Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Last Shah's Penultimate Birthday: October 26, 1978

I am in the process of revising my memoir, Phantom Iran, which is about life in Iran during the political turmoil of 1978-79, when the Islamic Revolution was brewing.  Today I am posting part of a chapter from the memoir which describes an event that occurred exactly 36 years ago:

Thirty-six years ago, in the fall of 1978, I was an American graduate student doing research in Iran during a time of frequent anti-Shah protests.  One of these protests, on October 26, 1978, was the day of Mohammad Reza Shah’s sixty-ninth birthday.

I remember seeing photos of the Shah and his third wife, Farah Diba, perhaps when Life magazine covered his 1967 coronation.  To me, the two Persian royals appeared dignified and glorified, he in gilded military regalia, she swathed in jewels, both draped with gold-embroidered cloaks.  Farah Diba’s green velvet cape, with its extended train, was embellished with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds.  On their heads rested crowns heavy with gemstones.  Between them stood the seven-year-old Crown Prince Reza. 

Coronation of Mohammad Reza Shah, October 25, 1967

This official coronation occurred twenty-six years after Mohammad Reza Shah had taken over the throne from his father, Reza Shah, during World War II.  The Allied forces, afraid that Reza Shah’s policy of neutrality during the war made Iran too close to the Nazis, forced him to abdicate in 1941.  Mohammad Reza, then just 22, became the monarch of Iran.

During his opulent 1967 coronation, Mohammad Reza Shah took the title “Shahanshah” (King of Kings) for himself.  He rendered its translation in English as “emperor.”  The Shah designated Farah Diba—his other two marriages had ended in divorce because the wives did not produce a male heir—the “Shanbanou,” or Empress.  He also had himself referred to as “Aryamehr”—“Light of the Aryans.”

The Shah enjoyed being the center of opulent pageantry, the most pompous of which took place in 1971 to celebrate 2500 years of Iranian monarchy, from the rule of Cyrus the Great of the 6th century BCE to his own sovereignty in the 20th century.  The Shah invited world leaders to a hundred million dollar lavish festival held from October 12 -16 at a 160-acre tent city created at Persepolis, the ancient capital of Iran’s Achaemenid dynasty (550-330 BCE).   French chefs prepared exotic dishes for the guests, who ate off Limoges china and drank from Baccarat crystal.  The villagers in the vicinity lived in mud-brick huts without electricity or running water.

Tent at Persepolis tent city

Parade in front of Persepolis 1971

By October 1978 anti-Shah political turmoil was spreading, and the Shah realized that public ceremony celebrating his birthday that year was imprudent.  Gatherings to glorify him had been revoked.  Instead, the Shah said he would contribute money meant for his birthday festivities to the 2,000 survivors of a 7.8 earthquake that had occurred six weeks earlier in the town of Tabas.  That earthquake had devastated the town and killed 15,000 people.

Tehranis I spoke to that week in 1978 had anticipated trouble on the Shah’s birthday.  Demonstrations, many said.  Overthrow of the Shah, some professed.   Formation of a constitutional monarchy, others hoped.  I didn’t know what to expect.

I was staying in central Tehran at the hostel of the American Institute of Iranian Studies, whose function was to help American academics with some of the bureaucratic entanglements they inevitably encountered. The hostel compound, which was an old house and yard surrounded by a high wall, was located across the street from the Institute’s main building where the Institute’s director lived.

By 9 AM the morning of the Shah’s birthday young men were marching near the American Institute’s hostel, bellowing "marg bar shah" (death to the Shah) and denouncing the kharaji and farangi, two terms meaning "foreigner."  Sometimes the demonstrators ran down the alley in front of the Institute.  Even boys ten or eleven years old joined in.  The four of us staying in the hostel took turns watching through a large keyhole in the door of the compound’s wall.  Helicopters flew low, as if spying or poised to shoot.
The young men we watched from the peephole were protesting against the Shah.  They were not rallying for an Islamic state.  They wanted the Shah out of power, and some wanted him dead.  The Shah had been a dictator for decades, loved by some, hated by many.  His autocracy emerged in 1953, twelve years after he had taken over the title from his father.  At that time his popular prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, had nationalized the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.  This action pleased the Iranian public.  The British and Americans, though, were furious at having lost their control over Iranian oil.  They ousted Mossadegh in a coup d’état in August 1953.  After the coup, the Shah’s rule became more imperious.  His CIA-trained secret police, Savak, imprisoned and tortured thousands of political dissidents. 

By ten thirty that morning the director of the Institute entered the hostel compound.

“Don’t go outside,” he warned as he walked in.  “Soldiers are everywhere.”  He sat down with the four of us in the courtyard.  He folded his hands, rested them on the metal table, and continued.  “Apparently, the demonstrators knew the soldiers were coming.  They moved cars into the street to block them.  But the army materialized some vehicle that could lift the cars and put them down by the side of the road.”  He looked at us as if he were waiting for a response, but none of us said anything.  “Okay, just stay inside the compound,” he cautioned.  Then he left.
We heard gunshots.  Demonstrators and soldiers raced through our neighborhood.  My heart was pounding so loudly that I feared the demonstrators could hear it and would demand to be let into the courtyard.
By two in the afternoon everything was quiet.  I wanted to use the Institute’s phone in the main building to call friends of mine who lived in a northern Tehran neighborhood to find out what happened there.  Bob, an archeologist staying at the hostel, decided to join me.
I wrapped myself in the black chador that I had bought on my first trip to Iran in 1975.  My right hand held the chador clinched around my chin.  With my hair covered, my body concealed, and my face exposed, I opened the hostel’s metal door two inches, then pushed it wide enough to stick my head out.  I saw no protesters on the street.  Three young men were talking to each other several houses away.  Garbage bags were piled outside the door of the American Institute waiting to be picked up. 

Bob and I crossed the street.  In less than no time, the three young men were standing next to us.  They lit matches and set the garbage on fire.  I rang the Institute’s doorbell, once, twice, three times.  No one answered.  My knees were shaking.  I felt weak.  I was perspiring.
I was wearing a chador, but my American sandals were showing and they were flat with thick straps—a good-for-walking style, the type that no Iranian woman would wear in 1978. 
One of the men lit a paper bag.  He thrust it so close to my face that its heat tingled my skin.
"Come, lady...come, lady...come, lady..." he taunted in Farsi.
My feet were barely holding my body upright.  Sweat soaked me.  My hand trembled as I pressed the doorbell again.
At last the Institute's director peeked out the door.  We rushed in, pushed him out of our way, and slammed the gate behind us, leaning on it to make sure it was shut.  The director stared at us.
“Sorry about that,” he said.  “ We didn’t see you, and we didn’t hear the doorbell.”  He led us into the dining room.  “We were on the third floor watching what was going on in the streets.”    
He made me a lime vodka drink with the refreshing tart lime juice particular to Iran.  I sipped it, relished it, needed it to calm my pounding heart and the intense disquietude I felt.  In spite of Islam's taboo on alcohol, pre-revolutionary Iran had decent vodka.
By four in the afternoon, tranquility permeated central Tehran.  In the early evening Bob and I walked to Govinda's, the local Hare Krishna joint, for dinner.  How strange—on that birthday, that day of riots—to smell the incense and the mélange of Indian spices, and to talk to English-speaking Hindu-practicing Western waiters dressed in saffron robes.  After dinner we strolled back to the Institute.  Stores were open.  Men, women, and children were walking on the streets, talking, smiling, and laughing.  It was as if nothing at all had happened that day.

©Karen Lee Pliskin, Ph.D.


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