Doostane Farsi Zabane Man

The Shah’s Son’s Suicide: Why the Pahlavi Dynasty Still Haunts Iranians

In Uncategorized on January 7, 2011 at 12:46 pm

When the Pahlavi monarchy was approaching its final days in power in Iran, I was playing with Cabbage Patch dolls in Cupertino, California, and thought my friends’ parents who worked for Apple ran an orchard. The diaspora community of Iranians around me talked politics incessantly, and I remember hearing vastly varied things about the Shah of Iran, who lost power in the 1979 revolution. Some of my relatives credited him with great feats, like transforming Tehran into a modern city; one elderly great-aunt kept a portrait of him and his wife, the Empress Farah, on her bedside table. Others called him a torturer, and avoided the Iranian man at the neighborhood pool with the Shah’s face tatooed on his shoulder. He was a former agent of the SAVAK, the Shah’s dreaded secret service, and he seemed to inspire a shadow of terror even in the California sunshine.

I grew up to study political science and work in Iran as a reporter, and managed to develop an adult understanding of the Pahlavi family’s role in Iranian history. But that mature knowledge co-exists with all the associations I absorbed as a child. Like so many Iranians, I find my feelings toward the Pahlavis a complex jumble of personal dreams and resentments, and the intensity of my emotions reminds me that they have as much to do with my past, my own family, and my relationship to history as the royal family itself. (See how Iran reacted to the suicide of the Shah’s son.)

The tragic suicide of Alireza Pahlavi, the Shah’s younger son, this week in Boston has stoked great feeling among Iranians everywhere. When I first heard the news, I felt an enormous sadness for the former empress Farah, who has endured more piercing losses in the course of a lifetime than most people could bear. The death of her by-then exiled husband from cancer, the 2001 suicide of her daughter Leila, and now the death of her youngest son. True, I had been feeling rather disappointed in Farah until that moment. She was all over the film Valentino: The Last Emperor that I’d seen the previous month, and I couldn’t help but wish that instead of just mingling with the fashion gliteratti of Europe, she would engage in thoughtful charity and be terribly glamorous at the same time – like Queen Rania of Jordan. (See pictures of the rise and fall of the Shah of Iran.)

I wondered to myself later why I felt so strongly about how Farah, 72, occupied herself in her elderly Parisian exile. Did it matter much to anyone, let alone Iran? I realized that part of why I cared so much was that she remained the lone figure in the Iranian First Lady department of my mind. We know next to nothing about the wives of the mullahs. Mrs. Khatami, Mrs. Ahmadinejad, who knows what they even look like, let alone how they spend their time and what they contribute to Iran. The clerical government of Iran denies Iranians a first family to grow up with – to admire, to envy, to criticize. We are left to feel our place acutely as outsiders to the clannish, insular fiefdom of the ruling mullahs, undeserving as citizens of even knowing their wives and children.

Perhaps that is why I continue to hold Farah and her family to such high standards. They continue to be the First Family of my imagination, a reflection of my fierce wish to be a part of what happens to Iran, to feel included in a country that no longer has a place for people like me. My expectations of them are oversized and my anger towards them is studded with the grievances against the Islamic Republic, as though they are to blame for the three decades of often brutal misrule that followed them.

Iranians these days cannot vent their political opinions in newspapers or on television, so they use the Internet as a forum to say all the things they so urgently need to express about their current plight. Reading the posts of young Iranians on Facebook and on the BBC Persian service’s website after the news of the suicide came out, I was struck by how so many young people who weren’t even born during the Pahlavi era were roused by Alireza’s death. Many expressed their sympathy in messages that were remarkable for their emotional and political maturity; they reminded me that living under dictatorship can make young people as wise as 40-year-olds in first world democracies.

Many were incensed that anyone might feel sympathy for a Pahlavi. These are the angry Iranians who have given up on the mullahs entirely, for the prospect of meaningful, peaceful change seems a chimerical notion, inconceivable for their generation. Their despair – over lives disfigured by economic blight, in which simple dreams like finding a job or getting married seem permanently out of reach – is so easily channeled into fury with the Pahlavis. It is as though they want to scream at them with the bitterness of children accusing a parent, “You let us down, you fumbled, it is all your fault.” It is almost a familial dysfunction: so many Iranians rushing like angry relatives at the chance to lay their anger at Iran’s fate at the feet of the Pahlavis, whose failure turned Iran over to the mullahs. Decades after the fall of the Shah, the clan remains a political acceptable target for so many painful feelings.

The family remains of great emotional relevance to Iranians. The Pahlavis themselves know that they stand no chance of being re-inserted into Iran politically, though they must more than suspect that their moments of personal grief will be reflected in monumental ways on the larger stage of the Iranian political imagination. Indeed, the initial statement by older brother Reza Pahlavi on his website starkly attributed Alireza’s suicide on the younger man’s despair over Iran – an all too blatantly political argument that only opened the family up to criticism. Certainly, the shattering fall of his father, and the dislocation of exile contributed to Alireza’s depression and pain. But just as surely any suicide in a depressed person arises when such anguish combines with intimate factors that emerge from that individual’s genealogy, biochemistry and medical history.

But the family changed tack. On Wednesday afternoon, I heard Reza Pahlavi speaking bravely and honestly about his brother’s battle with depression in television interviews. I felt an immense relief. His comments were nuanced and candid. They broke the Iranian cultural taboo against acknowledging mental illness, and underscored a point most Iranians everywhere can relate to: families suffer when torn apart. Thirty years after the Shah’s fall, the Pahlavis are no longer anyone’s enemy, and in their grief lies an opportunity to reach out across all those lines that divide.



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