Fereydoun Hoveyda hobnobbed with arts and culture grandees in Europe and America while serving a regime that at best had a contemptuous relationship with the intellegencia
December 3, 2005
I first came across Fereydoun Hoveyda's name in the archives of "Setareh-e Cinema", the pioneering film magazine that was published in the early Sixties in Tehran. I read translations of his pieces originally published in Cahiers du cinema and although I didn't know anything about Mr. Hoveyda save for a vague suspicion that he might be related to the then Prime Minister, seeing his name alongside the likes of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Trauffut, an Iranian presence in the centre of European culture, was, I must admit, exciting and inspiring. And then there was his tepidly received novel, Qurantine, written in the same existential pitch as Camus' and Sartre's works.
In hindsight, tepidness seems to have defined Hoveyda's cultural life. Although his range of interests was impressive, he was less the Renaissance man his admirers have claimed him to be than a jack of all trades and master of none. Having dabbled as a film critic, novelist, filmmaker and collage artist, he left no lasting impression on any one field. His writings in Cahiers du cinema though shared the audacious anti-establishment tone found in pieces by Godard, Trauffut and Chabrol, lacked the depth and conviction of his friends' writings who went on to become stalwarts of the European cinema in the Sixties.
Fereydoun Hoveyda's writing was prone to grand pronouncements, the same quality found later in his political works. His book, The Fall of the Shah, contains some insights into the root causes of the Iranian revolution, but mostly brims with pronouncements. It's a strange book, written in the style of books written by "great politicians" such as Churchill where the authority of writer is sufficient to carry the weight of its pronouncements. Reading it one gets the impression of a man looking down from an Olympian height at the events unfolding on the ground. Hoveyda's tone is almost detached. This is all the more puzzling considering Hoveyda family's long involvement with the Pahlavis, his brother's 16 year tenure as the Prime Minister and Mr. Hoveyda's own decades long diplomatic career in the service of the previous regime.
Fereydoun Hoveyda portrays his brother as a passive victim of the Shah's megalomania, an innocent bystander amidst the corruption and out and out thievery that went on in Iran. He exonerates his brother, quoting Amir Abbas himself that "we all swam in the same water" -- self-serving considering the Hoveydas were insiders, players in the system and benefited from the Shah's rule.
Throughout his career Hoveyda lived a sort of a double life, hobnobbing with arts and culture grandees in Europe and America and serving a regime that at best had a contemptuous relationship with the intellegencia. How could a man who lived and worked in France in complete liberty, rubbed shoulders with Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre - the same Sartre who was practically crucified after his ground breaking book on torture in Algeria was published - nevertheless serve a regime that by Mr. Hoveyda's own account, imposed massive censorship and routinely harassed, imprisoned and at times execute intellectuals? And yet, Mr. Hoveyda did just that for nearly thirty years and not once he saw fit to explain why.
Hidden in the pages of The Fall of the Shah, there are traces of an argument. As Mr. Hoveyda tells it, after the ushering of the land reforms and the so-called White Revolution in the early Sixties, he and other like minded Europe-educated intellectuals entered public service in order to serve the country. What did it matter that those reforms were ushered by a benevolent dictator? What mattered was that Iran needed these reforms to enter modernity. In other word, Hoveyda's argument as a "Left leaning intellectual" - as the Shah once described him - was that he could do more by working from within the system regardless of the toll the Shah's increasingly repressive rule was taking on the country. This rationalization cold hold some water were it not that Hoveyda remained with the regime to it's bitter end, even when, as he acknowledges himself in The Fall of the Shah, the regime, plagued by corruption and incompetence had lost all legitimacy.
As the members of the former regime go, Fereydoun Hoveyda was a benign figure. His relationship with the regime was at an arm's length. He didn't get his hands dirty and although the "we all swam in the same water" argument is a cop out, mere association with any regime is not an automatic judgment on an individual. And yet, intellectuals, especially intellectuals, have a duty to look in the mirror and fess up to their own responsibility and culpability in history. Mr. Hoveyda never did that. Comment