At the flower shop in Paris, I ask the friendly Iranian owner for a bunch of white roses. “Is it a gift?” she asks.
“Yes it is a gift. It is for dear Leila,” I say.
“Leila Pahlavi, I am on my way to visit her grave.”
There is a long heavy silence which makes me feel uncomfortable and then she lifts up her glistening eyes from the cellophane she is wrapping around the flowers and with emotion vibrating in her voice she says “Bravo to you.”
Her pause and subsequent outburst signifies an emotional response subdued and hushed, but alive and waiting for an opportunity to be released. I wander into the land of “What ifs” and think what if we Iranians could feel our own feelings instead of the feelings allowed to us by religious decrees and parceled out into tidy little official packages; feelings we are told we must feel according to state legislation. And if we dare feeling otherwise we have to fear knives, clubs and persecution. This fear follows us even in as faraway a place as Paris.
Today is the 10th of June. A year has already gone by since Princess Leila's death. I remember the feeling of shock and disbelief on reading the news. At the time of the funeral along with many others, I went to the cemetery to pay my respects. The whole ceremony flashes in front of my eyes: At the gates of the Passy cemetery an old man offers a white rose to each mourner. Rows of Iranians dressed in black are standing on each side of the driveway waiting for the coffin to arrive.
I remember seeing Reza Pahlavi walking behind the hearse with sorrow and dignity. He looks like a royal whose distinction and stature does not depend on a crown. And Shahbanou, an aggrieved mother who has come to her dear daughter's burial; a mother who being who she is has more than her own grief to bear. In fact, what impressed me most about the Pahlavi family was that in the middle of their great affliction, they did not for a moment forget their sense of duty to those who depended on them.
They were there to bury their daughter but they were graciously reaching out to comfort their compatriots who had come to say good bye to their Princess. Looking at them that day one did not need an in-depth interview to recognize their decency, sincerity and their genuine love for their country. One only needed a pair of eyes and enough humanity to see.
Today in front of Leila's grave I try to search for that humanity within myself. I ask myself what do I standing here sincerely feel, steering clear of all the stock feelings, all the sentimentalism. In my mind's eye I see a little girl like every other little girl, leaning her bicycle against a fence and walking into a store.
One of my fellow gendarmes points her out to me “She is Princess Leila,” he says. I am doing my military service in Kish Island. A year later that little girl is gone along with her family into exile. Voices come to my mind from those agonizing days of social madness and hatred, voices of people who are near and dear to me but which have grown distanced and strange, metamorphosed and reduced to dogmatic and unthinking mouthpieces of some “ism” or other.
Their ranting which is greed and covetousness garnished with religious catchwords echo in my mind. Those with less crude pretensions claim the revolution is not over the price of the watermelon. I stand in front of Leila's grave more than two decades later. I feel bereft. What a folly, what a tremendous price, what a tragic penalty for a collective lapse of judgment.
Can a sensible Iranian reflecting on the harrowing history of his or her country in the past 23 years stand here at this safe distance, in this far away cemetery and not realize the tragic loss; loss of not only what we had but what we could have built upon.
The demagogues who promised they were going to turn us into masters, dispensed instead with those icons that underpinned our national dignity and character. Yes, the revolution was not over the price of the watermelon. It was over the devaluation of our most cherished values.
It was over the denigration and destruction of a great tradition which had cemented our country together for 3000 years. In front of Leila's grave I am not sentimentalizing over the past glories, I only reflect how our lives as Iranians could have been made richer and more meaningful if she was not plucked away from the country she loved to death.
With her grace, intelligence and beauty she would have been cherished as a source of encouragement, inspiration and national pride. The black marble of Princess Leila's grave is covered with flowers, I look at some of the cards, I read Reza and Yassaman, Maman, Noor and Iman: “Maman is here today, together with Ali Reza and hundreds of other Iranians who have come to pay homage to their Princess on the first anniversary of her death.”
I notice that all the flowers are white. Leila used to like white flowers. The sun comes out of the clouds and I feel a few drops of rain wetting my face. It seems like a gentle tribute from heaven to mark the occasion. As I take leave of her grave, I feel stronger and more hopeful than when I walked into the cemetery. I reflect on the history of Iran, and muse on the fact that no tyrant and no invading armies have ever been able to make us forget our country's true sons and daughters.
Princess Leila will always occupy a special place in our national memory. She will be an inspiration to us as we move on to fulfill our national dream, our dream that one day our country will rise again like a phoenix from the ashes of its present cataclysm.
As I walk out of the cemetery I think of white flowers and a white revolution that is still to come, a revolution of understanding and peace in the minds and hearts of the people of Princess Leila's beloved country.