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Requiem in Cairo
Marking the 20th anniversary of the Shah's death

Written by Cyrus Kadivar
Photographs by Claude Stemmelin
September 8, 2000
The Iranian

It was a very, very hot day in Cairo. Leaving my hotel room at the El-Gezira Sheraton my mood was sombre. Getting into the taxi with two middle-aged Iranian sisters from London we sped across the long bridge glancing occasionally at the towering buildings that rose along the timeless river. Turning right we passed a giant stone lion and descended on the Nile Corniche almost colliding with a horse-carriage full of tourists. We came to an abrupt halt in front of the four-star Semiramis.

Walking through the air-conditioned lobby we made our way through a revolving door. Outside, a security man led us politely to a large bus parked beneath a palm tree. Ten minutes later we were on our way to Nasr City, on the outskirts of Cairo. Standing in the aisle, I wiped the sweat off my face. Many of the fifty or more seated passengers were in a state of considerable irritation. Everyone was complaining of the heat.

Inevitably, my thoughts wandered back twenty years ago when President Sadat had walked shoulder to shoulder with Crown Prince Reza and Empress Farah from the Abedin Palace to the Al Rifa'i Mosque. It had been a grand funeral according to a friend of mine who had witnessed the emotions expressed by ordinary Cairenes along the three-mile journey. "Allah protect you," they had shouted, some throwing flowers in the air, as the late Shah's coffin draped in the imperial flag and escorted by Egyptian soldiers had rolled on the wheels of a canon pulled by six Arab stallions.

It had been a funeral fit for a king and as we reached the tomb of Anwar Sadat a deep sense of recognition filled our hearts. How could anyone forget the hospitality of the Egyptian leader accorded to the dying Shah when all the world had abandoned him in a callous political game that had shamed his former allies.

As I left the bus the scene of Sadat's death in October 1981 kept replaying itself in my mind: the sound of jet planes flying overhead, the sound of the bullets, the screaming at the empty parade ground, the blue uniform of the Commander-in-Chief stained in blood. He now lay buried beside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. See photos here

Beneath the brick pyramid guarded by soldiers in Pharaonic and Mameluk uniforms stood a gathering crowd. Looking around me I saw many elderly, well-heeled men and women, former courtiers or officials under the monarchy. They had flown in from Paris, Rome, London, New York, Washington D.C., Houston, and L.A. for what must have seemed to them a kind of pilgrimage. But there were also a number of chic thirtysomethings drawn to Cairo by a mixture of nostalgia and curiosity.

Suddenly, a flurry of excitement ran through our ranks. "They're here," came the whispers. Quickly we assembled in a line. "My God," a young woman screamed, "It's them!" By now my heart had begun to beat rapidly. As the royal family walked up the dark polished marble terrace leading to the pyramid they were greeted emotionally by their compatriots.

Fate had chosen a lonely pedestal for us to meet. The once shy crown prince who had upon losing his father declared himself king at the tender age of twenty-one, was now a matured presence. At forty, despite his friendly manner and a touch of white hair, Reza Pahlavi appeared to me a man born to shoulder the ancient institution he represents.

The sight of the Shahbanou sent my heart racing. It seemed only yesterday when, as a child, over thirty years ago, I had handed her a red rose during her visit to a kindergarten in Shiraz. Now at thirty-seven I found myself in awe of her. Empress Farah, dressed in fine black, had despite the passage of years in exile and her personal tragedy, remained an attractive lady, slim and poised. I bowed slightly then turned to find myself facing the radiant Yasamin and her two lovely daughters, Iman and Noor. They moved like a sweet breeze followed by Farahnaz and Leila, the late Shah's daughters. Only Prince Ali Reza was absent.

After posing briefly for the cameras the royal family were joined by Jehan Sadat and her son. Together they moved forward where they lay a wreath of flowers at the foot of a white, block of stone marking the grave of the late President Sadat. Representing his family, Reza Pahlavi lowered his head in prayer for a leader who had been a true gentleman.

The brief ceremony at Nasr City was over and it was time to move on to the old part of Cairo. We reached the Al Rifa'i Mosque before sunset and made our way up the long steps lined with red carpets. At the entrance we were checked by security men then allowed access to the grand prayer hall. Inside there were bouquets of flowers everywhere and the scent of narcissus filled the air. An Egyptian mullah chanted the prayer of the dead followed by an Iranian poet who read from Ferdowsi's epic Shahnameh. The royal family and Mrs. Sadat listened solemnly as they sat on red cushioned chairs arranged along the outer walls of the Shah's tomb.

Later, Reza and Farah Pahlavi gathered the remaining members of their family inside the marbled vault to read the fatiha. A few minutes later as they emerged from the tomb I ventured inside to find Mrs. Sadat in conversation with an Iranian businessman from Toronto. When he had finished I went up to her and shook her hand. "The Iranian people will never forget the humanity your late husband showed towards the Shah of Iran," I said.

"We did nothing...nothing," Mrs. Sadat replied as she walked out to hold Farah Pahlavi's hands, kissing her veiled face in the traditional manner. Then she proceeded to saying goodbye to the two little princess's dressed in their immaculate white clothes and matching sandles.

I made way as a crowd of well-wishers entered the tomb. An old officer of the imperial army marched up to the green-stone and clicked his heels. "Your Majesty," he shouted in a high military voice, "May you rest in peace for we are awake!" A recently engaged couple knelt before the four gold candles and placed their fingers on the script below the Pahlavi crest. Another woman kissed the cold marble and wept. There were many such personal acts of fealty by the 250 or more Iranians gathered at the Al Rifa'i.

Outside the mosque the Egyptian sun lowered itself gently as the old walls of the Al Rifa'i turned orange. Standing alone beside a large plant, I watched Farah Pahlavi emerging slowly from the mosque through the main door. For a split second I saw her kind smile. Then she was gone, surrounded by her bodyguards, followed by other members of her family and a group of Iranians. Heading down the red carpeted stairs I caught a final glimpse as she got into her bullet-proof limousine.

That evening at the Salaam Palace a small buffet had been prepared in one of the many rooms. Under the bright chandeliers the guests mingled informally with the royal family. Noor and Iman ran happily around the chairs like two small white butterflies bringing their mother a bunch of flowers. In a nearby salon Farah Pahlavi sat on a gilded sofa patiently signing autographed photos for her admirers. Moving closer to the empress, I watched her adjusting her earrings, pausing from the demands around her.

Someone urged me to sit on the sofa beside Farah Pahlavi while an aide brought her tea in a china cup. For a moment I watched her long fingers as she signed her name inside a copy of Mansoureh Pirnia's "Safarnameh Shahbanou" a pretty book about Farah Pahlavi's trips in Iran during her husband's rule. Then, slowly, her head turned towards me. She studied my face for a while with her eloquent, brown eyes. In a few seconds she managed to reinforce the qualities that one expected from a woman of her position: intelligence, patience, and maturity.

Time stood still as I was gripped by new emotions. It seemed to me that I had waited most of my life for this moment. But since the revolution my heart had carried a heavy sadness at the fall of our country and the loss of everything we loved and cherished. There was also another reason for my coming to Cairo. I wanted to know how the late Shah had spent his last days and to hear fromhis wife the truth about those dark days. Maybe this way I would finally make sense of all the suffering we had endured. But it was an illusion for there was no time for such talk. Instead, paying my respects I retired to allow other guests to share time with her for they too had waited a long time for such a reunion.

As I stood in the middle of the salon contemplating the antique furniture and oil paintings my eyes fell on a small gold frame with a picture of the late Shah in his white uniform. It rested forlornly on a small table in the corner of the room. All around me people came and went in a haze of cigarette smoke and rushing waiters bearing glasses of water and soft-drinks on silver trays

Unexpectedly I felt a tap on my shoulder. Turning around I found myself face to face with Reza Pahlavi. "Come with me," he said, ushering me into another empty room. It was to be a private audience. Neither of us sat down as we spoke about Iran. I listened carefully as he outlined his hopes and plans for the future. He was, he said, determined to provide a fresh alternative to freeing Iran whilst modernising the institution which he represents. "The new generation is the key to our success," he said with his eyes fixed on me.

Ten minutes later the gilded door opened and a group of young Persian ladies rushed in to pose for pictures with the heir to the throne. Leaving the room I chatted with a young Iranian couple and some of the guests. In the buffet room the empress was talking to Kambiz Atabai, her private secretary, and the two sisters. As I entered the room Farah Pahlavi, clearly drained and exhausted from a long, emotional day, bade everyone farewell in her graceful way and departed.

The next day in Alexandria I recalled everything and everyone. Watching the blue waves splash against the Qaytbay Fort with its turrets and crenellated battlements I recalled the words of Sa'di, a famous Shirazi poet:

Throne, fortune, high command, dominion? all These things are nothing, since they pass away: Far better than some palace daubed in gold is the memorial of a goodly name.

(My story took place on July 26th 2000)

See photos here

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Cyrus Kadivar
Comment to the photographer Claude Stemmelin

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