The Souvenirs of an Empress

October 23, 2003
Vincent Meylan

FARAH PUBLISHES HER MEMOIRS: The Souvenirs of an Empress

The book came out for her 65th birthday, the 14th October 2003. Twenty-four years after the start of her exile, away from Iran where she was crowned empress, Farah has finally decided to speak, to open her heart and the gates of her memories.

The manuscript of her memoirs, Farah had written many years ago. Hundreds of typed pages, read and reread, locked in her drawer. Her secret history, everything she had wanted to say during her twenty years of reign and twenty years in exile.

How many times did her intimate circle, her publisher friends beg her to write her story? At least to give her answer to History. The history of the last twenty years of the 20th century that had so unjustly treated her husband, the Shah of Iran, his family, the Pahlavis and her, the Shahbanou, literally meaning “the Lady of the King.”

Farah Diba: The only woman ever to be crowned in all the history of Iran. A symbol of the emancipation of Iranian womanhood which the most reactionary mullahs headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, would never forgive the Shah.

It was all in vain. Every time she had rejected the most tempting of offers. The wall of hate that had surrounded the Shah and the imperial family was too high to allow a truthful clarification of certain events or a simple explanation of the tragic errors, the betrayals and weaknesses that had led to the Islamic revolution.

What was the point of returning to that terrible year of 1979 that had transformed one of the planet’s most powerful men into a broken figure, treated abysmally like a fugitive by the governments of the world? A man who had been her husband for 20 years and who was to pass away almost alone in Cairo, Sunday, 27th July 1980.

While at the same time, in Europe and the USA, intellectuals led by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre were joining the camp of Khomeini’s supporters. Returning to all of this would have served nothing. It was perhaps, to early to do so. Besides nobody wanted to hear anymore.

Farah knew this well. And in addition there were the last chapters, the hardest to write: the death of her beloved mother, Madame Farideh Diba, in Paris in December 1999.

And the most heart-breaking chapter of all on her youngest daughter, Leila, who passed away on the 10th June 2001 at the age of 31.

The first person represented a world of memories, a sheltered life and happy childhood, despite the premature disappearance of her father when she was barely nine years old.

Her mother had been the last link to Farah’s childhood in Iran and the house on Sezavar Avenue where she still recalls all the brilliant sounds and nice smells.

“Downstairs, there was a private salon,” she recalled one day. “I slept in the same room as my parents and when they went out at night, the following morning I would discover bonbons and chocolates and sweets under my pillow. On the first floor, there was my father’s office, the large dining and reception rooms…”

Beyond the pretty garden that surrounded the house was a noisy and rich universe, colourful and forbidden to the future empress whom her cousin, Reza Ghotbi, would discover after climbing over the wall.

Being her only child, the great lady, Farideh Diba had been determined to raise Farah as an independent and modern woman. It was she who had encouraged her to study architecture in France and who had supported her during the early years of apprenticeship as Queen.

True, the years had left their marks and Farideh Diba had become a fragile woman. That did not matter for she was always there for her, until December 1999.

Leila, on the other hand, symbolised all the hopes of the future. A child who became a woman, tragically hiding her inner pain behind an angelic face and tiny silhouette. She had inside her a certain grace, but also suffering, a passionate love for her father who she lost at the age of ten. Throughout her short life she regretted not having seen him on his deathbed for one last time.

“I absolutely wanted to enter his room for one last time,” Leila had reasoned. It was her old valet who had stopped her by saying: “No Princess, it is better this way.”

“He must have thought that the scene would be too hard to take in for a child of my age. I followed his advice and came to regret it for many years.”

Leila, too beautiful, too fragile, who had tormented herself by refusing to eat. It would take two years before the Empress could accept her death.

After all this, how could Farah write? She had to wait for time to treat her wounds. The wounds are always there, but less painful than they were. On the contrary by telling her story it was a way to heal.

So many things happened during those two years. Since the world woke up to the fact that it was not immune to the destructive follies of man.

Since the awful day when two planes collided into the twin towers of the World Trade Center causing the brutal deaths of thousands of innocent people.

Men and women, who, like every day had gone to work, without realising that they would never again see their families, or their homes or everything that had made up their lives.

This great shock, Farah had experienced like everyone else in the world. But it had also taught her one thing: that life hangs on the end of a string.

That tragedy can strike at a moment’s notice, she has known for many years.

She who lives under constant police protection. She who is still sentenced to death in her own country.

She who has not seen the country of her birth, since the first day of exile, the 16th January 1979 and who has watched powerlessly the progressive collapse of one of the Muslim world’s prosperous countries.

“We have about $30 billion dollars of external debt,” she says indignantly. “We are threatened by overpopulation. In 1979 we were 35 million and today 65 million. Women are considered as second class citizens. They are insulted and sometimes stoned to death. The society is ravaged by corruption at all levels and opponents of the regime are murdered inside and outside the country.”

Today, the majority of the Iranian population is less than 25 years old. They have not lived under the reign of the Shah. They have only known war with Iraq, arbitrary justice and religious extremism and terror.

It is for this young generation of Iranians who aspires to freedom that Farah has decided to talk. So that one day, perhaps, thousands of young girls can, like herself some forty years ago, choose their careers and have a normal life.

This book, Farah owes as well to her two grand daughters, Noor and Iman, Reza’s daughters. Both were born in exile and will soon reach an age when they will be able to learn who were their grandparents. Already they are asking many questions.

And finally, why hide the past? To write about one’s life is also to relive it. To remember. Even if the memories are painful, they allow to briefly recall the voice, the face, of a dear person who will not come back. She relives the memory of a landscape, a sound, a scent. Everything that makes this land of Iran which she lost over twenty years ago.

Vincent Meylan
Farah Pahlavi, Memoires, Editions XO, Paris, 2003
ISBN: 2-84563-065-4

POINT DE VUE - N0 2881 8-14 October 2003
(English Translation By Cyrus Kadivar)

Key Dates of Empress Farah’s life

14 October 1938: Farah Diba is born

21 December 1959: Marriage to HIM Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran

31 October 1960: Birth of HRH Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi

12 March 1963: Birth of HRH Princess Farahnaz Pahlavi

28 April 1966: Birth of HRH Ali Reza Pahlavi

26 October 1967: Farah become’s the first Iranian empress to be crowned.

27 March 1970: Birth of HRH Princess Leila Pahlavi

16 January 1979: Shah and Empress Farah leave for exile

27 July 1980: Death of HIM Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi in Cairo, Egypt

31 October 1980: Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi declares himself prepared to assume his duties as his late father’s successor in a ceremony held at Kubbeh Palace in Cairo.

11 June 1986: Crown Prince Reza marries Yasamine Etemad in exile

23 April 1992: Birth of HRH Princess Noor, eldest daughter of Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi

10 June 2001: Death of HRH Princess Leila Pahlavi in London

14 October 2003: Empress Farah Pahlavi clebrates her 65th birthday with the publication of her long awaited memoirs