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About the Author
Her memoir All the Shah's Horses has been well received.
Read an Excerpt
It was October 1978. The crowd inside the brand-new Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran, reputed to have cost $100 million, bubbled with excitement as it followed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Empress Farah through the elegant galleries.
For the artsy crowd around the Empress, most of them from the country's elite families, the Shah's presence was tantamount to imperial recognition because His Majesty had little or no interest in the arts or indeed anything cultural unless it was a tome or tableau heralding the monarchy. He reserved his public appearances for inaugurating or visiting industrial or military projects.
For the society crowd sporting a fortune in fur coats and another in jewels, this was the one place in the world anyone would want to be at that moment. A royal occasion in Tehran, even if it boasted only a princeling, was a glittering affair with half the town there. And when it was the Shah himself, the other half came too.
In addition, there was the added attraction of the presence of famous museum directors and figures from the arts scene in the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and other Western countries; they had flown in at the invitation of the Empress for the opening of the new museum, which was designed by her architect cousin, Kamran Diba.
One or two people at the opening even admired the paintings, which were acquired at great cost and ranged from Picassos to French Impressionists and more. Those local artists who were not featured prominently in the Iranian section tried to get their scorn for the display heard above the hubbub. But everyone was concentrating on the royal couple, waiting to applaud them as they approached the entrance to make their departure. The Shah was obviously deeply impressed. As he left, he turned to the officials gathered around, who included most of the ministers of his government, and said, "We must have more of these!"
To Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that's how it was. You decided you wanted something, and you ordered somebody to do it. It was not for him to worry about the hell the designers had gone through as they tried to equate the essence of traditional Iranian mud architecture with the requirements of a modern cultural facility. Nor did he need to care about the unimaginable hassle of dealing with Iranian builders as they tried to make the building take shape.
Had his wife not told him that the Ministry of Culture and Arts, headed by his brother-in-law Mehrdad Pahlbod, the husband of his elder sister, Princess Shams, had held up the visas for the international experts she had called in to advise on this and other projects? That in spite of Farah's exalted position in the land.
Did he not know that European art dealers had battled for so long to try to make a killing from the Empress's art buyers when they sought pictures for the museum over the previous several years? Some of their representatives were in the crowd gloating over the prospect of making more. Did the Shah not know just how much it had all cost in both effort and money? But then, $100 million was a mere bagatelle for a man who could decide at breakfast to spend another billion on arms purchases for his glorious military forces.
That remark when leaving the museum sums up the apparent weakness of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In spite of meeting so many top Western political and business figures, he was startlingly ignorant of the true nature of the modern world. In particular, he could not appreciate the way the changes he was making were inevitably demanding changes in his attitude to his fellow citizens. It was only a couple of years before his regime toppled that he even showed he had become aware that those fellow countrymen were not capable of learning to run sophisticated industries overnight. In his first-ever private interview with an Iranian journalist (he had received hundreds of foreign ones), he conceded his grandiose plans for Iran were going to take a little longer to complete than he had imagined.
Living in Iran for so many years, I had the constant sensation that it would take only a little bit to make ridiculous things sane. It could easily have been so different. So much was ridiculous whether it was the failure to instruct security men on big occasions or just the concession to elitism that turned what could have been a wonderful occasion for the public into a select party for the chosen few. He made speeches in the years after he married the down-to-earth Farah Diba, which made a lot of sense to those of us who heard or read them. For some reason, he didn't realize that his officials were not implementing things the way he said he wanted them.
The Shah enjoyed pontificating, but he showed precious little interest in going out and checking on the day-to-day needs of his flock. So his officials mostly didn't either. On many formal occasions that appeared on television, the Shah's arrogance was so evident. It was usually when he was inspecting or receiving alone. When Empress Farah was with him, he somehow became a different man. She seemed to give him a bit more confidence and humanity. He would smile more and look around him while she occasionally did the talking.
You only have to read his first book, Mission for My Country, to sense how his feelings had been blunted by his upbringing and his separation from ordinary Iranians. He talks of his marriages and his wives with the impersonality of a man talking about how he acquired a favorite automobile. Of his first wife, Princess Fawzia of Egypt, the sister of King Farouk, he wrote, "Up to that point I had never laid eyes on the girl. So it was arranged I should go to Cairo to see her. There we had about two weeks to become acquainted with one another." That was all. For Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, no other memories seemed to have remained of those two weeks getting to know a lovely young princess in the fairy-tale city that Cairo was in 1938.
With Soraya, the petulant beauty who seemed to have been a sad combination of the arrogance of the Bakhtiari tribal chiefs and the solidness of middle-class German society, he was a little more humane. People who knew them say he really did love this ravishing beauty who contrived to offend most of Iranian society's worthwhile establishments and the women in particular during her sojourn as empress. She was not averse to acidly telling women with ideas that she was the empress and she would decide on subjects of which she had no knowledge. She was heavy on protocol with other members of the royal family and managed to foster bad feeling among them all — and she had failed to produce an heir to the throne. The Iranian people who mattered were heartily fed up with her by the time the Shah yielded to pressure to divorce her.
If it had been the hand of God that made Soraya barren, the Shah could also thank the Almighty for bringing his third wife, Farah Diba, to his attention. She helped bring some sanity to his court and make development more human. In his book, the Shah wrote about her as if she were the daughter of a friend rather than someone intimately close to him. The details he gave smack of a memo sent to her private office: "Send five hundred words on Empress Farah for inclusion in His Majesty's book."
History will no doubt show how Farah Diba brought out the best of her husband's qualities and shaped so many of his ideas so that they were of practical value to his country. She was a rare bird as young Iranian women went. Like the Shah, she was comparatively uneducated, typical of how modern values are esteemed in the developing world. She had studied architecture in Paris, but she didn't complete her course after meeting the Shah. However, her education first at an Italian school, then by French nuns in Tehran, and followed by two years in Paris gave her solid grounding. Once the Crown Prince was born, Farah was established. When the oil boom came and development plans became a reality rather than just serious hopes of a ruler who felt he should be doing something, she got to work to make the Shah understand that development was meaningless unless it served the people.
All his utterances on previous big occasions had intimated that he thought development was for the glory of Iran and its monarchy. He began to make speeches with a different emphasis; he called on the people to take part in the building of a new Iran. At first, he still made it seem as if they should work for his glory as well as for that of the country, but gradually, he came around to telling the people that it was all for their personal good too.
Not that the Iranians really believed it. The Shah's remoteness from them made him completely unaware of their quite terrifying skepticism, a characteristic of Iranians that always surprised newcomers to their company whether at home or abroad. That underlying characteristic formed by a long history of heartrending cruelty and long periods of hopelessness encouraged even educated and wealthy Iranians who had profited excessively from the Shah's regime to turn to something new when it looked as if it might become stronger than the Pahlavi Dynasty.
Even the multimillionaires in Tehran believed that somebody else, the royal family and their connections especially, were profiting more than they were and that their wealth was due entirely to their cleverness in scraping a bit of treasure from the pile. They were to some extent right of course, but the Shah didn't realize that. He thought they should be kissing his hands and feet for making them prosperous. He must have thought: Don't those people, who are not yet rich, see that they will soon be prosperous the way things are going? Surely they could count the new industries and new jobs, compare their salaries with those of workers in neighboring countries, and realize how fortunate they were and what luxuries the future had in store.
When Empress Farah made her famous speech about sycophancy in which she explained how the royal family was unimpressed by streets named after them and the statues that littered the country, the Shah no doubt smiled knowingly to himself when her lecture produced only a new rush to name things for him. If you were important, you expected sycophancy; if you were unimportant, you were expected to give it — it is essential to understand that if you want to begin to understand Iranians. Once a man is on the downward path, you can equally show him no mercy; you help him go down faster. The ability of the opposition outside Iran to understand this better than the Shah did enabled it to turn virtually the whole Iranian nation against him.
Sadly, the competitive, jealous nature of the officials around the Shah led him to grow thoroughly bored with the tales of inefficiency and ill doing that were brought to him. People became afraid to tell him anything of the raw truth. "To Reza Shah, his father, one was afraid to tell a lie; to the present Shah, one is afraid to tell the truth," was a saying one heard frequently.
As an employee of the Imperial Court at the Imperial Stables at Farahabad, which was southeast of Tehran and where the Shah and other members of the family came to ride, I was able to observe him when he was not in the official spotlight. He would usually helicopter in and then be driven the couple of hundred yards to the stable area, where he would mount up and gallop off. He wouldn't ride a horse unless it would jig and prance and look difficult to ride.
He came to ride at irregular intervals until the end of January each year, when this man who was so busy receiving heads of states and dealing with endless problems would suddenly begin to find time to ride frequently. It was a determined effort to get fit to ensure he could be seen to advantage during his Now Ruz, or Persian New Year vacation, when he and the empress received a lot of distinguished guests on the lovely little Persian Gulf island of Kish just off the coast of southern Iran. Every year, the Shah had sixteen horses, a foreign vet, and grooms flown to this paradise, which he planned to turn into the Monte Carlo of the Middle East.
He and his family stayed at a swish little palace he had built there; it was a little away from the villa and hotel development designed to lure millionaires from the play spots of the world for brief winter vacations. Life during the ten days he and his party were there consisted of tennis, diving, swimming, and of course partying as well as riding. He usually rode with his guests in the cool of the morning and the shadows of the late afternoon. A ride meant galloping hell bent for leather along the coral sand beaches; the Shah delighted in outriding his guests. They had had no special preparation for this diversion anyway and so were mostly out of condition. The Shah would gallop until he found his companions wilting. Then he would pull up and laughingly ask why they were panting or perspiring so much. This was the same man who tried to show such a responsible image on the world scene when dealing with political affairs.
It didn't seem to have occurred to him that the people of Iran would resent his plan to turn Kish into a pleasure island project run by a court-owned company. "But it's our island, not his," people often told me. "It's part of our national possessions." The island has links with the story of Dick Whittington of children's story fame according to literary men. The character was based it is said on a badly treated, poor young man from the Persian Gulf port of Siraf, who in the heyday of this coastal region in early Muslim times sailed to India with his cat to seek his fortune. In India, he met a king whose palace was overrun by mice. The young man put his cat to work and cleared them out. The king was so grateful that he generously rewarded his benefactor, who then sailed back to the Persian Gulf and founded the port of Kish to take away the business of his former hardhearted Siraf taskmasters.
Kish had reverted to a small fishermen's village when the court planners came down to assess its potential as a resort. The Shah and his family had spent much of their leisure time and money in the south of France and the casino resorts of Europe, so that was that model that appealed to them. They built their casino and sumptuous villas, imported topless bar girls, let out duty-free shop concessions to their relatives and friends, and took generous cuts out of all the contracts.
Empress Farah, who had originally been interested in the development of the project as a benefit to the islanders, made one of her rare errors of judgment when she consented to fly down to Kish on an Air France Concorde with a team of models for a fashion show and other publicity. She was no doubt under pressure from French contacts who helped her in other domains to give this new moneymaking venture a boost. The ordinary Iranians saw in that the worst excesses of the court people. The prices to fly to the island on special flights and accommodations were astronomical.
I first saw the Shah at close quarters when I was asked to be on the jury for the Aryamehr Cup, the annual show-jumping competition he sponsored; it was held at the Imperial Stables in the early autumn. I had arrived at the venue two hours early as I had been told to. There was much helicopter activity on the helipad for an hour before his arrival. There were SAVAK (secret police) guards sitting in every few seats; I was told they had been there since sunrise.
It was quite a spectacle to see the Shah, the Shahbanou, and the royal children arrive. About ten minutes before the show was to commence, the whirr of the helicopters was heard and what looked like two huge, blue and white dragonflies hovered and landed. Into the ring came the Shah and the Shahbanou riding in an antique landau pulled by four beautiful white horses. Following a few meters behind was another carriage pulled by four black steeds and carrying the royal children and their nanny.
We members of the jury were lined up along the red carpet laid out for the royal party to walk on before entering the royal box. I had not believed it when people told me the Shah had a special aura about him, but I felt it that day as he passed and looked into my eyes. Following the completion of the competition, he again passed the jury members, shaking hands with each of us. I was awestruck.
When I was officially working for the Imperial Court, I would see him often when he came to ride or just see his horses. He had bought a group of horses in Germany for his imperial servants to ride and to pull the carriages. He wanted to become international in every way including in show jumping. He liked to come to see the horses jump, and on those afternoons, I would be on call to put on a little training show for him. The master of his horses for whom I worked always told me, "Don't make a mess of it." It had to look as perfect as possible; that's how the Shah liked it, and that's how his minions had to have it. And that's the way it was.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Iran from Crown to Turbans"
Copyright © 2018 Gail Rose Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of Xlibris.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
PART I. The Crown,
Chapter 1 The Shah, 1,
Chapter 2 Iran's Black Panther and Siblings, 18,
Chapter 3 The Empress, 29,
Chapter 4 The Prime Minister, 51,
Chapter 5 Two Generals and the Master of the Horse, 57,
Chapter 6 Tehran's Social Scene, 75,
Chapter 7 Life as an Expat, 82,
Chapter 8 The Diplomatic Scene, 100,
Chapter 9 Nationalities and Religions, 105,
Chapter 10 Iranian Men, 113,
Chapter 11 Women, 120,
Chapter 12 The Drug Scene, 135,
Chapter 13 The World of the Press, 151,
Chapter 14 Industry, 162,
Chapter 15 The Last Days, 175,
The Shah, 187,
Casualties of the Shah and the Revolution, 193,
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, 195,
PART II. Turbans,
Chapter 1 The Revolution, 201,
Chapter 2 The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, 207,
Chapter 3 The Fate of the Shah's Generals and Officials, 212,
Chapter 4 The Iran-Iraq War, 221,
Chapter 5 Escaping Iran, 229,
Chapter 6 Death of Khomeini, 237,
Chapter 7 The Presidents, 241,
Chapter 8 Iran's Nobel Prize, 247,
Chapter 9 Other Women of Note, 259,
Chapter 10 The Business World, 278,
Chapter 11 Return to Iran, 284,
Chapter 12 The Horse World, 292,
Chapter 13 Dor Dor Bazi, 310,
Chapter 14 Places of Interest, 324,
Chapter 15 Iran Today, 338,