Where the Shah Went Alone

Meditations on a life under tyranny


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.

My grandfather valued order, cleanliness, and the rule of law above all else. He was born and raised in a provincial town in the mountains of western Iran, at a time when ethnic conflicts, government corruption, religious intolerance, and western colonial dominance made daily life a risky venture. He ran away from his home in the Jewish ghetto at 16 to go to Baghdad, then a commercial center, was robbed down to his underwear in the frozen winter, returned home humiliated, and ran away again. For a while he took jobs as a driver or mechanic for the British. Then he met my grandmother, married, and settled again in his provincial birthplace, where he worked as a driver for many years before starting a truck parts business.

Once, when he was a young man delivering a car to Tehran, he encountered a crowd blocking the road. He forced the car through the crowd, inch by inch, until he found himself at the center of the gathering face to face with Reza Shah himself.

"What are you doing, man?" the Shah asked my grandfather.

"Delivering an automobile, Your Excellency," my grandfather replied in his deep Kurdish accent. Then he bowed.

The Shah laughed and waved him through. "He knew I was just an uneducated provincial driver," explained my grandfather. "He was a fair man."

I imagine when one has grown up where highway-men rob you naked in midday, where the government has been corrupt and randomly lawless for generations, where foreign powers come and go, where religious persecution is the unquestioned routine, one craves order, security, and clarity about the consequences of one's actions. And so a Reza Shah or even a Mussolini or Stalin are accepted and admired in their own time, and wistfully remembered by the old once they are gone and the land has settled back into its ancient and familiar chaos.

As a child, I could not make sense of the social structure in Iran, whose elements were personally beneficial to me in some ways but not in others.

Growing up, I found that it was good to be the son of a doctor, of a professor, of people of relative comfort. In fact, it was good to be a son. It was also good to be apolitical, as we were.

It was not good to be Jewish or Baha'i, or Christian or Zoroastrian. (We did not know of any other options.) I felt that being Christian (mostly Armenians and the rumored-
to-exist-but-never-seen Assyrians of western Iran) was better. They were not mocked by friends, avoided by strangers, or put down by teachers as we Jews were. (That didn't happen often in my family's protected circle, but once or twice in a lifetime is enough.) Armenians seemed jolly people. They sang and danced, had fun accents, owned most of the delis in town, and sold liquor. I remember thinking that Zoroastrians were not so badly off either. Their population, at least in Tehran, seemed small enough for them to be considered a relic of the nation's 3,000-year-old fire-worshipping past. (I imagined their children placing the dead bodies of their parents atop mountains to be devoured by vultures, as Zoroastrians were said to do. It seemed very cool.)

My mother admonished us not to go out on Ashura, the day of mourning for a Shi'ite imam killed at the dawn of Islam. If we did go out, we were not to wear red, smile, let it be known that we were Jewish, or eat in public. To my child's mind, this had no internal logic. Here was a holiday where throngs come to the streets tearing at their clothes and beating their bodies with such passion and ferocity that the uninitiated passerby might easily think they were mourning the recent death of a loved one, not that of the innocent son of Ali 14 centuries earlier. All we knew as children was that being Jewish plus wearing red plus Ashura equaled certain death, or at least a beating.

I first noticed dissent in my early teens. At an aunt's wedding, following the rabbi's flowery invocations for the health of the Shah, a family friend refused to say "amen." He did so quietly, without making a point of it, and only my mother and I noticed because we stood beside him. I was 13.

The next year I spent some summer weeks in a small British fishing village. I was supposed to study English, but mostly I ditched class and took the train to London with my Iranian classmates. (What liberating discoveries these were, both the trains and the freedom from parental oversight.) During one trip to central London, I was horrified to see "Death to the Shah" graffiti on public buildings, in Persian and English. I recounted these to my English family that night, nearly in tears. Until then I had known of no overt dissatisfaction with, and no strong opposition to, our way of life. Life was simple and well-organized. Its outlines and limitations were provided by the government and assented to by my elders, to my innocent eyes willingly and happily. I did not know—nor did it matter to me at the time, I suppose—that our comfort was not the result of a social contract among free citizens, that our seemingly modern and secular society was only so at the surface, ready to burst from its own contradictions. Nor had I understood the reality of our lives as middle-class members of a religious minority group, perched at the intersection of fear and comfort.

As a teenager, I was envious of the very rich and powerful and of the royalty. I wanted to be like them. Thanks to my parents' positions as successful doctors, we were close enough to the powerful to observe their lives but did not have as much money ourselves. Once we went to a house, a mansion really, to drop off my sister with a classmate. The house had two-story balconies with columns, an exterior grand staircase that reminded me of the scale of Persepolis, and a large, gated garden. After that I fantasized for hours about living in such a house and having several maids and butlers instead of our one. Our reality, our averageness, seemed intolerable.

I sometimes behaved mysteriously in front of people to appear more exceptional than I was. In high school, which was unique to begin with—among the top schools for overachievers in the country, built by wealthy Jews thrown out of Iraq after 1948—I pretended that my father was a Savaki, that he carried a gun, and that he could have anyone—teachers, the principal, and the bullies or their parents—arrested and tortured on a whim. In the streets I talked into my watch, pretending to be a Savaki myself, keeping the masses in their place. Around friends I wasted money, once literally pulling small bills out of my pocket and throwing them one by one to the wind as we walked down the street. Yes, I was wealthy enough to waste.

I made up stories about my ancestry. I pretended that my grandfather had been a horseman and a bandit who raided Iraqi prisons with his gang and freed political and religious prisoners. "There is a price on his head," I would claim proudly with a mysterious smile, "to this day." The truth is that, though he crossed the Iran-Iraq border many times in his life, mostly illegally, this was for family and business reasons and was not uncommon for the times.

When I was 13, we adopted a beautiful one-and-a-half-year-old black and brown dachshund, already named Lady by the previous owner. The vague suggestion by a colleague of my mother that the breed had won a competition, together with Lady's general excitability, developed into a belief that Lady's parents and grandparents had won major races in Britain. (I had no idea that "competition" could be anything but a race.) The name itself, coupled with what I knew about British aristocracy, mainly from The Prince and the Pauper, gradually blossomed to rather complicated names such as "Her Excellency Lady Manchester of Derbyshire, the First Daughter of Sir Blah of Blah." (I knew the city names from watching English Premiere League football.) I would stand in front of the bathroom mirror and recite these with pride, bowing elegantly at the passing dignitaries. (Years later, I overheard an uncle give meaningless big-worded speeches in front of his bathroom mirror. "Capitulation Standardization Exaltation Anesthetization…" he would orate. Apparently, this stuff ran in the family.)

Adults, being more sophisticated, fantasized themselves into distraction by turning inward. My parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles focused on me. I was a first-born son like the Crown Prince Reza and, they said, I looked like him. I was also the first grandchild on all sides, a boy no less. My birthday, the 25th of the Iranian month of Aban, around November, which was in the same month as that of Crown Prince Reza (ninth of Aban) and his father the Shah (fourth of Aban), was celebrated vigorously. "Month of kings," my grandmother would say with pride.

I recall celebratory exclamations by parents and teachers upon my doing anything slightly out of the ordinary. My handwriting would be shown as an example to follow, my interest in books was rewarded with a generous book allowance, and I was paraded in front of guests to read aloud. One afternoon I ran home from school with my report card full of the highest grades. "This is so wonderful," my mother said. "I am so proud of you, sweetheart. I know some day you will win the Nobel Prize."

Some years ago, I mentioned to my mother over the telephone that I had a cold. "You are my son," she exclaimed with great faith. "You cannot get sick." Since then, I rarely tell her when I am sick or injured, or in trouble and need help.

My American girlfriend, Laura, and I often discuss what it would be like to have been raised in the other's circumstance. Born in New York City in the mid-1960s, she is the third of eight from fairly aloof parents. Hers was an upbringing of being lonely in a crowd, almost of neglect, and mine was one of being watched at all times, with impossible expectations destined to go unfulfilled. As a result, I have grown more comfortable with her family, going unnoticed, than with my own. Sitting in a room with my mother, I cover up with long, baggy pants and oversized shirts and coats, and curl up in a far couch, minimizing myself as might a threatened animal from her loving and inspecting eyes. I tell her next to nothing, certainly nothing truthful, about my affairs. When showing travel pictures to her, I edit them heavily, presenting a lot of beautiful scenery, opening only for the most inert questioning.

In Laura's family, I am lost in the scenery.

During the 1980s, when I was a struggling graduate student in California, I constructed a radical version of "all men are created equal": "all persons plus all their belongings are created equal." To clarify, let us consider the case of two persons, Dr. Rich and Mrs. Pauper. Their status, based on the above, can be represented as:

Dr. Rich + Dr. Rich's Possessions = Mrs. Pauper + Mrs. Pauper's Possessions

For simplicity, let us assume that Mrs. Pauper has no possessions. Therefore:

Dr. Rich + Dr. Rich's Possessions = Mrs. Pauper

Further manipulated, this leads to:

Dr. Rich < Mrs. Pauper

In plain English, Dr. Rich is intrinsically worth less, as a human being, than Mrs. Pauper. I wish I could say this formulation was due to an egalitarian streak in me, and perhaps in part it was. But the construct was mostly my way of justifying my aversion to chasing money and success, or rather a reflection of my own expectation of failure, and perhaps also the result of my not-so-latent envy of the very wealthy and the aristocracy. When insecurity struck, as it did often, I would try to convince myself that I was more valuable than a more successful colleague, or that unknown man in the street, looking sharp, perhaps wealthy beyond belief, in a hurry with a place to go. And certainly worth more than the royalty with their billions and palaces and advisers and followers.

I once tried to convince my mother of this theory when we were preparing for a typically gaudy Iranian wedding in Los Angeles. I explained that she, a famed professor respected for her intellect and service, does not need to compete with other women, wealthier women, with their expensive, Parisian designer clothes and their blinding diamond necklaces, that she should leave these lower women to their own affairs. This did not work, but a female relative overheard me, understood my comments for what they meant, and was offended.

Laura and I took a tour of Buckingham Palace during a recent trip to London. This was something I had not done since my original stay in England many years earlier. We stood in line to buy tickets, went through the usual security checks, marveled at the grand courtyard and the staircases and the columns, were led from room to room, and were impressed with the beautiful paintings and the porcelains and the statues, with the thrones and the gold, and with the dazzlingly carved and painted ceilings. Signs explained, in great detail, that the palace and the art are held in trust for the British people, that fees are used for repairs and maintenance, and that these costs are staggering.

There was a gift shop at the start of the tour where we were encouraged to buy the guidebook and other paraphernalia and another, much larger shop after the tour where we found jewelry, plates, books, gum, chocolate, pencils, shirts, ties, paperweights, and God knows what else, all embossed, imprinted, engraved, stamped, or carved with the palace logo. On the way out we were led to a point far from the entrance with signs pointing us to the Royal Stables, which could be easily reached and visited for additional money.

As the day wore on, I felt unusually offended by the commercialization, the explanations, the money, and the monarchy itself. The same feelings returned the next day when I attended services at Westminster Abbey to hear the chorus. As in my childhood in Iran, a portion of the service revolved around blessings and prayers for the monarch and associates—the queen, the royal family, and members of the Order of Bath. Now, so many years later, I could not bring myself to say "amen." Being there, surrounded by signs of aristocracy and royalty and the casual belief in their specialness, I could not accept that any person could be entrusted with power, with a halo, or even with respect simply due to an accident of birth. I repeated this once or twice to Laura, who accused me of being my usual melodramatic Middle Eastern self.

I remembered another trip we had taken, one to Washington, D.C., at the height of the cherry blossom season. The weather was mild, and the public spaces and walkways around the monuments were covered in the pink and white of the petals. We toured the White House, where I was surprised by—and then warmly proud of—its relative simplicity and modest size. There was no imprint of a single person or family. The place had a modern air of transience, of a functional building where occupants come to work and then go away. It was a comfortable place to be, full of simple white walls, seemingly adorned as an afterthought.

We also toured the Capitol on that trip. (It was easy to enter; we had not yet been visited by September 11.) We explored long corridors lined with statues and echoing meeting halls, and randomly, almost chaotically, mixed with other camera-toting tourists and formally attired staff and congressmen and women. There were several cafeterias and restaurants inside, frequented by visitors and hurried workers alike. We had lunch in one off a basement hallway next to some offices—not a particularly memorable lunch, some sandwiches. I remember going, afterward, to the men's room near the smaller-than-expected Senate chamber. As I stood along with others in front of a row of urinals, the man next to me let out a quiet chuckle and turned to me.

"Top john in America," he said with a soft Midwestern accent.

I looked over. He was about 50 and slightly overweight, and wore a buttoned-up polo shirt, blue jeans and sneakers, and a logoed, two-color baseball cap.

"Yeah," I smiled and nodded.

I would like to think that my original construct for worth and self-worth, when applied to institutions, might not be too far off the mark after all. That a simple, functional White House is more valuable than the Marble Palace with its historic Peacock Throne; that America's Top John is worth more than Royal Stables; that a system accepting of its leaders' and citizens' frailties, a system in fact designed to accommodate such frailties, is worth more than a kingdom whose king never needs to use the toilet.

I came to study in the United States in 1978, a few months before the Shah and his family escaped from Iran for the last time. They took with them the remains of Reza Shah, dug up from his mausoleum. Some weeks later, after the success of the Revolution, I sat in front of the small portable television in my San Diego apartment and watched bulldozers destroy the structure under which Reza Shah's body had lain for decades, to be replaced, as a last insult to the final Persian dynasty, with public toilets.