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Firmly planted
Long-standing culture of tyranny

July 5, 2001
The Iranian

The palace that to Heave'n his pillars threw,
And king's forehead on his threshold drew-
I saw the solitary ringdove there,
And "Coo, coo, coo" she cried; and "Coo, coo, coo."
-- Omar Khayyam [1]

Once you pass through the double-gated hexagon entrance of Sa'adabad Palace in northern Tehran, through which have passed so many dignitaries laced with myth and dread for so many years, you purchase a ticket, receive a brochure in broken English. A van takes you to the living quarter of the Pahlavis. Click image

Ornaments and furniture are kept intact. Paintings by European masters, French antique furniture, and pictures of dignitaries -- all of them now part of history -- cover the spacious rooms. A picture of Hitler is there too, signed with three lines of writing. I asked the guide if she knew what Hitler's message was. She asked me whether I knew German, in a manner typical of the new generation of Iranian professionals who can barely hide their contempt for people they are supposed to serve.

Large pictures of prime ministers and ministers past line the corridors. Grand carpets, mostly woven in the Amoghli plant in the northwestern city of Khorassan, cover the floors wall to wall. The art in Sa'adabad show a certain level of harmony, testifying the smooth transition of power and taste, from the tribal aristocracy of Qajars to the to military order of the Pahlavis -- with a French touch. Coffee-shop genre paintings (naghaashi e ghahvahkhaanei) and French Neoclassical styles blend in serene equilibrium.

The Niavaran complex is different. It was built more recently, mostly under the reign of Mohammad Reza Shah to serve as his residence and office at Sahebqaranieh, a few miles away from Sa'adabad on the north eastern part of Tehran. One surmises the palace ornaments as a harbinger of decay and a decadence of taste.

Furnished by the last Pahlavi king and his wife Farah, then Empress, Niavaran is a mix of all tastes and styles while art nouveau reins supreme. Paintings on the far ceiling pay lip service homage to the coffee-shop genre: around the towering ceiling which ends in a moveable flat rooftop, art representing the Shahnameh is painted in burlesque colors. The paintings are high enough not to bother the people who lived there daily.

Then there is an assortment of styles covering the walls. Neoclassical taste of late Qajars hangs next to pop art and art nouveau. This may reflect Farah's influence, with her taste for the ultra-modern well-represented in the last scandalous "Shiraz Art Festival". Carpets, also from the Amoghli plant, are the only objects reminding us that we are in a Persian palace. The space is full of confusion, alluding to the loss of homogeneity and continuity of the Persian dynasties.

Farah's taste is the loud representation of the nouveau-riche; the voice of the rising educated and pretentious Tehrani middle class, with a confused idea of its own world. And not to forget the symbolism of the movable roof: it could provide moonlight at night, but also could allow speedy flight by helicopter when angry subjects were at the gate!

Insecurity is also there, as when you visit the room where the late Shah met with the saraan -- chief of staff and military commanders. Covered in green with a long rectangular desk, it is the only room with double doors. The Shah evidently was worried about those inside the palace. Otherwise, he was no doubt well aware of the hidden microphones that could be used effectively from behind the doors. The double doors have been removed, the secrets on display -- everything is now "transparent". With the conference room of saraan exposed, the palace seems naked and gutted.

In the apartment once occupied by then Crown Prince Reza, the mood is different. Quite a bit is kept of what was once used by him. Though alive, the prince is already part of dead history. In a glass casing, all kinds of trinkets are exhibited, mostly gifts from dignitaries. A piece of moon rock, a gift from Richard Nixon -- a good friend of the Pahlavis -- stands out. But marks are left on the walls which show a once healthy, happy boy lived here: clippings from the papers, all about soccer, and mostly about his team's successes are cut out and pasted.

A picture of the boy -- then "the eye and light of the nation" -- is pasted in the middle of these now yellowing paper cut-outs. He is fit and looks comfortable in his soccer gear with one foot on the ball. Nothing extraordinarily luxurious or ostentatious in the room. There are two pieces of Louis XIV furniture, which are a gift from his Aunt Ashraf -- probably an effort to interject aristocratic blood to the last of this short-lived dynasty, fearing that he is becoming too comfortable with a middle-class life style.

I talked to an older man who seemed to be in charge of something in this desolate palace: "I understand there is an Egyptian coffin here at the palace on display, possibly with a mummy -- a gift from President Sadat to the Shah, may I see it?" He answered with the kind of sarcasm of Iranian petty officials talking to those visiting from abroad: "There was a coffin, but it is not here! The coffin was found when bulldozers were widening a road up north. The coffin was confiscated immediately by you know who and his sons, and it was sold to a foreign embassy right away."

I said in the voice of a school child talking to the superintendent, "You seem to know who carried it to the foreign embassy!" He took my statement wrong -- he thought I was kidding him. He gave me the look of disdain kept for expatriate Iranians lwho think they are better than people inside the country.

I tried to correct him with another question showing that I really thought he was a knowledgeable man: "I am surprised that the Islamic Republic did not raze these buildings, at least initially when there was such demolishing fever around." He figured what I was trying to say, and trusted me. "Why demolish? They kept it for themselves. Do you know who's living in Marmar Palace now?"

The conversation was getting out of hand, and for a person who had lived in Iran of the Shah, when SAVAK was supposed to know everything and hear everything, caution always comes first. I thanked him and left. The whole thing was surreal. Nothing matched, like the paintings in the hall.

The Niavaran Palace was the last holdout of Pahalvi regime before it fell to the hands of rebelling masses in on 22 Bahman, 1357 (February 11, 1979). I remembered the conversation I had with the last commander of the Shah's Immortal Guards, who were in charge of the palace up to the very last minute. He was a typical professional officer, now having loyally served two regimes of what he calls his country.

"We were all ready and soldiers were on guard on the sensitive locations. he said. "We had enough ammo and food to resist for days. People were pouring from downtown to the streets into the palace. A sergeant came to me in the middle of all this mayhem and asked me to let him go to pick up his son from school! Another came a few minutes later and asked for relief due to diarrhea! No one was allowed to leave.

"I called my superiors, but I could get no directives. I am a soldier, and I have obeyed my superiors in my entire professional life. Well, when there are no directives, and you are the man in charge, you have to make quick decisions. I had been trying to contact my commander General Biglari for a couple of days because Her Excellency had called from Morocco, I believe, and asked me to send her a suitcase containing her personal stuff. I needed my superiors' permission, but evidently no one was in charge.

"Obviously we were in God's hands then. Thousands were at the gates. What good could come out of killing civilians? I called the operator and asked, 'Please give me the Alavi School!' I called the number and said, 'I'd like to talk to Ayatollah Khomeini' and told them who I was. Ayatollah Taleghani answered immediately, and welcomed me to Islam. I said, 'I am a Seyyed and I have been a devoted Muslim all my life. I don't need to come to Islam, but I need someone to come here so I can surrender the palace.'

"An Akhund (cleric) showed up immediately. I changed my uniform to a civilian suit; I went to the gate personally, gave the Akhund the keys to the palace and a list of everything inside. Saluting him I said 'Truly Allah o Akbar!' ["Allah is greater" which was the call of street demonstrators] I meant it. I said that from the bottom of my heart; I thought of all the dignitaries who had come to this palace, I was thinking of the grandiose entourage of the Shah, and now this, this dusty Akhund from some village, ugly and malnourished, is taking the key to his palace! Allah o Akbar, truly!"

* * *

Nearly twenty feet from the granite steps leading to the living quarter in Sa'adabad, one finds the most surreal reference to the rule of the Pahlavis: a pair of large bronze boots, standing like the remnant of a huge statue sawed down to the exact size, showing the commanding gait of Reza Shah, founder of the dynasty. Click image

Who created this marvelous symbolic piece? Who is behind this triumph of minimalism? Is it a reference to the famous exchange between Khomeini and the late Shah, in which Khomeini wrote the Shah that he could never fill the boots of his father [2] -- a prophecy that came true many years later?

Or one may even ponder that it is a statement about the discourteous boots with which Reza Shah stepped into the shrine of Hazrat e Masoumeh in Qom and assaulted Sheikh Muhammad Morteza Yazdi, enraging the Shi'ite clergy forever. Or perhaps the boots just symbolize authoritarian rule, rooted in a long-standing culture of tyranny, intimating that while the body is gone, the feet are still firmly planted on the ground?


[1] The word "coo" is a pun. In Persian "coo" is the sound of the dove while also meaning "where?" To top

[2] The Shah is alleged to have said at the start of the fundamentalist movement in 1963, "Akhund, don't push me, or I will put on my father's boots!" a reference to Reza Shah's brutal suppression of the Shi'ite clergy. Khomeini answered, "You are too small to fit in your father's boots!"


Rasool Nafisi is the chairman of the Department of General Studies at Strayer University, Washington DC.

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Rasool Nafisi's features index


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Niavaran Palace


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