Shah’s mourners recall a golden era

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Times Staff Writer

Stylish in tiny black dresses and tailored suits, the mourners gathered in the lobby of an upscale downtown hotel. They filled the air with expensive perfume and cologne, their handbags and sunglasses gilded with the logos of Chanel, Armani and Dolce & Gabbana.

On Wednesday, as they do every year, scores of Iranian monarchists from around the world were visiting the Egyptian capital to pay homage to the late Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and dreamily recall the long-lost Middle Eastern belle epoque he represented -- to them.

Before Al Qaeda and the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, at a time when Sunnis and Shiites intermarried and there were no American warplanes scouring the region, the shah and his wife reigned over a land where, for the well-to-do, local currencies traded as high as skirt hemlines and the future shone brightly.

“It was the greatest era of my life,” said Shahareh Shirvani, a Houston real estate agent who left Iran as a teenager but comes to the memorial each year.


Most historians don’t share that gauzy view of the shah’s reign. He succeeded his father in 1941, but left the country after a democratic and nationalist groundswell in the early 1950s. A U.S.-funded coup d’etat restored him to the throne in 1953.

He surrounded himself with American advisors and military hardware. Flush with oil money, he became Washington’s enforcer in the Middle East, a key ally against the Soviet Union. The SAVAK, his secret police, became notorious for torture and domestic espionage targeting the Islamic activists who ultimately took control of the country. But the secret police cracked down even harder on the leftist and liberal dissidents who might have more effectively opposed them.

Revolution of 1979

The shah’s decades-long rule ended amid the flames of a revolution in 1979 that set in motion Islamic movements throughout the Middle East and contributed to the start of several wars that changed the region forever. It was part of a wave that redirected the Middle East toward religious fundamentalism at a time when much of the world was increasingly embracing global consumer culture.

“I cannot forget the situation back then,” said Farah Diba, the shah’s widow, resting her head on her husband’s tomb inside the 19th century Rifai mosque.

“There was stability and peace,” she said. “Unfortunately, I can say that after what happened 28 years ago in Iran, everything moved in the opposite direction.”

Hengameh Nassef, a 39-year-old Iranian American who lives in a suburb of Cincinnati, remembers “splendid parties and women in fabulous dresses.”


Two years ago, she went to Iran for an 18-day trip. “I saw everyone was unhappy,” she said. “Everything was religiously oriented. The girls weren’t chic.”

The Islamists who took over Iran set it on a collision course with much of the world over its nuclear program and support for Islamic militant groups. They also failed to resolve the country’s economic difficulties and repressed opponents as harshly as the shah, if not more.

Those gathered here wistfully remember the days before the shah’s fall.

“There was no fear in Iran back then,” said Jaffar, a bald man in a bowtie and tuxedo. He asked that his last name not be published because he travels frequently to Iran. “You never had to look behind your back.”

“We had so much fun in school,” said Shirvani of Houston. “I had a motorcycle I used to ride around the cities. When I close my eyes I think of those joyous times.”

Before Islamic enforcers shut down Iran’s nightclubs and forbid unmarried couples to canoodle in public, young men and women partied until dawn in Iranian cities.

“We had discos,” said Ali Reza Gholipour, who resides in Duesseldorf, Germany. “All the entertainment that you have in the West, we had.”


‘Only friend’

The procession of fans left the hotel and boarded buses. They headed first to the tomb of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who offered the ailing shah sanctuary when President Carter refused to let him remain in America, where he had sought refuge.

Sadat “was the only friend the shah had,” said Reza Erfani, who left Iran six months after the revolution and now runs a hotel in Frankfurt, Germany.

The shah succumbed to cancer while in Egypt in July 1980.

Sadat had followed in the shah’s footsteps, making peace with Israel and realigning his country with the U.S. rather than the Soviet Union. He was shot to death in 1981 by Islamic militants during a military parade.

Iran’s young revolutionary government hailed Sadat’s principal assassin, Khaled Islambouli, as a hero, and after he was executed the following year, renamed a street after him, souring dealings between the two governments for decades.

On Wednesday, Diba and Sadat’s widow, Jehan Sadat, together led the procession to Egypt’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the massive triangular monument where Sadat is buried, and placed flowers at his grave.

They boarded the buses again to make the trip across town to the shah’s tomb. A group of passing Egyptian police recruits crammed into an official van gaped salaciously at the well-coiffed men and women inside the air-conditioned bus.


Shirvani noted with alarm the explosion in the number of women wearing all-covering head scarves and garments in Egypt and the passionate support the controversial Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gets on the streets.

Iran, she said, is behind this trend, spending its oil money on Islamic movements throughout the region.

“The taxi drivers tell me, ‘Ahmadinejad! Ahmadinejad!’ ” she said angrily. “I tell them, ‘If he’s so great, why don’t you make him your president?’ ”

Keeping shoes on

Egyptian well-wishers and journalists looked on baffled as the women entered the Rifai mosque without putting on head scarves and the men walked in without taking off their shoes, obligatory for entering a Muslim house of worship.

The Iranians were seemingly oblivious to their host country’s deep-felt piety.

“If our country changes, the entire region would change,” Gholipour said. “Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism would go away.”

The smell of freshly cut jasmine filled the mosque’s cavernous interior. A cleric recited verses from the Koran that echoed within the elaborately tiled walls.


“Is the reading over yet?” one of the Iranians asked in exasperation.

“No,” another said sarcastically, “there are still five more verses to go.”

Diba knelt before her husband’s final resting place, placing first her hand and then her forehead on the marble tomb. An open Koran, its margins illuminated in turquoise and crimson script, rested nearby.

“We can lose a lot of things,” she said later. “We can lose our country, our loved ones, our positions, our belongings, but we can never lose hope. One day, I am sure, this nightmare will be over.”