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Diana not
Serious soul-searching about our collective identity crisis

June 19, 2001
The Iranian

Ever since the untimely death of Leila Pahlavi I have been biting my fingers to avoid putting pen to paper. No one likes anyone who uses a death, however symbolically laden it may be, to prove a socio-political point. I knew that whatever I wrote it would be quickly construed as bashing the Pahlavis. But now that we are seeing panegyric and "Leila Namehs" coming out I can't stop myself and decided iconoclasm is what I am all about. Come what may.

I also realized that maybe Leila herself would want her death to be put in perspective. So believe it or not I am doing this for Leila so that her death will at least make us engage in some serious soul-searching about our collective identity crisis. I picked up the pen in the hopes that her death -- by turning our attention to depression, and eating disorders amongst our women -- might help other young girls and women who might find themselves in her predicament.

Farah Pahlavi's press release politicized her daughter's death the minute she referred to it as the upshot of a depression caused by her father's exile. The kind of behavior that led to this poor girl's death comes from an upbringing that is, for a delicate soul, conducive to many problems. The superficiality of life at court and in the lime light, the neglect that children of the really wealthy feel -- due to their parents never having enough time for them, the enormous pressure to look good -- could lead to depression and eating disorders.

In the confusing and lonely corridors of life as a last child of an oversized King and Queen is where you will find the real reasons for Leila Pahlavi's death. Go to any private boarding school and you will see them by the dozens. Confused, spoiled children who do not know their purpose in life.

Kids who have a hard time living up to their larger than life parents. Kids with enough money to overdose on drugs-kids who slip in and out of rehab clinics with ease. Kids from exotic dictatorships who have forgotten their mother tongue and haven't really learned a new one. They come from the West and the Third World. Children of dictators and ambassadors and Hollywood stars. They all share a sense of being emotionally neglected and financially propped up. A lethal combination.

With articles and letters raising her to the level of Princess Diana I think it is safe for me to say,"give me a break!" Iranians have penchant for worshiping the dead. Perhaps if a charitable role had been forged for Leila she might have been our Diana, but no such thing was done. Not before her death anyway. Perhaps now a charity will be named to honor her one that would befittingly help others like her.

Whatever the cause of Leila Pahlavi's death she was no Princess Diana. We never heard of her engaging in charitable works or kissing an aids victim or traveling the world to walk on mine fields or -- more relevant here -- we never heard her publicly confess her problems. Diana did.

We have never seen any Pahlavi engage in substantial charitable acts towards any person or noble humanitarian cause after the revolution. So, however tragic her death, Leila only shares with Diana her young age at death and a struggle with an eating disorder as well as all those poor-rich-child feelings of abandonment. But in all fairness to Diana, we cannot call Leila Pahlavi, who had been largely absent from the public sphere until her death, a "people's princess".

I too cried when I read some of the news reports like the one by James Buchan in The Guardian. The same Guardian that all the monarchists hate, was in the depth of its analysis, the kindest to them. I cried because I believed that she had wanted to see Iran and I found it unjust that she could not be buried there. I do believe that exile must have aggravated her depression but I also believe that this could have happened even if her father was still occupying the Peacock throne.

No one ever knows what goes on in the mind of a person with depression. But if Farah Pahlavi can claim that Leila died, somehow, because of the Shah's fall from grace and the throne some twenty years before, I can also safely claim that she died because of the identity crisis and loneliness that had most probably plagued her.

Anorexia and depression see no borders. But they are more prevalent in societies where hypocrisy and materialism abound. Reading about Leila Pahlavi's eating disorder made me remember how I was told that the Shah had ordered all the women in the court to lose weight or be omitted form the "taj gozari" or crowning festivities. Here, Leila shared with Diana the tremendous pressure on the women of royalty to look good. They, more than us ordinary folk, were objectified and expected to shine. They should be seen as victims they truly were.

Iranians, even more than the British, are preoccupied with appearances and this takes a toll on the younger women. We do not see Princess Anne getting a nose job and face lift like others get hairdos! Our deposed royal family's women looks nothing like their ancestors because of the nose jobs and plastic surgery they all have had. Talk about an identity crisis.

Now, I know I am treading on thin ice when criticizing what seems to be the national sign of having arrived, but I know that Golda Meir would agree with me. Change that nose and you are taking the first step in losing a national identity. I mean how much transformation can a poor soul take before she no longer has a sense of identity?

Not all the young girls out there are like Cher or Googoosh who make a cottage industry of transformations. Take away their language, their religion, their body, their nose, their credibility and their country and what are you left with? A dead thirty year old in a lonely hotel room. I accuse the culture of hypocrisy and materialism that the Pahlavis epitomized and promoted for the loss of much of our identity.

We may be living in exile but we have to return to some old Iranian values. We must put the soul first. We must shield our sensitive selves from this rampant materialism that surrounds us. We must teach our daughters why they should keep their noses and how not worry about the shape of their bodies.

We must teach them to look for answers in Ale Ahmad and Farrokhzad, Rumi and Hafez rather than the pages of Mademoiselle and Elle. We must teach them pride in who they are and where they come from. We must teach them that life is about being able to name your feelings and being proud of them.

Finally, we must teach them why an identity crisis is what our nation has been struggling with in its recent history and how forging an identity, however complicated, is the surest way to happiness and fulfillment both for our nation and ourselves.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment for the writer Setareh Sabety


Setareh Sabety's features index


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