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Regal grace

Farah Diba Pahlavi

October 14, 2002
The Iranian

"I found myself in the state reception room on the second floor when Queen Farah entered - a regal vision - wearing a deceptively simple white satin dress. She overwhelmed me with her beauty."

That passage from Roloff Beny's book, People: Legends in Life and Art can serve as an apt metaphor for the image Shahbanou evokes in the minds of many of her countrymen. The grandeur that has been her lot for most of her life has in no way diminished her natural warmth and genuine modesty. With the trained eyes of a photographer, Beny could perceive Shahbanou's regal grace brought into relief by her unadorned demeanor and unassuming personality.

Shahbanou's natural kindness and her deep appreciation of candid human emotions has been key to her success in relating to the poor and the outcast whose cause she has tirelessly supported all through her life. Reading the stories of her journeys within Iran in a book compiled by Mansore Pirnia, and entitled Shahbanou's Travelogue, reveals the depth of sympathy that has always existed between her and the ordinary people of her country. In her introductory words to the book she remarks that in no point in her life was any malaise ever directed towards her by common folks in the street.

The memories of her emotional encounter with these people she writes, are a great source of comfort to her today in her sad days of exile: "I knew that to meet my compatriots and recognize their problems and deprivations, I had to leave the capital. Close contact with ordinary Iranians and the kindness they offered me filled me with an extraordinary power. From these people I learned valuable lessons of humanity, dignity, candor and truth."

Her travels provided her with the valuable first hand knowledge of large scale problems of illiteracy, poverty, sickness and drought. It also brought her face to face with individual Iranians, what they cared for and how they lived. Social outcasts of the leper colonies, students in little village schools and men and women who sometimes walked for miles to see her along her itinerary did not find in her a distanced, unapproachable royal but a receptive and sympathetic compatriot who had come to meet them on their own terms.

This meeting others on their own terms for Shahbanou goes far deeper than mere tolerance. She embraces and cherishes the cultural diversity of her country, recognizing the significance of every individual part that makes up the whole. In Sanandaj she meets with the Sunnite Ghaderi dervishes, watching them perform their extraordinary feats and writes with genuine admiration of their mental strength and moral fortitude.

In Yazd she accompanies the white clad Zoroastrian girls to their fire-temple where the flame has been burning since time immemorial and shall be preserved for ever. She muses how its warm and vitalizing sacred blazes shall endure like the immortal heart of her beloved Iran. She describes the Armenian Ghareh Kelisa (Black Church) in the plane of Chaldoran with the same fascination as she writes of the Jewish sanctuaries in Hamadan and the fabulous mosques in Ispahan.

Although one can make no mistake about Shahbanou's strong personal faith one can also see that her own convictions in no way prevent her from rejoicing in every component which contributes to making her country a rich and great cultural mosaic. "Unity in diversity this is what has made us a superb nation," she writes. Joining her in her travels and reading the stories of her contact with the people and the country she is so deeply connected to, one realizes that what impresses this woman is not the ostentatious outside appearance, but strength of character and depth of humanity. She has a fine sensibility capable of recognizing the unique value of simple joys and celebration of life's natural blessings.

The dearest memories to her are not those of grand receptions and state visits, but of incidents like a little Kurdish boy running towards her with a bunch of wild flowers he has gathered for her or walking hand in the hand with the old and hunched back "Bamani mar" (mother of Bamani) down the hill towards a tea plantation in Lahijan: "I had returned to my childhood days. Everything was familiar. In Langarood, Roodsar, Kelarchai, everywhere we stopped, the pleasant memories of my youth were with me and a bright and refreshing spectacle presented itself before me. The applause of the villagers, and the clapping of women in tea plantations, the sound of raindrops pouring down since early morning..."

As a teenager growing up in Iran, I associated Shahbanou's name with books, poetry and music. The best cultural and artistic events that took place in the country were inspired by her, or were organized under her supervision and sponsorship. Through her initiatives a great part of our cultural heritage was rescued from neglect and dormancy.

It was a dream for me to meet the person whose photograph stood on the coffee table in the living room of my childhood days, representing to me a promise of peace, hope and compassion. I saw her in June 2001 during the funeral of Leila Pahlavi. My dream of meeting her was marred by the nightmare of the event that occasioned it. Princess Leila's death brought home to many Iranians the silent suffering of our youth. This tragic event united our people together in a collective lamentation for a young girl who came to symbolize innocence, vulnerability and the excruciating heartache of exile.

After the funeral ceremony was over, Shahbanou moved with some other members of the royal family to the further end of the Passy cemetery forming a line. In order to get nearer to her the crowd of mourners who were following her with their eyes extemporized a queue. Filled with a sense of desolation I was overcome with a need to receive reassurance from Shahbanou's presence. I felt emotionally overwrought and at the grip of forces beyond my control.

The queue was slowly going forward and I could see her tall, graceful person from amongst the crowd. That lovely Shahbanou whose voice as a child I used to associate with Norooz, and messages on the occasion of happy events was now standing there fighting back tears and offering her words of courage to the crowd of mourners. Seeing her grief-stricken figure was like coming face to face with the tragic fate my country had endured for over the past two decades.

Standing before her she extended her hand towards me. Looking into her sad eyes I opened my mouth to say something and no voice came out. I wanted to hold her hand to my face and cry and cry the accumulated heartache of twenty-three years. I moved away thinking that in no other person's presence under the sun I could have felt the way I did as standing in front of this grieving mother. In no other person could I find such a concentration of the sentiment I felt for my beloved Iran.

From that moment on, more than ever before I realized that all political manifestoes and all the menus of various systems touted about for the future of my country were for me beside the point. How could I bring myself to haggle over the pros and cons of what shook me to the roots of my being and had such an extraordinary claim on my allegiance as a member of my particular race and civilization.

There was no question for me of picking and choosing and I was glad. It was at that moment that I understood what Shahbanou really represented for me as an Iranian. I saw her as the embodiment of unconditional acceptance one could only expect from one's closest kin and motherland. The kind of acceptance similar to to the one she herself talks about when in her travelogue she describes the munificence of the Baluchi's home and hospitality: Anyone who enters a Baluch's house is as dear to him as his own eyes, all the guests sitting together to partake of a Baluchi meal are treated the same, the beggar and the ruler are welcomed the same way and are given the same honors.

In Bandar Abbas Shahbanou visits a library. They offer her an honorary card which she has to fill out. She writes: "Name: Farah Pahlavi. Address: All of Iran is my home." Years later remembering that incident she sadly reflects that "Indeed once all Iran was my abode and now I have access to no part of it."

Today on her 64th birthday, I know I am not only speaking for myself when I say dear Shahbanou, your real home is in our hearts. A warm and affectionate place is always reserved there for our beloved queen, for the faithful people's ambassador in the king's palace. Many happy returns of the day.

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By Reza Bayegan






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