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STYLE & CULTURE

A widow's look at a shah's legacy

Whatever the world may think of Iran's former royal family, its onetime queen has a different tale to tell.

March 10, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

History used to be written by the victors. To the growing literary canon penned by history's losers, add the new memoir by Farah Pahlavi, the widow of the ousted shah of Iran.

"An Enduring Love: My Life With the Shah" is not a dishy, inside-the-palace expose with the kind of tidbits served up by the clandestine Saudi princess or Osama bin Laden's sister-in-law. It wasn't smuggled out of the gender underground of "The Bookseller of Kabul" or "Reading Lolita in Tehran."

There are no confessions of such titillating details as the fate of the billions of dollars that some historians say the shah spirited out of Iran when he fled in 1979.

But for anyone who watches monarchies crumble and dictatorships deconstruct and wonders What Were They Thinking, Pahlavi does provide an insular, reverential view of what novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez calls the "solitude of power."

Why now? Pahlavi clearly believes that Islamic fundamentalism has made the Iranian monarchy look good.

"Iranian people compare what they had before and what their country has become," says Pahlavi, still a chic woman at 65, her telephone voice deep and smoky from an unnamed "bad habit" -- presumably smoking. "Now Iran is a center of international terrorism and fundamentalism."

Fostering change for her 70 million compatriots back in Iran has become her raison d'exile, says Pahlavi, who splits her time between residences in Paris and Potomac, Md.

"From morning to night I am busy," Pahlavi says, in her accented English. "To be their voice, especially for the Iranian women who are suffering so much under this regime. To be the voice of so many Iranians."

To some, Pahlavi may seem an unlikely spokeswoman.

Pahlavi was 21 when she married Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in December 1959. She wore a 5-pound tiara designed by jeweler Harry Winston. Parisian stylists flew in to fix her hair.

The shah's previous two marriages, Pahlavi recalls, had notoriously failed to provide him with an heir. Pahlavi says Iranians like her were moved by "the despair that descended" on the shah's marriage to his second wife, Soraya, "the anguish Soraya felt at not being able to give the king -- and the queen mother -- the heir they hoped for," and the sadness of their divorce.

Pahlavi asked her royal dressmakers to sew a blue hem onto one dress "so that the good fairies would at last give the king the son he so desired." When their son Reza was born 11 months later, the shah ordered a 21-gun salute.

"People were laughing and crying," she writes. "There was dancing in the streets of Tehran." There were other sentiments at large, of course. And providing a royal heir was not first and foremost on the minds of all Iranians.

But if Pahlavi resists being spun as Cinderella, her book casts the complex geopolitical drama she shared with the shah as something of a tragic fairy tale. She downplays human rights abuses of the era, suggesting anti-shah protesters splashed themselves with sheep's blood, rather than the blood of fellow protesters, and she mostly defends the shah's hated secret police, the SAVAK, calling one SAVAK chief "a man of great culture, intelligence and humanity."

"The SAVAK had to keep the security and stability of the country," Pahlavi says. "It was during the Cold War. The Soviets always dreamed of reaching into the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. Many of the [shah's] opposition were trained in Lebanon and Cuba."

"At the same time, there were maybe excesses that were wrong and not defendable," she says. "But then again, there was always a lot of exaggeration."

Her book gives short shrift to a key chapter in Iranian history. Seven years before the birth of her first son, in 1953, the shah had been more firmly ensconced in his throne by a CIA-orchestrated coup against the popular, democratically elected Iranian prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, who had planned to nationalize the Iranian oil industry.

Many analysts blame the coup -- "Operation Ajax" to the CIA -- for setting the stage for the events that led to the Iranian revolution, and for providing kindling for an eventual firestorm of regional religious fascism and terrorism.

"It is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax through the shah's repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York," writes Stephen Kinzer in "All the Shah's Men."

In her memoir, Pahlavi has a slightly different take on the 1953 coup.

"At last the news that [the prime minister's] house has been destroyed," she writes. "The next day the king returned to Tehran to great applause."

And six years later, while studying architecture in Paris, Pahlavi met the shah at a reception, and, after a whirlwind courtship, he proposed.

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