If I had to describe Mostafa Mesbahzadeh in one phrase, it would be: happiness on feet.
It was the first impression I had of him when I went to see him at his office in Kayhan one autumn afternoon in 1968 for the first time to ask if I could work for his English-language daily Kayhan International. That impression was confirmed, again and again, over more than three decades of working together and friendship that stood many tests, both at home and in exile.
Mesbahzadeh, universally known as “Aqaye Doktor” (Mister Doctor) stood out in a culture steeped in pessimism and the cult of sorrow. The Persian poet Shahriar had put it this way: Yes, our music is sad- Whatever is ours is sad!
Mesbahzadeh’s optimism, though atypical for an Iranian born in the first decade of the tumultuous 20th century, was, nonetheless, deeply affected by Persian mysticism. Many years later, he told me the story of how he had come to believe that he was meant to have a charmed life in exchange for his pledge to do as much good as he could while on earth.
It was a simple tale. Young Mesabahzadeh, standing for election to the Majlis Shuraye Melli (National Parliament) had been targeted for assassination by one of his rivals who had hired bandits to do the deed on the road from Bandar Abbas to Minab in southern Iran.
But, a few kilometres from where the bandits were lurking in the covert for their prey, the ramshackle vehicle in which Mesbahzadeh was travelling had to stop because a leopard was sleeping and snoring right in the middle of the road. As the driver and other passengers debated whether they should make some noise or even fire shots in the air to wake the animal up and have him clear the road, Mesabahzadeh intervened to calm things down.
“Would you like anyone to disturb your sleep?” he asked the driver and passengers. “Let the poor creature sleep!”
So, the leopard was allowed to rest, while the passengers had tea, told each other stories, and waited for several hours. By that time, the bandits and would-be assassins had concluded that Mesbahzadeh had cancelled his trip and would not be passing by that road. They decided to go away, allowing the young jurist, just back with a doctorate from Paris, to get elected to the Majlis, and start to build one of the most remarkable political and press careers in modern Iran.
Mesbahzadeh believed that the fact that we were endowed with life, the greatest gift from God or nature, was enough to keep us happy and optimistic.
Once he told me another of his secrets.
Every dawn as he woke up, he would look around to make sure that things were as they should be. The house had not crumbled, the city was not in flames, and the country had not been invaded. With the Scouts’ motto of “Be Prepared!”, he was also prepared for whatever the uncertainties of life might throw at him at any time. For more than a decade, for example, he always kept an overnight bag ready in case political opponents sent people to arrest him.
In a land located on the world’s most active earthquake belt and in a country that has experienced more invasions, revolts, dynastic wars and other upheavals than anywhere else on earth, the ” Be Prepared!” part of Aqyae Doktor’s philosophy was not misplaced. Even during the decade and half when Iran appeared to be stable under the Shah and reasonably content thanks to economic growth and social reform, Mesbahzadeh did not abandon his ” If anything can happen, it will!” motto.
What was one to do in a culture producing so many storm-bearing clouds?
Mesbahzadeh’s answer was right out of the great Persian poet Hafez: Equity towards friends, moderation towards foes!
Blessed by a nature that did not include an ounce of jealousy or envy, Mesbahzadeh rejoiced in the success of others, always using it as an impetus for greater effort on his own part.
Mesbahzadeh was also impervious to flattery, an old disease of societies that live with uncertainty.
On that, he told me another of his secrets. He always had a rosary in his pocket, not to pose as religious man as so many hypocrites did. He would start fingering the rosary as soon as anyone started showering him with flattery. He would touch every bid and repeat to himself in silence: Don’t be an ass! Don’t be an ass! (When he appointed me Editor-in-Chief of the Persian daily Kayhan, he gave me a similar rosary, which I still treasure, with the advice to count the beads each time anyone flattered me.)
Although Mesbahzadeh disliked the term self-made man, he was one on all accounts. (He believed that no man is self-made as he is created by God, supported by family and friends and affected by the conditions of time and place.) Born in a modest family in one of Iran’s most neglected regions in the Iranian deep south close to the Persian Gulf, he quickly discovered that there were only two fast lanes to social advancement in Iran of the time: joining the newly created army of Reza Shah or obtaining a cordon bleu foreign education.
Knowing that he was not one for the ranks, he decided to take the education lane. With great difficulty, he managed to get himself to Beirut where he obtained his first university degrees before moving to Paris, on a government scholarship, to do his doctorate in jurisprudence.
But, by the time he was back home and eager for work, Iran had been invaded and occupied by the Allies, and Reza Shah sent into exile in South Africa.
Having prepared himself for an academic career, Mesbahzadeh found himself exposed to the political currents of his time. The British were financing and, to some extent, inspiring a number of newspapers in Tehran while the Soviets exerted influence through more than a dozen dailies and weeklies published by the crypto-Communist Tudeh (Masses) Party and its allies, including the United Council of Workers, Iran’s best-organised trade union at the time.
Mesbahzadeh’s political mentor at the time was Abdul-Rahman Faramarzi, a lawyer and journalist who also hailed from the Persian deep south. Ten years older than his young protégé, Faramarzi was a key figure in a circle of patriots who worried about the future of Iran once the Second World War would come to an end. They saw attempts at secession in the provinces of Azerbaijan, Kurdistan and Khuzestan, mainly inspired by the USSR and Great Britain which, though allies at the time, regarded one another as rivals for influence in post-war Iran. The British also kept a tap on the Qashqai and Bakhtiari tribes in central and southern Iran, just in case there would be a repeat of the de facto partition of the country as had been discussed before World War I.
Together with Faramarzi, Mesbahzadeh decided that Iran needed a new newspaper that would stay outside the pro-British and pro-Soviet currents of the time and defend the principles of constitutional monarchy. But, where was the money for such a newspaper to come from? Having sold most of their few belongings, including a new American car that Mesbahzadeh had ” loved and cherished”, the duo had come up with nearly six million rials (some $50,000), including sums borrowed from friends and relatives. They needed another $50,000 or so. On the advice of a mutual friend, they decided to tap the young Muhammad Reza Shah who had succeeded his exiled father as monarch just over a year earlier. The young Shah had to dip into his savings and borrow from his mother, the dowager Queen, to come up with some four million rials, short of the sum required. ( Years later, Mesbahzadeh offered to repay the Shah’s loan, but was told that it had already been transformed into a gift!)
Because Mesbahzadeh was unable to produce the required legal documents to obtain a permit to publish a paper quickly enough, the application for the permit was made in Faramarzi’s name. So, when the first issue of the four-page daily appeared in February 1942, Faramarzi was named as Publisher and Mesbahzadeh as Editor. In reality, however, it was the other way round.
The name chosen for the new daily was Kayhan (The Universe) for two reasons. First, it was a pure Persian word, emphasising its patriotic tendencies. Second, it showed that it did not intend to be a parochial bulletin in a war-torn nation and would take an interest in international affairs.
In Tehran under foreign occupation, printing a newspaper was one thing, getting it distributed quite another. Kayhan immediately found out that the traditional network of newsvendors would not take it because of pressure from older publications. Nor did Kayhan have the network of militants that helped Tudeh sell its newspapers. Kayhan was also deprived of the subsidies that the Allies gave many newspapers by buying large numbers of copies for free distribution in government ministries, hotels and other public places.
The fact that of the 2000 copies of the paper originally printed each day more than two-thirds remained unsold in the first week or so did not discourage Mesbahzadeh and Faramarzi who believed that “Kayhan” was destined for greatness. It was when some of Mesbahzadeh’s students at university volunteered to sell the paper, that Kayhan found its own distribution networks. By the end of the academic year, Kayhan had achieved sales large enough to force the traditional distribution network to offer its services. Within a year, Kayhan had become one of the five dailies in Tehran with the widest circulations.
Kayhan’s success had many reasons.
One was the nationalistic stand it took by opposing the dismantlement of Iran by the Allies, calling for a speedy end to foreign occupation, and inviting Iranians to unite behind their king and constitution. Another reason for Kayhan’s success was that it attracted a large number of Iranian intellectuals who did not wish to join the political parties either of the left or the right. This made Kayhan the only newspaper in which people of virtually all shades of opinion were able to express themselves without keeping an eye on party lines or other political considerations.
“We had created a space of freedom when the nation needed it,” Mesbahzadeh said years later. But, perhaps, the most important reason for Kayhan’s success was Mesbahzadeh’s genius for understanding the basic fact of journalism that is covering news as objectively as possible. In that sense, Kayhan was the first paper in Iran to put “news” first.
The story of Kayhan’s success is too long to be told here. Suffice it to say that by the 1970s it had become the largest press group in the Middle East with an annual turnover of over $300 million. By the mid-1970s, the daily paper appeared in a minimum of 25 pages and an average of 48 pages with a maximum of over 100 pages, sustained by heavy advertising that reflected the nation’s economic boom. Daily sales that had averaged at around 200,000 in the early 1970s spiralled to almost a million by 1977, with four editions in Tehran and up to 14 editions in the provinces.
Over the years, Mesbahzadeh launched a number of other publications. These included Kayhan International, a daily in English, he weekly Kayhan Varzeshi (sports), Kayhan Farahangi (cultural), and Kayhan Bacheh-ha( children.) In the 1960s the group also produced a weekly for women, Zan-e-Ruz, an innovative publication aimed at women and reaching average circulations of over 250,000.
Mesbahzadeh was a passionate technophile, always looking for new ways of doing things. Thanks to that passion, in 1974 Kayhan became one of the first three newspapers in the world to introduce electronic composition, four colour printing, and satellite transmission of news photos. In many areas of press technology, Kayhan was a decade ahead of leading American and European newspapers. Having installed the most advanced printing presses in the country, Kayhan managed to win large contacts for producing school textbooks along with dozens of magazines issued by various government departments.
Mesbahzadeh always paid great attention to people who worked with him. And Kayhan was the first Iranian newspaper to offer its staff a living wage, thus ending a tradition under which journalism had been either a hobby or a night job for most journalists. Kayhan also invested in training its journalistic and technical staff to the highest degree. Dozens were sent to Europe and the United States for further education and hundreds were trained at the Faculty of Mass Communications set up and financed by Kayhan.
After the Islamic Revolution and the confiscation of Kayhan by the new regime, Mesbahzadeh decided to embark upon what he described ” a second youth”. After a couple of years in which he studied various options, including the purchase of a major British newspaper and a press group in the east coast of the United States, he decided that he could not take a path that would distance him from Iran. In the end, he decided to launch the weekly Kayhan in Persian, based in London, as a newspaper designed to provide an intellectual home for Iranians in the diaspora. A quarter of a century later, Kayhan of London remains a beacon of light for many Iranians both at home and abroad.
Dr. Mesbahzadeh is survived by his wife and life-long companion Forugh Ettehadieh , their two sons Iraj and Parviz and their daughter Nazanin, who all now live in California where he passed away on 24 November. END
Mostafa Mesbahzadeh: 1908-2006
Media pioneer, politician, business executive, and philanthropist.
* Amir Taheri who was Executive Editor-in-Chief of Kayhan from 1972 to 1979 will address a special memorial service for Mesbahzadeh in London on 17 December 2006.