Requiem in Cairo
Marking the 20th anniversary of the Shah's death
Written by Cyrus Kadivar
Photographs by Claude Stemmelin
September 8, 2000
It was a very, very hot day in Cairo. Leaving my hotel room at the El-Gezira
Sheraton my mood was sombre. Getting into the taxi with two middle-aged
Iranian sisters from London we sped across the long bridge glancing occasionally
at the towering buildings that rose along the timeless river. Turning right
we passed a giant stone lion and descended on the Nile Corniche almost
colliding with a horse-carriage full of tourists. We came to an abrupt
halt in front of the four-star Semiramis.
Walking through the air-conditioned lobby we made our way through a
revolving door. Outside, a security man led us politely to a large bus
parked beneath a palm tree. Ten minutes later we were on our way to Nasr
City, on the outskirts of Cairo. Standing in the aisle, I wiped the sweat
off my face. Many of the fifty or more seated passengers were in a state
of considerable irritation. Everyone was complaining of the heat.
Inevitably, my thoughts wandered back twenty years ago when President
Sadat had walked shoulder to shoulder with Crown Prince Reza and Empress
Farah from the Abedin Palace to the Al Rifa'i Mosque. It had been a grand
funeral according to a friend of mine who had witnessed the emotions expressed
by ordinary Cairenes along the three-mile journey. "Allah protect
you," they had shouted, some throwing flowers in the air, as the late
Shah's coffin draped in the imperial flag and escorted by Egyptian soldiers
had rolled on the wheels of a canon pulled by six Arab stallions.
It had been a funeral fit for a king and as we reached the tomb of Anwar
Sadat a deep sense of recognition filled our hearts. How could anyone forget
the hospitality of the Egyptian leader accorded to the dying Shah when
all the world had abandoned him in a callous political game that had shamed
his former allies.
As I left the bus the scene of Sadat's death in October 1981 kept replaying
itself in my mind: the sound of jet planes flying overhead, the sound of
the bullets, the screaming at the empty parade ground, the blue uniform
of the Commander-in-Chief stained in blood. He now lay buried beside the
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. See photos here
Beneath the brick pyramid guarded by soldiers in Pharaonic and Mameluk
uniforms stood a gathering crowd. Looking around me I saw many elderly,
well-heeled men and women, former courtiers or officials under the monarchy.
They had flown in from Paris, Rome, London, New York, Washington D.C.,
Houston, and L.A. for what must have seemed to them a kind of pilgrimage.
But there were also a number of chic thirtysomethings drawn to Cairo by
a mixture of nostalgia and curiosity.
Suddenly, a flurry of excitement ran through our ranks. "They're
here," came the whispers. Quickly we assembled in a line. "My
God," a young woman screamed, "It's them!" By now my heart
had begun to beat rapidly. As the royal family walked up the dark polished
marble terrace leading to the pyramid they were greeted emotionally by
Fate had chosen a lonely pedestal for us to meet. The once shy crown
prince who had upon losing his father declared himself king at the tender
age of twenty-one, was now a matured presence. At forty, despite his friendly
manner and a touch of white hair, Reza Pahlavi appeared to me a man born
to shoulder the ancient institution he represents.
The sight of the Shahbanou sent my heart racing. It seemed only yesterday
when, as a child, over thirty years ago, I had handed her a red rose during
her visit to a kindergarten in Shiraz. Now at thirty-seven I found myself
in awe of her. Empress Farah, dressed in fine black, had despite the passage
of years in exile and her personal tragedy, remained an attractive lady,
slim and poised. I bowed slightly then turned to find myself facing the
radiant Yasamin and her two lovely daughters, Iman and Noor. They moved
like a sweet breeze followed by Farahnaz and Leila, the late Shah's daughters.
Only Prince Ali Reza was absent.
After posing briefly for the cameras the royal family were joined by
Jehan Sadat and her son. Together they moved forward where they lay a wreath
of flowers at the foot of a white, block of stone marking the grave of
the late President Sadat. Representing his family, Reza Pahlavi lowered
his head in prayer for a leader who had been a true gentleman.
The brief ceremony at Nasr City was over and it was time to move on
to the old part of Cairo. We reached the Al Rifa'i Mosque before sunset
and made our way up the long steps lined with red carpets. At the entrance
we were checked by security men then allowed access to the grand prayer
hall. Inside there were bouquets of flowers everywhere and the scent of
narcissus filled the air. An Egyptian mullah chanted the prayer of the
dead followed by an Iranian poet who read from Ferdowsi's epic Shahnameh.
The royal family and Mrs. Sadat listened solemnly as they sat on red cushioned
chairs arranged along the outer walls of the Shah's tomb.
Later, Reza and Farah Pahlavi gathered the remaining members of their
family inside the marbled vault to read the fatiha. A few minutes
later as they emerged from the tomb I ventured inside to find Mrs. Sadat
in conversation with an Iranian businessman from Toronto. When he had finished
I went up to her and shook her hand. "The Iranian people will never
forget the humanity your late husband showed towards the Shah of Iran,"
"We did nothing...nothing," Mrs. Sadat replied as she walked
out to hold Farah Pahlavi's hands, kissing her veiled face in the traditional
manner. Then she proceeded to saying goodbye to the two little princess's
dressed in their immaculate white clothes and matching sandles.
I made way as a crowd of well-wishers entered the tomb. An old officer
of the imperial army marched up to the green-stone and clicked his heels.
"Your Majesty," he shouted in a high military voice, "May
you rest in peace for we are awake!" A recently engaged couple knelt
before the four gold candles and placed their fingers on the script below
the Pahlavi crest. Another woman kissed the cold marble and wept. There
were many such personal acts of fealty by the 250 or more Iranians gathered
at the Al Rifa'i.
Outside the mosque the Egyptian sun lowered itself gently as the old
walls of the Al Rifa'i turned orange. Standing alone beside a large plant,
I watched Farah Pahlavi emerging slowly from the mosque through the main
door. For a split second I saw her kind smile. Then she was gone, surrounded
by her bodyguards, followed by other members of her family and a group
of Iranians. Heading down the red carpeted stairs I caught a final glimpse
as she got into her bullet-proof limousine.
That evening at the Salaam Palace a small buffet had been prepared in
one of the many rooms. Under the bright chandeliers the guests mingled
informally with the royal family. Noor and Iman ran happily around the
chairs like two small white butterflies bringing their mother a bunch of
flowers. In a nearby salon Farah Pahlavi sat on a gilded sofa patiently
signing autographed photos for her admirers. Moving closer to the empress,
I watched her adjusting her earrings, pausing from the demands around her.
Someone urged me to sit on the sofa beside Farah Pahlavi while an aide
brought her tea in a china cup. For a moment I watched her long fingers
as she signed her name inside a copy of Mansoureh Pirnia's "Safarnameh
Shahbanou" a pretty book about Farah Pahlavi's trips in Iran during
her husband's rule. Then, slowly, her head turned towards me. She studied
my face for a while with her eloquent, brown eyes. In a few seconds she
managed to reinforce the qualities that one expected from a woman of her
position: intelligence, patience, and maturity.
Time stood still as I was gripped by new emotions. It seemed to me that
I had waited most of my life for this moment. But since the revolution
my heart had carried a heavy sadness at the fall of our country and the
loss of everything we loved and cherished. There was also another reason
for my coming to Cairo. I wanted to know how the late Shah had spent his
last days and to hear fromhis wife the truth about those dark days. Maybe
this way I would finally make sense of all the suffering we had endured.
But it was an illusion for there was no time for such talk. Instead, paying
my respects I retired to allow other guests to share time with her for
they too had waited a long time for such a reunion.
As I stood in the middle of the salon contemplating the antique furniture
and oil paintings my eyes fell on a small gold frame with a picture of
the late Shah in his white uniform. It rested forlornly on a small table
in the corner of the room. All around me people came and went in a haze
of cigarette smoke and rushing waiters bearing glasses of water and soft-drinks
on silver trays
Unexpectedly I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning around I found myself
face to face with Reza Pahlavi. "Come with me," he said, ushering
me into another empty room. It was to be a private audience. Neither of
us sat down as we spoke about Iran. I listened carefully as he outlined
his hopes and plans for the future. He was, he said, determined to provide
a fresh alternative to freeing Iran whilst modernising the institution
which he represents. "The new generation is the key to our success,"
he said with his eyes fixed on me.
Ten minutes later the gilded door opened and a group of young Persian
ladies rushed in to pose for pictures with the heir to the throne. Leaving
the room I chatted with a young Iranian couple and some of the guests.
In the buffet room the empress was talking to Kambiz Atabai, her private
secretary, and the two sisters. As I entered the room Farah Pahlavi, clearly
drained and exhausted from a long, emotional day, bade everyone farewell
in her graceful way and departed.
The next day in Alexandria I recalled everything and everyone. Watching
the blue waves splash against the Qaytbay Fort with its turrets and crenellated
battlements I recalled the words of Sa'di, a famous Shirazi poet:
Throne, fortune, high command, dominion? all These things are nothing,
since they pass away: Far better than some palace daubed in gold is the
memorial of a goodly name.
(My story took place on July 26th 2000)
See photos here