Dispatch | A Surprising Rehabilitation: The Shah in the Eyes of Young Iranians by ALI CHENAR 02 Aug 2012
Many perceive a loss of "respect" in society since the monarchy's fall.
More than three decades
after Mohammad Reza Shah Phalavi's death and despite relentless official
demonization of the former monarch, the younger generations of Iranians
have a soft spot for the man whom their parents brought down. Last
Thursday, the anniversary of the Shah's death, I spent some time talking
to the residents of Tehran about him.
The fifth day of Mordad, the fifth month of the Iranian calendar, is
not officially remembered in Iran. No significant event took place on
the date according to the Islamic Republic's official calendar. However,
occasional "this day in history" bulletins in state and state-aligned
media outlets include a brief mention: "On this day, Mohammad Reza
Pahlavi, the former Shah of Iran, died in exile in Cairo, Egypt, of
cancer." That is it.
More than 70 percent of Iranians today were born in the years
following the Shah's fall. They do not have any memories of the man who
ruled Iran for 37 years and has been portrayed as a Satanic, despotic
dictator for the past three decades.
And yet many Iranians born during the late 1970s and 1980s have kind
words to say about him. Leila, a 32-year-old teacher and mother of two
who lives in central Tehran, tells me, "I think people, particularly our
parents, were very unfair to Shah. He was not a bad man at all." I tell
her about the SAVAK and all the political prisoners. "Even worse!" she
says, "Look at these guys who rule the country now -- compared to them
he was a saint!"
Leila might be right; Tehran cabdrivers often refer to Shah as "Oon khoda beyamorz,"
which literally means "He, who God may rest in peace." I tell one
driver -- 20-something Hossein -- who is taking me to Azadi Square, once
known as Shahyad or "Shah's memory," that it is the anniversary of the
Shah's death. "God rest his soul in peace, these people did not deserve
him," he says. I ask why he thinks so. Hossein, the rear of whose car
bears a large religious sign, replies, "Those days people were free. My
dad bought a Paykan for 24,000 tomans. Those days, Iranians could go
anywhere in the world. There was no inflation. He treated them
decently." He shakes his head mournfully. "Now look at people lining up for a piece of chicken."
Ordinary Iranians like Leila and Hossein don't feel the need to rely
on any statistics or history books; they live in a society where
corruption cases against government officials seem to mount unceasingly.
A recent text message reads, "Officials have run out of alphabet
letters to name the suspected individuals in the 3 billion [dollar] case"
-- a reference to the Iranian judiciary's habit of keeping suspects
anonymous in official reports by using only their initials.
Ahmad Reza, a lawyer who graduated from the University of Tehran in
the early 1990s, comes face to face with corruption on a daily base.
"While in university, my professors told us that during the Shah's era
the judiciary was secular, while the new judiciary is implementing the
laws of Islam," he says. "And yet they would tell us that during the
Shah and in a secular system it was impossible to bribe a judge." He is
bitter about how his cases are handled. "Today it is hard to find a
judge who will not demand a bribe!" For him, the Shah's era was a time
when lawyers and judges had "some real respect" in the society.
"Respect" and "respectability" are words one hears often when talking
to young Iranians. Thirty-seven-year-old Golam Hossein, a devout Muslim
and a native of Isfahan, a city with a strong revolutionary tradition
that suffered massive casualties in the war with Iraq, speaks the same
way. "People respected the principles more in those days," he declares.
He got married when he was 23; his wife, Fatemeh, wears a chador. "Some
people look at us differently," he says, "it is like we should not enjoy
a good life. My friends often think I am restraining my wife, while it
is her choice to wear a chador." Fatemeh explains, "All of the women in
my family wear chadors, even during the Shah. They tell me that they
were shown more respect in those days. Today, even my chador does not
stop men from harassing me."
Golam Hossein sums it up. "Under the Shah, if you wanted to drink or
to go to a place to dance you would have done so, and if you wanted to
go to a mosque and to pray you would have done so without anyone judging
you. Today, everything is out of its place."
One could argue that many ordinary Iranians, especially those who do
not remember the Shah's reign, lack sufficient knowledge to speak
authoritatively about the country's past. So I talked to Hamid Reza, 38,
who was born into a religious family. His brother served at the front
while Hamid Reza was a first grader. He works with a few government
sponsored research centers and often attends seminars on modern history.
He thinks the Shah was not a devil, but was definitely not a saint
either. To him, "Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was a typical Cold War era
dictator, who had some good intentions." He sees the Shah's fate as
typical of dictators of that era, men like Afghanistan's Mohammad Zahir
Shah and many others. Hamid Reza says, "Looking at him, one realizes
that he ignored his law-abiding opposition, tortured Marxists and other
leftists, and was not careful about the Islamic beliefs of half of the
society." He believes that "it was only natural for Iranian people to
rise up against the rule of one person 70 years after their
constitutional movement." The Shah's biggest mistake, according to Hamid
Reza, was to postpone reforms until it was too late.
There's a question I feel compelled to ask. "Would it have been
possible to avoid the Revolution?" Hamid Reza nods. "Revolution was not
inevitable. It could have been avoided if the Shah had begun a program
for political freedom a few years earlier." I ask him how plausible that
would have been given the way Iranian intellectuals despised him and
his close affiliation with the West.
"Still revolution might have been avoided," Hamid Reza responds. "It
is true that there was no love lost between him and Iranian
intellectuals. And the intellectuals did much to vilify the Shah's image
among the youth and the masses, but the Shah could have responded by
reaching out to the masses." He refers to a set of memoirs in his
library by Assadollah Alam, the Shah's minister of court and confidant.
"If you read these, you get the idea that the Shah was more concerned
with the public opinion in Washington and London than with the public
opinion in Tehran or Tabriz."
Others have even harsher words for the Shah. Marziyeh, a graduate
student of engineering, tells me, "The Shah was a dictator; his mistakes
made the revolution inevitable." She is upset that some people look
kindly on the Shah just because "the Revolution has not brought us what
people had expected originally."
"Under the Shah, there was no freedom, there were scores of political prisoners, and many like [Khosrow] Golsorkhi
was executed," she says. "The SAVAK was infamous for torture. We cannot
say the Shah was good because those who came afterward did much worse
than him." Marziyeh thinks that "people are just nostalgic about a past
they do not even remember. The young ones do not know of the social
injustices of that time."
For my last interview, I speak to a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War.
Ismail is 42 years old. He served at the front during the conflict's
last two years, joining the Basij as a volunteer right after he
graduated from high school. "It was the natural thing to do," he says.
He remembers the days of the Revolution, when he was ten years old. "In
our house, TV was forbidden because my father believed it to be haram
[religiously prohibited]. We had a radio; he would turn it on to hear
the call to prayers." After the Revolution, though, "My father bought a
TV. He told us that we had an Islamic government, so TV would not
corrupt our morals."
I ask him what he thought of the Shah. "I think people of that
generation did not want to have a dialogue with him," Ismail says. I
tell him that his comment surprises me. "When I was at the front, I
believed everything the nezaam [political system, or regime]
told us," he continues. "When I graduated from university, I started to
read history." Now he sees things differently. "There was no need for a
revolution. People and intellectuals should have talked to him about
their demands." He looks at a photo of himself and his friends at the
front. "So much bloodshed could have been avoided."
Ali Chenar is a pen name.