presidents, senators, Congressmen and governors over some three decades. He had bribed American journalists- often with expensive gifts of caviar, Persian carpets, gold watches and luxury holidays- and feted the so-called television personalities during their visits to Tehran. The Shah had collected honorary doctorates from 22 American universities, including all the most famous ones. American business tycoons, bankers, and even movie stars, were among his personal friends.
All along the poor Shah had believed that he had received all that attention and honour for his own sake, presumably because he was a great intellect or a fount of wisdom. He had not realised that he had bought all that with money, just as anyone else could.
In his hour of need, however, the Shah quickly realised that he had virtually no American friends.
Forced into exile and hosted by Anwar Sadat in Cairo, the Shah, dying of cancer, needed medical treatment not available in Egypt. Both Britain and France rejected his soundings out about a visa. He had to turn to the US.
The Carter administration, too, was at first reluctant to issue a visa to the Shah. Fearing that the Shah might die and that his death might be blamed on him, Carter agreed to issue a three months visa on humanitarian grounds.
But, as Farah relates in graphic terms, everything was done to make the Shah feel as unwelcome in the United States as possible. He was asked to go straight to New York Hospital and not to leave his room except for medical purposes within the hospital. None of his American friends called or sent flowers. And the police refused to prevent anti-Shah demonstrators from shouting death threats and beating drums under his hospital room window all night long. The hospital staff, too, were hostile. Having watched television, which at the time showed the seizure of the American hostages in Tehran, they saw the Shah as a despot who had caused trouble for himself and the United States.
But the worst was yet to come. Engaged in secret negotiations with the Khomeinist mullahs in Iran, the Carter administration agreed to turn the Shah into a virtual prisoner in exchange for the release of American hostages in Tehran. The Shah and Farah were suddenly told that they had to leave New York for an unknown destination. They were flown to an air base in San Antonio, Texas, where the Shah was thrown into a tiny , windowless room, while Farah was shoved in a room with a door that could not be opened from inside. The couple were informed that they would have to leave the US as soon as another country was prepared to let them in.
Farah’s narrative of the 18-months odyssey, during which the Shah moved from Egypt to Morocco, the United States, Mexico, Panama, and then back to Egypt, is especially effective because she never allows her bitterness to come to the surface. Suffering with dignity is always a sign of great spirits, and Farah certainly has that.
Where Farah is less than sincere is in her account of Iranian politics under the Shah. She is trying to appropriate all the credit for the Shah, and herself, for the many things that did go well, while putting the blame for what did not go well on politicians, bureaucrats and court minions. She pretends that the Shah had no knowledge that torture was used in Iranian prisons against political prisoners. This is certainly untrue. In a centralised system like that of Iran under the Shah, it was impossible that he would not be informed on so sensitive an issue.
In fact, torture was stopped in 1976 when the Shah, in circumstances that cannot be related here, ordered its end.
Farah also refuses to admit that , in the last decade of his rule, the Shah had distanced himself from his people while pursuing the illusion that he could play a global role. In the final years he hardly travelled inside Iran. People always saw him on state visits abroad where he rubbed shoulders with foreign dignitaries. Tehran in those years looked like the hub of international politics. Hardly a day passed without some foreign leader dropping in for an official visit. Among them were the presidents of the United States, the USSR, China, France, and Germany, and the prime ministers of Japan, India, and Britain. The glitterati, too, came in droves. Famous writers, film stars, composers, artists and business tycoons made sure to call at least once a year.
They all paid court to the Shah, flattered him, and , knowingly or unknowingly, helped inflate his ego. The result was that the Shah began to feel that Iran’s miserable, petty problems were just too small for his lofty attention. Over the last 10 years he gave scores of interviews to foreign media, and only two to an Iranian journalist. In one of those interviews he said : Thank God we have no problems in our own country. Thus we can help other nations solve their problems!
Hubris is always dangerous. It becomes deadly when it affects a basically good man. And the Shah was a basically good man. An evil man would not have been so naive as to believe his own propaganda.
One feature of Farah’s memoirs could be regarded either as a strength or a weakness. It is the space she gives to medical reports written by Professor Georges Flandrin, one of the Shah’s French doctors. The reports provide the first compete account of the Shah’s illness that had started in the mid-1970s but had been kept secret even from Farah. The average reader might find the reports boring and their technical language often inaccessible. Students of history, however, would appreciate the reports because they narrate the entire process that led to the Shah’s death at Cairo military hospital.
The final chapters of Farah’s memoirs read like reportages from Hello magazine. They depict a featureless life in which the ex-Empress tries to console herself with her grandchildren. The tragic death of her youngest daughter, Princess Leila, provides a moment of drama. Otherwise, life goes on- a life of pain and exile, punctuated by brief flashes of hope that one day, perhaps, she may see Iran again.