The Queen and I

“The Queen and I,” a doc by Swedish-Iranian director Nahid Persson Sarvestani and an official entry at Sundance, offers an intriguing premise: the evolving relation between two women with different and even antithetical backgrounds, the director and her subject, Empress Farah Pahlavi, widow of the former Shah of Iran deposed by the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Brought up in a working-class family, communist in ideology and opponent of the Shah’s regime, Persson left Iran after the revolution had executed her brother and made her home in Sweden. Empress Farah, for her part, lives in the States, with prolonged stays in France.

The two women are exiles (a legitimate question would be how many decades does it take to turn exiles into immigrants?) Persson’s wary initial approach turns into an appreciation of the queen, the dignified and genteel way she conducts her life, the core of which remains Iran. Iranians contact her from inside the country, some often far too young to have known anything other than the Islamic Republic but who hear their parents say that things were better under the Shah. The queen is filmed responding by phone, by email, through her website, sharing with the director her correspondents’ questions, requests.

“This one wants me to send him an iPod, this other wants to hear the sound of my voice.” She sponsors Iranian artists, visits her husband’s grave in Cairo, has written a book of memoirs. Persson, for her part, raised in hatred of all that the Shah stood for, grows to know and like the queen, finding herself with questions to which answers are not simple. Though she doesn’t acknowledge the fact in so many words, it does come through that the Shah’s regime with its many vocal opponents has no common measure with the bloody tyranny of the clerics.

The French leftist daily Le Monde’s Paul Balta once put the number of executions under the Shah at 370, including criminals—an average of 10 a year over his 37 years of reign. In its 30 years in existence, the Islamic Republic has executed tens of thousands of individuals, not counting the million dead on both sides during the eight-year war with Iraq. Stalin, for long a beloved icon of communists everywhere, was responsible for 30 million dead. The tally for Mao Tse Toung, acknowledged father of the revolutionaries of the world, also reaches that number. But none of these sacred figures was ever taken to task. Instead, the Bertrand Russell tribunal, Amnesty International, or Jack Anderson went after the Shah with a vengeance. It was easier than attacking the idols of the time.

Not that anything justifies the lack of freedom of expression under the Shah’s rule, nor that a single instance of torture or of arbitrary execution can ever be forgiven, be it in Iran or anywhere in the world (Guantanamo, anyone?) More than the determination of the mullahs, the shenanigans of oil companies or other occult powers, it was the idiotic and totally unnecessary censorship and repression, the one-party rule decreed in the seventies, the lack of people’s participation in the political life of the country and of respect of the Constitution that finally brought about the perfectly avoidable revolution and the reign of the heinous ayatollahs.

Persson is not out to trip the Queen, yet, after hesitating a great deal, she puts to her some tough questions that have bothered her. The Queen admits errors of judgment but doesn’t mention censorship or torture (which her husband, in an unfortunate and embarrassing remark to David Frost had once described as “petty details.” To him, busy with implementing his vision of the Iran of the future, opponents were more of an annoyance than anything so he unforgivably looked the other way). Empress Farah also brushes aside Persson’s question about the Shah’s philandering. If it helped him relax and took some pressure off, good for him, she says. That is a generous comment, coming, as it did, from an educated and sophisticated woman living, what’s more, in a society where the Shah had circumvented Islamic laws to give women equality.

A reminder here that anything bad about the Shah has always been shouted from the rooftops whereas any good he did goes unmentioned. When Muhammad VI, the King of Morocco, recently passed the Mudawana or family code, the media applauded him. The Washington Post wrote that it was a unique initiative in the Arab and Muslim world. No one bothered with the fact that the Shah had passed an all-encompassing and progressive law for the protection of the family over forty-five years ago, making it impossible for husbands to divorce their wife without a judge’s consent, or take their children from her, or take other wives (no wonder the mullahs didn’t like it).

This review is not a pro domo justification of the Shah’s reign though that reign is beginning to be written up differently now. Since the moment the Shah was cast unwillingly on the throne, in the middle of WWII—when the Allies decided to exile the founder of the dynasty and replace him with his heir—and for the next 37 years, the country went from a rural backwater into an important player on the world scene. Americans, take note: When talking about the United States’ “sins,” American journalists playing the “why do they hate us?” game often say that in 1953 the CIA replaced a democratically elected Prime Minister (some actually write “President,”) Mossadegh, with a puppet monarch.

In fact, the Shah had actually been Shah for 12 years when Mossadegh was appointed Prime Minister by the Shah, as the rule was—and not elected. But myths will always trump facts. Thirty years ago, the Islamic Revolution of Iran let loose the monstrous ideologies setting the world on fire today. In the countries of our exile, we have made new lives for ourselves and are gradually turning the page. Kudos to people like Nahid Persson who occasionally look back and still wonder about what happened.