THE death of Iran’s Princess Ashraf in Dubai last week turned the focus on a defining cultural metaphor of our times — an unequal contest between waning riparian civilisations of which she was a part, and a noxious upstart culture that came with the advent of desalinated water, in which she perished.
Babylon in the heart of Mesopotamia, Persia, the Nile, Nabatea, Petra, Galilee, the Indus Valley flanked an intellectual burgeoning whose sinews often stretched beyond their political perimeters. Then one day we had their unapproachable majesty tested and even occasionally trammelled by the politics of aluminium smelters that came with hydrocarbon flares.
A by-product was desalinated water and a regressive religious cult whose practitioners could wilfully endorse the slitting of throats of innocents and accept mass rape as divine retribution. The tallest of skyscrapers that petrodollars could conjure up in these stricken parts must continue to make seawater potable, or perish. The means are finite, the need dire.
The inescapable absurdity of Ashraf’s exiled life in Dubai, where the twin sister of the Shah died at 96 on Thursday, ought to have come early. I was visiting Iran for my Dubai newspaper in September 1980 to cover the turn of events in her country. The immigration officer at Tehran’s Mehrabad airport scratched his head to figure out where Dubai might be before he could also accept that it had a robust English newspaper where Indian, Pakistani and British expatriates published news stories of quality. It is a hamlet south of Bandar Abbas, perhaps, across the Khaleej Fars, a junior custom officer had concluded. Lord Curzon had referred to the Gulf as a British lake.
Before Iran’s 1979 turbulence, it was safe to believe that Ashraf served as the true power behind her brother, the Shah. It was she who pushed him into taking power in a 1953 coup engineered by the CIA.
Ashraf’s past had an organic link with high society in Europe but her presence was just as socially pervasive in South Asia’s cultural alcoves.
She had her share of tragedy too. Assassins killed her son on a Paris street just after the Islamic Revolution, her twin brother died of cancer shortly after, while a niece died of a 2001 drug overdose in London and a nephew killed himself in Boston 10 years later.
Yet, she always defended her brother’s rule and held on to her royal past.
Ashraf’s past had an organic link with high society in Europe but her presence was just as socially pervasive in South Asia’s cultural alcoves. For the ‘cultured’ men, to have a Persian wife was a status to aspire to — one that could only be challenged with a deeper knowledge of Persian literature. Everyone said ‘Khudahafiz’ for goodbye, and reference to Allah was administered in its proper Arabic context — Fi amaan Allah. The Shia-Sunni identity existed but without today’s toxic subtext. Persian was as much a Sunni language as it was flaunted for its Shia mystical lineage.
Urdu newspapers in India and Pakistan scoured Ashraf’s three divorces, and her penchant for gambling was toasted even among the orthodox milieu of old Lucknow. Her legend intertwined with the flavour of the kings and queens of the era — the Wallis Simpson affair, King Hussein’s love for Queen Alia and her tragic death in a helicopter crash, and, of course, the grand arrival of Farah Diba as the empress of Iran. These were all part of a tradition in which Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten too found a bit role.
There was no context better or more enticing than the fact that these giant, larger-than-life figures strode the planet in our vicinity. It wasn’t entirely in the realm of exaggeration that sometimes these apparitions mingled with ordinary mortals. Princess Ashraf is credited with helping Indian movie mogul Raj Kapoor get his 1960s magnum opus Sangam run in Iran for close to two years. Indian distributors who won the contract through the princess call their London headquarters ‘Sangam’.
Born in October 1919, Princess Ashraf was the daughter of the monarch Reza Shah, who came to power in a 1921 coup engineered by Britain and later was forced to abdicate the throne after a 1941 invasion by Britain and Russia. By 1953, the CIA and British intelligence helped orchestrate the coup that overthrew Iran’s popularly elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh over fears he was tilting towards the Soviet Union.
But the Shah was “a man of indecision”, says a CIA account of the coup first published by The New York Times in 2000. To push the coup along, the plotters reached out to “the Shah’s dynamic and forceful twin sister” who had reportedly already been in touch with US and British agents. After “considerable pressure” by her, the Shah reportedly agreed.
While her brother’s government ruled in opulence and its secret police tortured political activists, the question that comes to mind is this: how have we fared with the clerical regime that followed the fall of the Pahlavis?
Think of Ayatollah Khalkhali, “the laughing executioner” of Tehran, who self-confessedly relished his daily turnover of young corpses in the early days of the revolution. Did he not fill in with aplomb for the Shah’s Savak secret police? There must have been more to Iran than the repression of the Shia clergy. There is evidence that the two future rivals often colluded to target Tudeh communists and the Bahai minority.
The Shah’s liberal veneer drew even his critics to his charmed circle, of which Princess Ashraf was the presiding deity. On one occasion, ignoring the orders of his own Communist Party of India, renowned Urdu scholar and poet Ali Sardar Jafri accepted a significant award from the Shah of Iran. And though in the tradition of communist parties Jafri was forced return the prize, Iran’s civilisational links continued to explore ideals that enticed him. That could not be said of a worldview nourished by desalinated water.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, January 12th, 2016