Sunday, January 23, 2011

Alireza Pahlavi, the little prince.

His death shook everyone:

Another kid of "The King of Kings" (the megalomaniac Mohammad Reza Shah, who wanted to restore Iran's monarch glory, who went head to head challenging and threatening the regional ambitions of the Israelis and the pan-Arabists, and who was dragged from the throne by assistance from Americans of whose subordination he was accused) laid in his own cold blood. At the time of his death, he was unknown to most of us who were born around his age, and who remembered him from a faint memory of his brown hair, cute face and the brown air force uniform he was wearing when, instead of Champagne, he splashed a bucket of water on his older brother, the crown prince, who had just landed his first fighter plane. (Couldn't find the image of what is printed in my memory, but found these photos of those days) His older brother, often pisses us off by siding with neo cons or Iran bombers (although he has changed his tone recently), and so the majority of us have cast a blanket of ignorance on the rest of the family, whose grandfather has laid the foundation of modernity [in terms of infrastructure and secularism], and whose mother tried to lay the basis of modernism [in terms of art] in our country (okey I am not being precise, I know). Many of the older generation, however, remain loyal to the royals.

I respect the right of any single, uncommitted person to end their own life. But I felt sorry for his mother most. She is my favorite of the monarch family.

I love her grace, her sense of fashion, her architectural education; and I love her because of many fundamental educational programs she started in the remote villages of Iran, trying to empower the villager women, trying to assist them make an enterprise of their folk art, trying to make them literate (I am happy to find this picture) Her legacy continues today in the form of NGOs ... not all Iranian women are concerned with how much hair they can or cannot show from under a scarf. Many a women are struggling with more fundamental issues, and they are making little progress every day, but I will talk about that elsewhere.

Alireza was the second Pahlavi to commit suicide. His sister overdosed on sleeping pills only 9 years ago. She was a year older than I. Her death made me sad too.

Today, I came across a podcast, a few Iranologists were talking about Alireza's academic past. This radio program, together with the support of those who encouraged me to continue blogging, inspired me to translate the podcast. If I am to revisit my past, this is a good start.

Iranians, please go to the source. This is a report by Amir Mosaddegh Katouzian of Radio Farda, broadcast from Prague.

The suicide of Prince Alireza Pahlavi, 44, on Tuesday Jan 4, in Boston, shocked many. The grief of the suicide of the third child of King Mohammad Reza and Queen Farah Pahlavi, nine years later than 31 year old Princess Leila's suicide, surpassed the family and friends of the monarchy.

Since he had studied Ancient Iranian History, the cultural and academic Iranian community was touched. However, in his academic resume he has but a Masters degree in music, from Princeton (1989), a masters in Ancient Iranian History from Columbia (1992) and continuing in the field of philosophy and ancient Iranian languages towards a doctorate in Harvard.

In this program, Peyk-e Farhang [the Culture Messenger] learns about his academic resume from a fellow Harvard student, a fellow researcher in UCLA and two Columbia professors of History who knew him.

Hamid Dabashi, Columbia's [Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York], began teaching in Columbia at the same time as Alireza Pahlavi was admitted to this university:

Dabashi: I came to Columbia towards the end of the 80s. I think Alireza was in Columbia since 1988. Our encounters were of teacher-student kind, but not in the same classroom. He was interested in, and continued to work (but did not finish) on studying Iran before Islam. Before going to Harvard, he worked with my senior colleague Professor Ehsan Yarshater.

Ehsan YarShater: He attended one of my classes. He was very interested in Iran's ancient history. After going to Harvard, he started working with Oktor Skjærvø on the ancient Persian languages and culture. Unfortunately, however, he did not receive his degree.

Alirza Pahlavi was invited by (then a UCLA PhD student) Touraj Daryayee, the current professor of ancient Persia in UCI, to present his research findings in a symposium in UCLA.

Touraj Daryaee: I got to know him in 1990s. He studied in the same field as I, on the East coast of the US. Few people, especially Iranians, work on ancient Persian history. We were a handful who worked on the Sassanid and Pahlavi scripts, i.e. Middle Persian. Alireza was one of these researchers in Harvard. This is why I invited him and Dr. Rahim Shayegan. We arranged a panel about Sassanid era and he was kind enough to join. His doctoral thesis was research in a Pahlavi text, (مینوی خرد) "meenoo-e kherad" which is about the geography and the climate in which Iran is situated. He talked about that.

Rahim Shayegan, current assistant professor of Near East languages and cultures in UCLA, is a close friend of Alireza and a fellow student for ten years.

Rahim Shaygan: I know him since 1992, we were in the same class in Harvard and started together with professor Skjærvø. We had graduate degrees in Iranian studies and had come to Harvard to complete our doctoral thesis.

Mosaddegh-Katouzian: How far did he advance in Harvard?

Rahim Shaygan: I have to give a brief explanation about how Iranian studies in Harvard works. For a few years, you study ancient Persian languages, ancient Persian history, and old religions like Zoroastrianism. Then after a few years you have a comprehensive exam, consisting of a few themes and a few languages that include all texts related to those themes. This is a relatively difficult exam and take at least a year to prepare for. He passed these exams successfully and in a short time; and since he had a phenomenal memory, he went through it with ease and began working on his dissertation. It progressed well until 2000-2001 and there is little left to complete it for publication.

Mosaddegh_Katouzian: Other than his presentation in UCLA, did he present his later research in any conference?

Rahim Shaygan: naturally, because of his situation, he could not take part in conferences easily. He was sensitive and feared his presence (as a Prince) in Ancient Persian conferences will create a burden; so he refrained from participating.

But I have to talk more about his thesis. He worked on one of the important Pahlavi scripts. Pahlavi is a language written in the Sassanid era, before Islam arrived in Iran. This script, minooye kherad, is an important text about the religious mentality of that time. It is a dialogue between a guru and minooye kherad, the conscience of wisdom. He asks questions and gets answers.

This dialogue has 62 questions and answers. He transcribed this test, phoneticized it, translated it from Pahlavi to Latin and then to English; and produced a detailed annotated report to contextualize the text historically, and in relation to other existing Pahlavi and religious texts in Iran.

Interpretation of this work, which is very heavy, was complete, but he wanted to re-write it. Unfortunately the personal tragedies made him abandon the work. After 2001 (death of his younger sister) he could never go back to finish this 90% complete work. It takes only 6-12 months to finish it off.

Mosaddegh-Katouzian: In a news conference in Thursday, the crown prince, Reza Pahlavi indicated that his brother suffered depression. Did you notice signs of depression to explain his suicide?

Rahim Shayegan: undoubtedly, his family knows the possible cause of his pains best. But it was obvious to all friends and acquaintances that he had a deep and undeniable attachment to Iran and Iran's culture. To be away, and the pain of exile, the nostalgia and all this creates a form of depression that is present in many Iranians of his age, but to a certain degree stronger in him. Perhaps because he was an educated Prince, he felt added responsibility. Perhaps his inability to do something about improving the pain and deficiencies [of his country?] exacerbated his pain.

The pictures his friend portray, indicate that Alireza refrained from aristocratic appearance in academic circles.

Hamid Dabashi: As a student, he mixed in with the rest and did not differ from others. He was a shy and a kind kid. He was a generous lad. Many of my students were his close friends and socialized with him. This is very shocking and disturbing for me. A kid, that I encountered at the peak of his youth in Columbia, who reminds me of my starting years in columbia, who could have been the source of good, both socially and culturally, has had such a tragic ending.

Ehsan Yarshater: He was extremely modest. If you didn't know he was a prince, nothing would have indicated it in his behavior. He was a loyal friend. He called occasionally and asked about me; or came to the Columbia office and updated me about himself. But in recent years I had not heard from him and didn't know what he was doing.

Touraj Daryayee: I am not into politics but in my personal encounters I found him to be a good person. Calm. Never saw aggression or malaise in him. It was interesting to me that he was fascinated by the ancient Iranian history and spent his time on that. It is regrettable.

Rahim Shayegan: After 10 years, all common memories are always present. In his demeanors, there was a form of honor. In friendship, he was consistent and loyal. In manners, very delicate, royal. Both a delicate mind, a remarkable talent, and a delicacy in all functions. I can say he was a remarkable person. Incredibly remarkable.

Prince ALireza Pahlavi, the researcher of the Pahlavi script Minooye Kherad, has willed for his ashes to be scattered on the Caspian Sea.

Alireza(1966-2011) on the right; Leila(1970-2001) in her father's arm
P.S. It was a total coincidence that I posted this on the same day that his memorial service was held.


jmsjoin said...

When Iran was going through al that after the election I was hoping he would go back and help somehow in my naive western way.

Naj said...


The case of this lad is even a sadder one. He has had to remain in the shadow of his older brother. The older brother is not a bad fellow; he is a family man; and as long as he stayed a family man I had no problem with him. I am sure he doesn't WANT to carry the burden that monarchists have put on his shoulders.

But for any of this family, going back to Iran is a BAD idea: no one really wants them there, no one wants royalty any more, and people are in general unforgiving of their father's past.

Look, even I am not going back to Iran anymore; so why would they?

Pedestrian said...

I really like this post, b/c it sheds a light on Alireza the student ... a being and a concept we are all familiar with.

I was looking at photos of his memorial ceremony yesterday ... and it's funny that they seem to only have one or two photos of him, b/c throughout all these years, those are the only photos I've ever seen. I don't mean to play a blame game, as I know nothing about their internal family dynamics, but from the outside, he seemed to be not only in the shadow ... but somehow neglected? What was he doing living all by himself, when his family knew his condition was a volatile one? Shouldn't he have had someone nearby?

Maybe he chose to live that way. Chose to live - and die - in silence.

Naj said...

Hi Ped,

I heard from a friend whose father had met him in a conference; he found him very modest and nice too.

There was some LA-produced TV host who was questioning why the Royal family had kept him in a shadow and wondered whether it was to protect the non-existing charisma of the older brother!!

I just think it is very sad; what these people have suffered is MUCH sadder than what any other Iranian can have experience because they cannot hide, they cannot hide from history, they cannot become invisible or become somethign else; the ghosts always follwo them ... and I think Iran did them wrong; I think the US did them wrong, I think the SAVAK did them wrong. I have never susbcribed to the notion of "demonic blood thirsty Pahlavis" ...

Anyways, this kid's life and death made me very sad. And I think his mother was very gracious to say, her grief is no different than any other mother who loses a child.

Pedestrian said...

I am reading Abbas Milani's "The Shah". I have read a lot of things about Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, but never anything that dealt to this degree with who he "was" - as an individual, and not just a monarch/dictator/politician. I'm hoping it will give me some insight into that, b/c Naj, my generation, we don't know anything about these folks. Depending on what kind of family we come from, we probably have the same feelings our parents have, only b/c that's the version we've heard all this time. But that's about it.

But look at the Egyptian royal family, Afghanistan's, Iraq's ... all faded into obscurity and nothingness (although Zahir Shah returned) and some in even more gruesome circumstances. All these stories were tragic, but nothing like this. What makes the Pahlavis so exceptional? So they were rulers and there was a brutal revolution and now they're no more ... On a personal level this all signifies pain and loss ... but on a bigger scale, there's so many stories like this one. Do I feel that their story is more tragic b/c i'm Iranian and I follow them more closely, or is there something truly exceptionally tragic about their fate (compared to the others)?

Maybe it's b/c they refused to fade away (as much as that is possible) especially through the older brother's "political activism" (lol) that makes their situation more exposed? Maybe it's the diaspora that is refusing to let them rest in peace ...

Maybe the comparisons are very wrong ... Just been wondering this as I read the book.

Naj said...


I just watched the video of Farah delivering an obituary for her son. There was one sentence in it that really touched me:

Almost sobbing, she said, that his death seems to have brought a sense of forgiveness and reconciliation in people; and then quoted Dabashi (without mentioninh his name) saying: I had problems with his father, but I cried over his death.

I think Iranian history, and every single one of us Iranians, is unjust and unforgiving of no matter which dynasty we have created.

If a king has been too soft, we have blamed them of not being tough enough; if they have been blood thirsty we have called them tyrants. We are a mercurial nation; full of tribal and feudal fumes; and once given power, we take ourselves too seriously, with those stupid kingdoms of which we often know nothing but the ruins in Shiraz!

We soak the babies in poetics, (and of course all babies poop, as is nature's force), but then we throw the baby out with the bath water!

I am sure even these people will fade out of our memory. Someone will historiographist; and will create an academic best-seller about the life of this or that king. But in the meantime, the memories and the anecdotes of the ordinary people, their experiences will be lost in the atmosphere of fear and terror instilled by the NEXT tyrant that overthrew the previous one.

Naj said...

Correction: someone will historiograph

Anonymous said...