I was inspired by Faramarz’s recent blog about Reza Shah Kabir high school girls to post this piece. It is part of a work in progress. — SN
Exactly one year after the 2,500th year anniversary of the Persian Empire, the film Forough-e Javedan was released. It was to commemorate a celebration that people were trying to forget as an embarrassing spectacle. And as far as anybody knew, bused school children were the only audience for the film. On a clear and crisp fall morning in 1973 it was the turn of the students at Mitra’s high school to see “Eternal Glory.”
The girls were accustomed to school-sponsored excursions. School children were early on introduced to putting in appearances before the Shah’s family or visiting heads of state. They were taken to line up the streets and clap when waving royalty passed by in their convertibles, usually to or from the airport. Mitra remembered applauding the motorcades of Haile Selassi of Ethiopia, Mobuto Sese Seco of Zaire, King Hossein of Jordan, and any number of less memorable dignitaries. The days typically started out fun but slowly dissipated into the boredom of endless waiting. A quick glimpse of some benevolently smiling leader with a coiffed lady by his side, or some exotically dressed character from Africa or Asia, was hardly enough compensation for sore feet or a minor heat stroke.
But the practice did familiarize children with the names of some foreign countries and their leaders. They formed likes and dislikes. Sometimes they even became attached to foreign leaders whom they hadn’t even applauded. JFK was one. When he was assassinated a ditty made the rounds of Tehran preschools:
Khodavanda che mishod, Kennedy zendeh mishod
Kennedy mehraban bud, rafiq-e kudakan bud
God, why can’t it be for Kennedy to come back to life?
Kennedy was kind, he was a friend to children
One little boy in Mitra’s class found the Kennedy thing so sad that he had a good cry over his project at the handicrafts table.
But as security became tighter, the bonding ritual between world leaders and Iranian school children was abandoned. By the time Mitra was in high school the days of spotting royalty and their cohorts in convertibles were long over for most school children.
On the day of the Eternal Glory viewing, Reza Shah Kabir High School girls walked en masse to Cinema Royal. The theater was walking distance from their school but the plan may have not been wise. Seven or eight hundred high schoolgirls descending on the streets was virtually unsupervisable. And not any high school either… Reza Shah Kabir High School had quite a reputation for its unruly girls.
The day of the excursion the girls were in uniform and in top form. When alone, girls were vulnerable in the streets, zigzagging their way through the male foot traffic with downcast eyes. They clutched their books to their chests, dodging groping hands and obscene comments. But together they were bold. Such a big group was unstoppable.
The more aggressive girls in the front rows linked arms and charged men off the sidewalk and into the car traffic. No poor street vendor was spared. The little kiosks selling cigarettes, newspapers, and lottery tickets were the easiest targets.
“Mister, may I have a cigarette… please?” A girl batting her eyelashes went up to one.
“All right, just one…,” the vendor jovially pulled out a pack. A pretty girl tapping his chest with a manicured finger was not something that happened to him every day.
“But what about me…?” Another girl snatched the pack.
Before he knew what was happening, the guy and his pack of cigarettes were pounced on by half a dozen girls. Then the empty pack was thrown over their shoulders.
“You sluts. You whores. I’ll fuck your mothers…,” the vendor yelled after them.
“Don’t scream so hard mister, your milk will dry up,” said the next group of girls arriving on the scene.
Other vendors clamored to get out of the way as they saw the girls approaching. The medium bold girls egged on the boldest and the timid ones laughed little mousy laughs and huddled together. When school officials were not looking, the radical contingent of the girls—the ones who exchanged newspapers clippings with pictures of Leyla Khaled, Bernadette Devlin, and Angela Davis—flashed V signs to the cars stopped in traffic and occasionally got a V sign back.
When they arrived at Cinema Royal the girls were worked up and ready to assert their collective presence. The build up, however, had been even longer in the making.
A year before, during the celebrations themselves, all schools were closed for a week, ostensibly for the children to “participate” in the festivities. A week of holidays was of course always welcome but the mood was far from festive. To begin with, apart from official receptions for arriving foreign dignitaries there were no festivities. The city was under a kind of siege. Rumors flew about. There was talk of martial law being declared for the entire city; there was talk of Savak taking inventory of inhabitants of certain neighborhoods and placing all their communication under surveillance. The rank and file police officers who normally had nothing to show for their authority but their blue caps and uniforms and an occasional dangling baton now carried guns. In the months leading to the celebrations there had been many demonstrations at the universities. The news spread by word of mouth while the media was silent.
One day the previous spring one of Mitra’s father’s students, fresh from the confrontations, had breathlessly informed them of the attack of the komando security forces on students at various campuses, killing, he had heard, two and wounding over 300. There were rumors that a group of political prisoners had escaped with their guards into Iraq. A year before that, the trials of leftist revolutionaries who were turned in to the police by villagers in Siyahkal and the subsequent executions and imprisonments had soured public mood. And a couple of months before the day Mitra’s high school was taken to see Eternal Glory the bloodbath at the Munich Olympics had left people vexed and angered. There was a general sense that Munich had something to do with them but it was hard to say exactly what.
But the girls were irrepressible. The pomp and circumstance of the celebrations, far from inspiring awe and pride, was a made-to-order pretext for display of irreverence. And the darkness of the movie theater was a dream cover. Hooting and hollering accompanied the scenes of royal receptions. The coterie of the Shah’s fellow third world strongmen—Suharto, Marcos, Yahya Khan, etc.—brought out loud jeering. The stony-faced Eastern bloc delegation and their beefy wives evoked grunts from the teenage girls.
“Teacher, may I…?” one earnest voice was raised when President Giri of India made his appearance. “Do Indian leaders always have to be on the verge of starvation?”
The most popular celebrity was Constantine of Greece, deposed and dapper, whom the girls greeted with applause and whistles and chants of “Eddy, Eddy…”—for Eddy Constantine. Some tried to take up similar cheering for Juan Carlos of Spain but were shouted down with a rebuff from a few determined voices: “Franco, Franco…” The idea was that Franco had put Juan Carlos in power.
Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia and the Lion of Judah, touted as the highest ranking guest, was reported to have traveled with an entourage of 72 and a poodle with a diamond-studded collar. He was always at the Shah’s side and absorbed the abuse that not even in the darkness of the theater could be hurled at the Shah himself.
The official opening of the celebrations was the speech delivered by the Shah before the tomb of Cyrus the Great. The site for this ceremony was Pasargad, the buried city neighboring Persepolis. The tomb of Kourosh, an unassuming structure, had stood in a neglected mausoleum for millenia. For these ceremonies the area was cleared of ancient debris (what’s a little history to a photo op?), turned into a flat stage where elegant bleachers were set up and colorful sun umbrellas were erected to protect the dignitaries from the unrelenting sun of the region. A vast blue platform streaked by gleaming red carpets was laid before the modest tomb of Cyrus. The crimson stripes down the side of the gilded black pants of the Shah and his generals and cabinet ministers echoed the red carpet. And the white silk gown of the queen trimmed with green and gold brocade cut a regal sight. Only the unsightly black cords of the amplifying and recording equipment were an aesthetic blight.
When the Shah walked up to the tomb there was a hint of a hush among the girls in the movie theater. It was as if they were reassessing the spectacle one last time. But by the time the Shah began delivering the famous lines of his speech that had become the butt of endless jokes by now, the girls had recovered themselves.
“Kourosh…,” enunciated the Shah into the microphones with due authority.
“Jooooon…?” the girls chimed in.
“King of kings…”
“We’re listening, jigar…”
“Sleep in peace for we are awake…”
“So are we, SO ARE WE…!” The girls shrieked in unison and all hell broke loose in the theater. They were beside themselves. The wild cheering, whistling, and stamping of feet drowned the rest of the speech. That was the moment everyone had been waiting for.
One of the highlights of the celebrations was the parade of soldiers from different dynastic eras. It was accompanied by earsplitting original marches commissioned for period instruments. Leading the procession were Achamenid soldiers in outfits familiar to everyone from Persepolis bas-reliefs. The girls covered their ears and laughed loudly at the phony costumes and sloppy marching.
The gentlemen attired as ancient soldiers were instructed not to shave for months and had acquired massive round beards that grew almost right up to their eyes. With their short foreheads they barely showed any skin, and putting on the required stern expressions they looked quite menacing (little could any one guess that in a few short years the look would come back in Islamic garb). Following the copiously bearded ancients were the Safavid soldiers with shaved chins, sporting mustaches that extended beyond their cheeks. Finally, the modern soldiers arrived in crisp uniforms with white spats on their shoes. They were shaved smooth and shiny.
“The history of Gillette,” the girls yelled at the defiler. “Before and after…”
A couple of the teachers laughed.
But the movie droned on and on and the girls lost interest. The show was just not up to the level of audience spirit. Some of the girls started sneaking out to meet up with boyfriends they had called on the way to the theater. Others to whom ditching school was not an option broke into groups discussing various subjects among themselves. The first thing that was scrutinized was the fashion sense of the celebrities. The consensus was that their own queen was the best dressed.
“I like the silk suits they make for her with traditional batik motifs.”
“But the hats are ridiculous. Why does she wear them?”
“She can’t have her hair done all the time.”
“No, it’s a royalty thing. Haven’t you seen the queen of England? They have to wear hats. It makes them stand out.”
“The queen of Denmark doesn’t wear hats. And she’s the most dignified.”
“Imelda Marcos doesn’t either but she is so vulgar.”
“She wishes some of Farah’s dignity would rub off on her. You could just see it when Farah was picking her up at the airport and they were standing side by side listening to the national anthem.”
“What boring stuff these royalty have to do. Farah looks bored a lot.”
“She’s stiff. That’s her idea of acting like royalty.”
“No. My mother says she looks mad at the Shah. She says she’s miserable. The Shah cheats on her.”
“She probably goes shopping when she’s mad. She has so many clothes.”
“And so much jewelry. These things that the royals plunk on their heads and pin to their chests are so huge they’re ugly.”
A strange pained expression came over the face of one of the shy girls.
“There’s something ugly about jewels,” she said. “I mean, the things these people do so they wear these things and do these stupid things…” and she blushed at her own inarticulate exertion.
“The communists… They don’t wear jewelry.”
That reminded them of the evening gowns of the eastern bloc ladies.
“I guess fashion is not socialist,” one said. “I wonder if Madame Tito and Madame Padgorny are jealous of these western ladies…!”
Then the conversation turned to the men and their ornaments.
“I don’t understand this medal business,” said someone. “I thought you had to earn medals. These guys give themselves medals.”
“I think European royalty inherit medals. But we don’t have that tradition. Where did the Shah’s medals come from?”
“At least the Shah doesn’t wear the kind that dangle from a chain.”
“Yes he does. Such heavy gold chains too… Pari Zanjiri could put them to good use.”
Pari Zanjiri was a Reza Shah Kabir High School legend. She had taken off her heavy antique chain necklace—the ones that were made popular by the sixties’ fashion discovery of ethnic jewelry—and swung it around her neck during a fight at a volleyball tournament with another high school. She did her opponents some damage that day.
“Malek Hossein wears those too, that little jerk…”
A short discussion of which of the world leaders looked most like jerks followed. Someone nominated the Persian Gulf sheikhs. Others said at least they had some authenticity, not copying European royalty in everything.
“They say they had to get them raw camel meat at the banquets. They don’t eat all that French stuff…”
The competition ended with a tie between King Hossein and Marcos.
“Which of the world leaders look most like butchers?” someone whispered conspiratorially.
“No, Suharto. Suharto.”
A certain bad taste in the mouth that the girls were avoiding all day was becoming pronounced. The ousting of Sukarno reminded Iranians of the Mosaddeq affair and the jeering mood stopped there. They fell silent and turned to the movie again.
It was now showing the rejoicing of the populace. Picture perfect village scenes were staged for the benefit of foreign guests and journalists. Happy villagers, colorful costumes, dancing, stomping, and chanting… What might not have struck foreign observers, however, were things like, oh, those women with their magnificent layered skirts were tribal nomads and did not live in those villages, or the outfits worn by the men actually belonged to people from a different part of the country. Surely the foreigners saw that they were all wearing nametags? No matter. It was a rare city kid who did not know what village life was like. Relatives, neighbors, servants, weekend hikes, and any travel from anywhere to anywhere brought them close to it. Creased faces, ragged clothes, hungry children smelling like goats, Kashk strewn with livestock hair…
And who hadn’t played in the orchards in the villages, picking fruit that had to be checked for worms before eating, hiked in the hills with the dizzying smell of herbs and tiny wild flowers, had not eaten fried eggs with bright orange yokes and valak rice with green garlic? Then again, who hadn’t noticed that to a village child a fitting pair of shoes was a dream, that women lost their teeth and looked fifty at twenty five, and children dropped dead from dysentery? Who hadn’t seen the malnourished babies with bloated stomachs and large heads flattened in the back from being strapped to their cribs all day?
As Mitra watched the over-exuberance of the villagers on the screen another scene was conjured up for her. A year ago during a coverage of the Siyahkal affair, the villagers who had led security forces to the hideout of the armed guerillas were shown on television. They were praised and shown off to the nation by the zealous prosecutor. Mitra particularly remembered the suspicious and fearful expression on the face of one woman as she was ushered in front of the cameras and made a fuss over.
“That’s enough,” someone said apropos of nothing in particular. The Eternal Glory had gone on far too long. Even Reza Shah girls lost their exuberance by the end of it. Unlike the morning, the walk back to school was dispersed and subdued.