I received a call from Manijeh, who works at the Iranian Cultural Center in Oakland. She was excited. “She's coming to visit the center!” she said. “Who?” I said. “Farah” she said. I knew that the former Queen was in town to speak at several events on her recent book. I even knew about the mystery “Mehmooni” some Iranians had thrown for her.
“Why is she coming to the center?” I asked, stupidly. Manijeh replied, “Apparently she wants to make a quick anonymous visit to a local Iranian cultural heritage center. No hoopla, just a stop by and say hello, and to see the kind of work being done to preserve Iranian traditions, customs and history.”
“That's Great!” “Can I come?” I asked. “I'll get you in don't worry, -Need another article eh?” Manijeh snickered. “No it's not like that, I really want to meet her!” I tried to explain. She gave me the date and time, and we hung up.
“I'm going to meet the freaking Queen!' I said.
I thought back to Iran, before the revolution and tried to replay the images of Farah Pahlavi, that I had stored far back in my mind. Ah yes! There they are! One by one, I ran the slideshow forward. The coronation, the international art shows with those French posters “Exposition de les Arte Moderne du Tehran 1974”, towering over Nixon, towering over Carter, visiting the rural schools. I stopped when I got to the image of her at the grave of the Shah, then her daughter's. “Enough”, I thought, back to reality. I knew exactly what I wanted Farah to see at the center.
One historical record that was preserved from the era before the revolution, was one of 2 books on Iran(Bridge of Turquoise and Elements of Destiny) Farah had commissioned by the famous Photographer Roloff Beny. These beautiful books which took 16 years to make, served to document Iran in a way that had never before been done before. Combining history, literature and images of Iran in a glorious collection. I found Bridge of Turquoise in a public library auction 16 years ago, I remember the day well. After paying $5 for what was in it's day worth thousands, I rushed home to read the book. As I turned page after page of the finely printed book, I marveled at the quality of the images, the print, the paper used in the fine binding. It's a wonderful book if you can find it.
The book now rested in the safe hands of the Iranian cultural center, and it was this book I intended to show Farah. That she had done something good, and it had been preserved for future generations to admire.
As I waited for her to arrive I began to get nervous. I was surprised at this because she was for all practical purposes a normal person. She no longer had any real power over me, and I was no longer her subject, and certainly had nothing to fear. Yet a pit began to build. I heard the sound of the front doorbell, and the bustle of activity as the few center people led by Manijeh rushed to open the door.
Suddenly, finally there she was. Surprisingly alone, dressed in a cream blazer with navy slacks, she wore cream pumps with some sort of generic gold crest (not the familiar Pahlavi crest). And a simplest strand of pearls. She was shorter than I imagined, but my imagination was based on the memory of a 7 year old boy watching her crowned queen of Iran on television in Tehran.
Her eyes sparkled and the familiar half smile broke broadly as she said her hellos. After her tour of the center, she graciously commended everyone on their hard work and dedication. She would often stop at the many paintings that adorned the center, left over “donations” from the many failed visiting Iranian artist shows, who hopelessly brought their talent here, wishing for that elusive of all patrons, “The Iranian Art Lover”.
I was introduced, and for a split second, I almost took a knee, but the shock of that thought froze me and instead I just shook her hand, half-smiled her right back and said a jerky, “Salam, Khosh-Amadeed”.
I then took over the tour and asked her “Now would you like to see something that I know you will like to see?” I said half teasing her. A puzzled smile of intrigue flashed across her face, and she nodded. I took her into the library and to the table I had laid the book on, before she got there.
I opened the book to the familiar section that had her coronation, and some rare behind the scenes photographs of the former royal family. But, they weren't in their usual section of the book. “That's odd” I thought, “It should be right here after this section…wait let me check the index.” I checked the index and it said “Royal Family p. 246”, I turned to the page and my heart froze. Pages 246 through 238 had been ripped out! Luckily she had glanced away at another painting on the wall.
Quickly I flipped to the picture of a luscious ripe and juicy Anar. For a non-Iranian, Beny had somehow managed to perfectly capture the intense love affair we have with the pomegranate.
She smiled broadly, and said, “I love this book, I did not think there were any left.” I told her how I had found it, and she nodded as I recounted the discovery. And with that, she said, “Well, it has been lovely meeting all of you and I have thoroughly enjoyed my visit, but unfortunately I must go.”
Everyone in the center said “No!” with the most heartfelt of taarofs, we could muster, even though we knew it was pointless.
We escorted her to the door, and she thanked us all again and was gone. We all waited until she had descended the steps of the Victorian and was safely down the sidewalk, out of earshot, when the tittering and gossiping began.
I had to leave and said goodbye to everyone and made my way towards the back of the building where I had parked. I got into my truck and pulled out smiling, I turned at the driveway into the street and drove past the coffee shop on the corner. As I glanced at the doorway, I saw the cream and navy outfit just inside.
“Farah drinks coffee.” I said. And kept on going.
I slammed on the brakes. “FARAH DRINKS COFFEE?”
I pulled a Yewie and parked across the street from the coffee shop. I narrowly missed a car coming at me as I crossed the street. “Hosha! I'm walking here!” I screamed at the idiot. I ran into the coffee shop, and just missed her as she was seated by the waitress.
“Now what?” I thought.
“Now you'll just walk up to her and ask her if you can join her, that's what.” Ah reason! It's a good thing when it returns. And so I did as reason told me to.
She looked up and I asked her if I could join her, and she said, “Certainly, I am waiting for my ride.”
I sat down, and just as I was about to speak, a menu was shoved in my face. I shoved it back and said, “Hello? Coffee?” to the pierced thing with an apron.
Farah smiled again, and ordered a single cappuccino. “Very LA” I thought.
And we spoke. This is where the dream gets fuzzy. I know, I have tried to focus on it, but I was having such a good time, I didn't want to mess it up by remembering everything that was said. Something about where she had been all these years, and if she wanted to go back to Iran one day. She asked me what I did, and I lied. You know, the usual polite chit chat a man has with an older woman in a coffee shop.
Suddenly a fine spray, like that of child spitting between it's teeth at you, hit me square in the face. I sputtered and looked up to see a fine arc of water streaking from the radiator behind Farah. We both shrieked as the water went everywhere, and people began picking up their coffees and moving as everyone near us got schpritzed. moving their coffees.
Hey it's a dream. Weird stuff happens, all right?
I always admired Farah growing up as a child in Iran, she seemed so genuine, nice and caring. Kind of like a cross between your mother and the blue fairy in Pinocchio. As a child I remember the Shah did not seem so nice, he always looked stern and seemed to be a strict disciplinarian. A mean King. I have no idea if this was true and several biographies have painted a much different picture of them than we imagined, but to a child he always appeared serious, angry, and generally not a good person to joke around with.
Looking back on the coffee shop, I wanted to ask her so many things about the past. Like did she ever know about the brutality of SAVAK? Did she speak about it to her husband at night when they were in bed, alone? Did she try to reason with him? Did he promise her he would change things? And now, could she tell if her son was serious about not wanting to be King? If her book does one thing, it attempts to point out some of the greater good of the Pahlavi era. True, it paints over the bad, but there really was some good done in that time.
So how does one resolve the Shah from Farah, right from wrong, good from evil? We would be wrong to automatically assume her guilt in her husband's crimes. We would be wrong to assume that she did not speak out against an evil empire. Because maybe she actually did. We don't know that she didn't. Or that if she didn't speak out like we suspect, that this may have been the single biggest mistake of her life, a cross only she can now bear, in silence for all these years.
I don't propose that we go back to being a kingdom, or forsake our ongoing journey towards a true democracy. I'm certainly no Shah lover or even a proponent and I don't even have a role in mind for Farah in this regard. But I do know that she has the kind of innate great grace and regal carriage, that could make a shopping trip to Wal-Mart feel privileged. It still obviously beams from her. She is the quintessential queen.
And ultimately it isn't very important what kind of life you had, or have led, it's what you do with the rest of your life that matters in the end. As the queen of Iran during the Pahlavi era, who's to say if the Pahlavis had stuck it out and stayed, if we would be where we are today. Who's to say that if Iran had remained a monarchy, that shortly after his father's death in 1980, that Reza II reading the writing on the wall, relegating himslef to a symbolic monarch, wouldn't have handed power over to a democratic government by and for the people. He is certainly singing that tune now. Maybe he's telling the truth. Yesterday I listened as Richard Clarke spoke about how the US had actually particpated in covert military action against agents of the Iranian Islamic Republic. So we're certainly not well off by any means. And that is my point, the past is not as important as the future. And I don't know what Farah plans to do the rest of her's. But for better or worse, like it or not, pro or con, she is a living icon, and she is ours to resolve.
Each man will admit to you (if you get him on his back and push your foot firmly against his throat so he can't get away), that there are 3 kinds of women; your mother, your wife, and your mistress. Farah offers us a fourth, our Queen.