When I was 5 years old and growing up in Iran, I once spent an entire weekend trying to decide whether the Shah went to the toilet. I sat at my small wooden desk, fist under chin, summoning all I knew about human anatomy and royalty, about God and the prophets.
It was the 1960s. By this time, over 20 years into his reign, the Shah's publicity machine had elevated him to the status of demigod. He had survived popular uprisings and assassination attempts, creating an illusion of invincibility and an air of holiness that apparently deluded even him. His name and image were everywhere: on the news at all hours, on the first page of every schoolbook, and on outdoor paintings and statues depicting him riding a horse, holding a child, and granting land to a farmer. On TV he wore brilliantly appointed uniforms with uncountable medals -- won in which war, I do not know -- and was surrounded by bowing and curtsying subjects, many wearing uniforms almost as glittery as his. They were usually in one of his many impressive palaces. These had such names as the Golestan (Palace of the Flowers), which held the Peacock Throne, or the Marble Palace, with its famous Hall of Mirrors. It was all quite surreal, as if transmitted from another world where the rules of physics and biology might not apply.
In those days, the prophet Mohammed and his descendants, the Shi'ite imams, were deemed too holy to be represented by human actors, so they were shown on television and in movies as bright rays of light that emanated reverberating baritone voices. I imagined that the blinding glitter of the Shah's presentation was a compromise, a halfway point to such holiness. He was part human, part bright light.
We had not a national anthem but a Shah-an-Shahi ("King of Kings") anthem, which began with "Our Shah-an-Shah, may you live long." At some point they changed a verse from "for a quarter of a century, you have been the King of Iran" to "for half a century, you have been the King of Iran." This change was wrought in that exaggerating Middle Eastern manner; it happened at about the 30th year of his reign, six or seven years before he was overthrown.
Our Pledge of Allegiance was no better. Every morning we assembled in the schoolyard in proper rows by class level and, led by an upperclassman, pledged our allegiance to "God, Shah, Motherland" in that order. Years later, I once inadvertently skipped Shah when leading the pledge and saw my teachers fidget. This kind of thing could result in a visit from the secret police, the dreaded Savak.
Given all this, I am proud that on that weekend many years ago, I concluded that the Shah relieved himself from time to time, and so did the Queen and the Crown Prince, even though this would have made them just too human.
Reza Shah (1878�1944), who was the father of the last Shah, sympathized with Nazi Germany. I don't know whether this was merely tactical or whether he held authentically Nazi beliefs, but because of Iran's strategic position he was forced out by the Allies early in World War II, sent into exile, and replaced by his 20-year-old son, Mohammad Reza. Reza Shah returned to Iran only after his death and was buried near Tehran beneath a grand mausoleum erected in his honor.
At some point during Reza Shah's reign it was "discovered" that Iranians were descendants of the Aryan race, who, on their way from Central Asia to Germany millennia ago, left an offshoot in the Middle East. As such, Iranians were racially different from -- and superior to -- the Semitic race, which included the neighboring Arabs. (I'm doubtful: The average Iranian looks more like his many Arab neighbors than he does any Germans I know.) Over the years, this idea took hold within the Iranian mainstream and is taught and debated to this day. In fact, a few years into his reign, the last Shah promoted himself to the title of Shah-an-Shah Arya-Mehr; roughly translated, it means King of Kings, Lover of Aryans.
We'd line up often in elementary school to march and sing nationalistic songs. And if you passed by the Nobakht (New Fortune) Elementary School near the Vali'ahd (Crown Prince) Circle sometime in the late 1960s, you might have found me, a little Jewish kid with huge brown eyes, thick black eyebrows, olive-colored skin, and a prominent nose, standing in military formation along with dozens of other little boys and girls, singing with fervor, no doubt a bit off-key, a beautiful nationalist song:
...We are the Aryans,
We will give our lives for the Motherland...
I went on my first military march at the age of 6. That year, schools organized children close in age to the Crown Prince Reza, who was named after his grandfather Reza Shah but never ascended to the throne, to march in the city's main stadium on the prince's birthday. As I was one year and 16 days younger than the Crown Prince, my parents were notified, and I have vague memories of getting fitted at the assigned tailor shop for my brown military uniform with gold buttons, shoulder tassels, and a large cap, and then going for a formal photo shoot another day. (I still have the picture, which shows me standing in a near-Napoleonic pose with one thumb inserted under my coat.) On the birthday, my classmates and I were excited as we were bused to march "in front of the Crown Prince," but we instead found ourselves, along with thousands of other children, in an empty stadium goose-stepping in front of a huge photograph of the young royal. (I suppose His Excellency was otherwise occupied.) According to my mother, I returned home dusty and sweaty and very tired, threw a temper tantrum, and tried to bite her arms.
I saw Crown Prince Reza in person a few years later at a soccer match between the Iranian and Australian national teams, where my father had got us seats under the Royal Box. I recall the Australian ambassador and his wife two rows in front of us; this section was reserved for dignitaries. Every third seat, however, was taken by young men in ill-fitting suits who did not look like dignitaries. They all seemed to know one another, and they had what looked like violin cases by their feet. By the time the Crown Prince and his entourage arrived and we stood for the pre-game Shah-an-Shahi anthem, I had figured out that they were the secret service and played at getting their attention. I stood erect for the anthem, slowly bringing one hand up from the side toward my belt as though to grab something, and watched my neighbor watch me from the corner of his eye with concern. As a teenager, I was clever but stupid.
At some point Iran scored and I looked behind at the box while jumping and shouting, and saw Reza do the same, fist pumping into the air, screaming "We scored! We scored!" He seemed smaller than I expected and looked like any other soccer-mad teenager.
Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, was said to be a fearsome and willful man, good for our "backward" country.
My grandfather, born in 1900, told me this story about him. Once Reza Shah passed, with his entourage, through a street in Tehran and noticed the absence of public toilets. He ordered the mayor to build a large facility "'by the end of the day, and I will return and hang you on the very spot if this is not done.' And that is how they built the toilets in one day," my grandfather would say with admiration.