I saw her, for the first and the final time last Thursday. In a small and dimly lit chapel, which was filled with the fragrance of chrysanthemums and lilies of the valley, she was laid in state. She was on the first leg of her final journey to be reunited with her nearest family who were so impatiently awaiting her arrival from the other side of waters of the English Channel.
The coffin was wrapped in the green, white and red flag with a golden lion and the sun in the centre. Her fragile and noble body was shrouded in a white cloth in accordance to the Muslim traditions with only her face left uncovered. Part of the coffin was left open with only a glass cover to protect her from the outside. The lighting in the room was so adjusted that her face was clearly visible through the glass cover. With her hair covered under the white cloth, and only the face shining under the projected light she was in true sense of the word a sleeping beauty with an Eastern flavour. There was an aura of serenity and tranquility surrounding her face.
Outside the south London chapel, in that leafy suburb the sun was beaming upon the forecourt. The people who had started gathering from the early hours of the morning were gradually filling up the small courtyard. Although it was the last days of spring, you could still feel the fresh scent of the flowers and the greenery's of surrounding gardens. On a different occasion, it would have the perfect day to embark upon a long weekend trip to the countryside. But today we were there to bid farewell to Princess Leila Pahlavi who was about to begin her last ride.
The mourners, all clad in black or wearing a black tie or ribbon, were from various backgrounds. An old man in his late seventies who was sporting a snow-white beard and turning a rosary in his hand with a prayer cap on his head was whispering some kind of prayer. A smartly dressed, young woman in tears, who had just walked out of the chapel, quickly put on her designer sunglasses to cover her teary eyes. A female reporter was hastily taking down notes from another weeping woman who was explaining her reasons for being there. There was also a camera crew from an American news agency but were keeping a respectable distance from the crowd, lest to disturb the dignity of the occasion.
A Rolls Royce parked near the forecourt and a well-known Jewish businessman of Iranian origin who had left Iran some fifty years ago and made all his fortune here, stepped out and went straight into the chapel to pay his respects. In another corner I noticed a lady who was telling the female reporter that her father had lost all his lands under the Princess Leila's grandfather but that she had not allowed this matter to affect her judgment. “We all love Iran and that is why we are here — she (the Princess) died for her being away from her roots,” the lady in black explained.
At about 8.45 a.m., the coffin was brought out and carried by a mix of young and old men. It was not the most regal of all processions but you could tell that the coffin carried a special person with whom great emotions were tied. In the midst of the crowd singing “Ey Iran”, you could hear the shouts of Allaho Akbar (God is Great). The hearse began its slow and painful journey through the early morning London traffic, followed by some forty vehicles.
The procession was escorted by a police car in the front and two police motorcyclists who were keeping the traffic at bay while the long queue the cars were going through the traffic lights. Although people are usually in rush to go to work at this time of the day, they seemed to have some inner sense of knowing that this was a different procession and showed a dignified tolerance. I saw every policeman putting his hat on his chest as a sign of respect.
After an hour and a half-long journey we arrived at the Northolt air base on the northwest outskirts of London. This is a military airfield used by the British royal family as well as visiting dignitaries. Bill Clinton's plane, on a golfing trip to Britain, was parked few hundred yards away from a small twin-propelled engine plane that was chartered to take the body of Leila to Paris.
There was such a sad sense of symmetry that almost four years ago, on the same tarmac, at the same point, the body of another Princess was brought back from Paris to be buried in England. Like Diana, Princess Leila's life and death was not free from intrigue and mystery. As if these are the necessities of a royal life. But unlike Princess Diana, Leila could not be buried in her own beloved country.
Apart from a few royal air force officers who were lining up on the tarmac and saluted the coffin while it was being carried into the waiting plane, there were no further ceremonial activities. The mourning crowd now sang the Iranian Imperial anthem and a young man shouted: “Leila! We shall take you to your beloved Iran one day and have you buried in our soil.”
A member of the royal family, who is a resident here, said a few words of thanks and shook hands with each of the mourners. With only two members of the entourage accompanying Leila in her last flight, we stood aside for the plane to takeoff. A few minutes later it disappeared behind the cloudy skies of England and with it yet another casualty of exile began her final journey.
There will be lots of stories and theories surrounding the death of Princess Leila. The London press had already started speculating. Ironically, I read the best of these reviews in The Guardian the day before. The publication that was well known for its anti-Shah stance in the heady days of the revolutions carried the most realistic account of the reason behind Leila's demise.
The article was written by James Buchan, the author of an aptly titled novel about Iran called A Good Place to Die. Buchan considered that Leila's death was caused by a condition that all those Iranians who, have been forced to leave Iran after the revolution and, are in despair over the issue of ever returning to their homeland suffer from homesickness. This is what makes the death of Princess Leila so distinct from others. A young and beautiful woman who lived an affluent lifestyle, and with no tangible memory of her homeland, yet so painfully longing to return. Those of us who have such fears as never being able to see their homeland have a great deal in common with Princess Leila.
We were now leaving the airfield and through the window of the car I was still trying, in vain, to see if I could catch one last glimpse of the small plane. As if I was looking for an answer to an unknown question, I remembered the words of a Christian saint, Pope Pious II, who on his flight from his enemies famously said: “I love justice and hate iniquity, therefore, I must die in exile.” I had found my answer.