Crown of lilies
I walked up to the open grave and threw my white rose
June 25, 2001
On that Saturday afternoon in June, shortly before the funeral, a crowd
of some two thousand mourners had lined up at the cemetery of Passy near
the old northern walls of Paris, south and southwest of Trocadéro.
Behind the grey vaults was a small graveyard, sheltered by a bower of chestnut
trees, where many well-known souls -- artists and dignitaries -- have been
laid to rest. By the end of the day they were joined by a Persian princess.
Just two days earlier, on a bright sunny Thursday
morning, I had joined a handful of people, mostly elderly women and a few
young Iranians, in paying our respects to Princess Leila. Even here in Paris,
I was unable to forget how the mourners had entered the dimly lit room of
a London chapel taking with them an indelible memory, an image that held
within it every fairy tale. Click on image
Dressed in a white Muslim shroud the princess had been laid in a coffin
draped in the old imperial flag. Blinded by tears, people walked up one
side, looked in at her sleeping pale face through a small glass cover, kissed
it and wept. She was so beautiful, so young, so small.
Last year during my trip to Cairo on the 20th anniversary of the Shah's
death, I had met Princess Leila and been struck by her piercing brown eyes,
long hair, melancholic smile and gentle handshake. A petite woman, she had
seemed happy to mingle with her compatriots, often asking questions about
Iran and hearing their stories. During the slow journey to RAF Northolt
Air Base, my thoughts had gone out to her grief-stricken mother and family
Shortly before the white, chartered aircraft had been loaded up with
its precious cargo, a young woman had run up to me and handed me a crown
of lilies which I dutifully ensured would accompany the princess on her
sad journey across the English Channel. And when the plane took off, many
of us sad mourners had shuddered at the thought of our own mortality. We
had even prayed to see the little princess buried one day in her own sweet
Perhaps out of curiosity or a need to reflect on the
day's events, I had made my way back to the Leonard Hotel near Marble Arch,
where on June 10th, Princess Leila had passed away in her sleep. Lounging
in the bar with its soft furnishings, plush red sofas, wall to wall paintings
and various antiques including a stone lion, I had tried in vain to imagine
the young woman's final moments. What had she been thinking about? And was
it true that she had died of a broken heart? Click
The British press were speculating and offering many theories from the
plausible to the absurd. Was the photo of the late Shah found under her
silk pillow by Scotland Yard detectives (the rumours are to be believed)
a clue? These thoughts and many other unanswered questions had haunted me
long after I had left the hotel and begun walking in the pouring rain.
The death of a lonely, unmarried, Persian princess in a London hotel
at the age of 31 did not go unnoticed. Instead it had opened a Pandora's
box and stirred many emotions among Iranian exiles all over the globe.
Even inside Iran, a few sympathisers, mostly young children born after
the monarchy's overthrow and their mothers who had heard the former empress's
moving communiqué, had under the very noses of the revolutionary
guards, held a candle-lit vigil outside the former Niavaran palace in north
Tehran chanting Leila's name.
The funeral had been scheduled for the sixteenth of
June and I was determined to attend. So early that morning my fiancée
and I boarded the Eurostar at London's Waterloo Station and headed for Paris.
Click on image
By chance, seated in the next first class train compartment was a smartly
dressed Iranian lady in complete black looking impeccable with her pearls
and splendid coiffed silver hair and thick, designer sunglasses. You can
imagine our surprise when she turned out to be Leila's great-aunt. "I
feel so sorry for the empress," she told us. "It is a great family
Her son, a successful banker whom I had befriended at the London chapel
a few days ago, spoke fondly of the young princess's love of Hafez and Rumi
and Persian art, her sensitivity and troubled life.
The tragedy of Princess Leila's death lay in her past
and the glorious but turbulent history of Iran. Born on March 27th, 1970,
Princess Leila was the youngest of the Shah's daughters. Her golden childhood
in Tehran had ended with a bloody revolution in 1979 that overthrew the
Pahlavi dynasty. Click on image
During the early years of exile, she had shared in her family's arduous
struggle to find a safe haven. The death of her beloved father, whom she
adored greatly, had been a traumatic event, which had adversely affected
her in subsequent years. "Whenever I look in the mirror, I see him,"
she once told a friend.
By the time we reached the Champs-Elysees every newsstand carried the
latest magazine editions with glossy photos of the former empress and her
daughter on the front covers. "La douleur de Farah," cried one
of the headlines.
Soon afterwards we had taken a taxi to Wilson avenue
then strolled along rue du Comandant-Schloesing towards the cemetery where
French photographers and curious onlookers awaited to capture the great
outpouring of grief. At the open gates a dozen elderly men in dark ties
and grey hair handed us each a rose, some white and others red. Click
The funeral began shortly after three o'clock when a black automobile
carrying the flower-laden coffin of Princess Leila drove up the cobbled
path where rows and rows of admirers had lined up to salute her. Despite
her obvious grief, the former empress, was determined to maintain her dignity,
as she walked behind her daughter's hearse, accompanied by her immediate
children and family members. As the procession made its slow, painful journey
through the trees, a party of birds trilled their approval.
Among the mourners that day were members of European royalty, notably
ex-King Constantine of Greece, international dignitaries, journalists, and
a few colourful jet set types who had abandoned their Manhattan apartments
or shiny yachts along the French Riviera, their skin deliciously brown from
But it was the sight of unity demonstrated among the
multitude of grieving and solemn Iranian exiles from different countries
and various political backgrounds that impressed me the most. Raised high
on the shoulders of her compatriots, Princess Leila's coffin was carried
proudly towards a white marquee erected beside a freshly open grave lit
up by a ray of sunlight. Click on image
From a safe distance away, I watched the simple ceremony from behind
the nameless heads gathered in the cemetery. It was a moving sight. I glimpsed
at the broken-hearted former empress lost in thought as Princess Leila's
governess wept on her coffin. Behind her I could barely see the faces of
Princess Farahnaz and Prince Ali Reza as they struggled with their feelings.
Ardeshir Zahedi, the late Shah's former son-in-law and ambassador to
Washington, had flown from Switzerland to be there, as had Dr Lucy Pirnia,
the royal children's doctor. Other members of the Pahlavi family including
Princess Ashraf, and Princes Gholam Reza and Abdol Reza and their glamorous
wives stood under the marquee as a molla read from the Koran. "Do not
shed tears, but let us pray for the soul of the beloved Princess Leila who
died for her country," said the molla. "We ask Allah to give her
family, especially her dear mother, the Shahbanou, patience and strength.
At a time of great mourning Islam forbids tears. Let us all pray."
As head of the Pahlavi family, Reza II, vowed to bury
his "beloved sister" in her own country before throwing some Iranian
earth from a silver box. This was repeated by his wife Princess Yasamin,
Empress Farah and other close relatives after the wooden, brown coffin had
been lowered into the ground. Neither the cries of, "Javid Shah"
and "Zendehbad Shahbanou" nor the patriotic anthem of "Ey
Iran" and counterrevolutionary slogans were enough to soothe their
loss. Click on image
And so it was that Princess Leila was laid to rest in Passy cemetery
surrounded by flowers and loved ones. After the mourners had retired from
the scene I walked up to the open grave and threw my white rose with the
afterthought that in death, perhaps now she had found the profound serenity
which she had yearned all her life in this ethereal and timeless place away
It was about 4:30p.m. when I offered my condolences to the former empress
as she stood there at the far end of the cemetery listening patiently to
the kind and heart-warming words of her compatriots with deep affection.
Later, as my fiancée and I waited in the courtyard
to sign a book of condolences a clap of thunder broke out above us. Opening
our umbrellas we watched the mourners run for cover as a tremendous shower
of rain swept across the cemetery. One very emotional lady soaked down to
her shoes murmured, "Leila is crying from happiness." Click
When it had stopped raining a small rainbow appeared between the clouds
bringing a lightness to the sombre occasion. Later, we followed the mourners
to an apartment belonging to Princess Leila's grandmother, Farideh Diba,
who had passed away last December, and where the Shahbanou now held court.
Never in my life had I seen such a crowd waiting to offer their sympathies.
Over time, a close bond had been formed between politically diverse Iranians.
"It's very busy in there," said one of the departing visitors
with a smile. "But don't lose hope."
It wasn't until half-past six that my fiancée and I were allowed
in. We climbed the stairs leading to the royal apartment, passing Amir Taheri,
an Iranian journalist and biographer of the late Shah. On the third floor
near the entrance to the Shahbanou's apartment was a small man sitting on
a chair beside a mountain of flowers talking to his wife on a mobile telephone.
He smiled at me. I recognised him as the same person who had accompanied
Kambiz Attabai, the empress's tireless and dedicated private secretary,
on the princess's last flight from London to Paris.
Inside the apartment a few white candles flickered in front of a portrait
of Princess Leila alongside a turquoise statue and a rare, open copy of
the Koran which lay on a heavy marble table.
Greeting every visitor with a tired look, her eyes
red with grief and her lips unable to express the secrets of her heart,
the Shahbanou moved gently and painfully along the corridor to a spacious
chandeliered room filled with Persian paintings and family photos and a
statue of the late Shah, hugging her relatives and accepting various tokens
of support from her countrymen. That evening, Prince Reza II shook hands
with everyone thanking them for coming. Click on image
Unable to linger on in this sad house which had become unbearable, my
fiancée and I decided to slip out discreetly. At Paris's Gare du
Nord we came across a distinguished Iranian gentleman who had missed his
While his wife sorted out his tickets we talked about the funeral. "We
were a bad generation," he lamented. "Had we shown moral courage
twenty-two years ago maybe we wouldn't be here, stuck in history, not knowing
which way to turn. Princess Leila belonged to that lost generation of Iranians
who paid for their father's sins. She died innocent."
On the train back to London I concluded that if Princess
Leila's untimely passing was largely due to a lengthy battle with depression
and homesickness brought about by her inability to find a purposeful life
in exile, then her pain was certainly not a singular one shared in isolation.
Click on image
As a lovesick nightingale,
you flew among the owls.
Then came the scent of the Gholestan
And you flew off to meet the Rose -- Rumi