Long-standing culture of tyranny
July 5, 2001
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 
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
* * *
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  -- 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?
 The word "coo" is a pun. In Persian "coo" is
the sound of the dove while also meaning "where?" To
 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
Rasool Nafisi is the chairman of the Department of General Studies
at Strayer University, Washington DC.