Quiet sobs echo through the atrium of the Al-Rifai Mosque in Cairo, where rows of seated mourners are surrounded by wreathes of white flowers. Women dab their heavily made-up eyes, while men stare solemnly ahead.
As the streets of Tehran demand freedom, a different group of Iranians gathered in Cairo last week to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the death of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Iranian monarch deposed by the 1979 Islamic revolution. The Shah was granted refuge in Egypt by President Anwar Sadat and died in Cairo soon after.
Approximately 65 members of the Iranian diaspora, dressed in various shades of designer-label black, have been coming to Cairo from all over the world, some for as many as 29 consecutive years, to pay their respects. They visit Sadat’s tomb, the final resting place of the Shah in the Al-Rifai Mosque, and then hold a reception in his memory, led by Empress Farah Pahlavi, the late shah’s third wife.
"It’s their love, we don’t ask them to come here," explains Mo Saify, one of the unofficial organizers of the event who now lives in the UK. His dark eyelashes flutter down to admire the pin on the lapel of his suit jacket, the flag of the Imperial State of Iran--the same green, white, and red colors as the current flag, but with a crowned golden lion at the center. "It’s so exciting, I got a headache!" exclaims Mahnaz, a first-time attendee who has lived in Toronto for ten years, and was only five years old when the Shah was deposed.
The congregation’s tears at the memorial of their leader seem in stark contrast to history’s memory of a man bordering on tyrannical. "The Shah was criticized of torture," Mo disdains, "various untruth was said about the Shah. Today these mullah’s have done 30, multiplied 30 times the year, they’ve done more. Our walls in our prisons are painted in blood, in Iranian young people’s blood," he proclaims.
Molok Sajadian, who now lives in San Diego, is a slight woman with the presence of a pitbull. She has been coming for the last 22 years "because I loved him. ... If [he were in] my country, every single day, every minute, I come ... because this is my heart. He was my life," she says. When I ask about the roots of her devotion, she jabs her finger at me. "He make me woman!" she says. She attributes her education, her career, and the education of her sons to the policies of the Shah. "I’m proud. Who told me? He told me! I owe him!"
Molok, like many of those gathered in Cairo, remains convinced that the Iranian monarchy will return any day now--a hope bolstered by the recent protests. "Honey," she tells me, "I am hundred percent sure, we are going have our king over there again. Without the king, I am not going to stay in my country, I am going to stay out of my country. Because my life is my king."
Fanatical devotion to a man they barely knew seems puzzling, and yet I find no one who can properly explain it to me. "Look, I’ll bring his name, you give me his name, I have goose pimples throughout my body," Mo exclaims, suddenly overcome by emotion. "How can I express that? I can’t. I would cry! As a man, I would cry bringing his name out."
In the 30 years since the Shah arrived in Egypt, relations between two of the most populous Shiite and Sunni countries have deteriorated; Iran named a street after Khaled al-Islambouli, the man who assassinated Sadat, while Egypt remains suspicious of Shiite infiltration. Visas for Iranians are hard to come by, but the gatherers say they have had no problems with the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. "They know that we are not part of them--the other circle. We’re more cleaner than the others," Mo smirks, gesturing to his clean-shaven face. In fact, no man in attendance is bearded and no woman is veiled. Most women are in short sleeves, some in miniskirts.
Whether nostalgia or devotion, this is far more than a spontaneous day of memory. The Iranian diaspora at this gathering claims to be actively working to create a constitutional monarchy in Iran. Just ask Parvin Saadati, who has been coming to Cairo every year for 29 years, nine of which she traveled clandestinely from Iran through Dubai. No more than 5 feet tall, looking up at me through heavily mascaraed lashes, she is flanked by a rotund American who she refers to as "Hollywood" and a Pakistani man slightly taller than her. They hover over her, nodding in approval at every word. In Iran, Saadati explains, she was simultaneously a dentist and a secret service member. Now she is a "business lady" in Vancouver, but will not give the name of her business. Her primary job, she tells me, is meeting Iranians around the world to spread the word about the Shah and work toward reinstating his post. She says Iranians secretly travel to Turkey and Dubai to meet her and listen to stories about the royal family.
Alireza Azizi, 55, the only person to have come from Iran this year, says he speaks to Iranian youth about the Shah, in secret. "They have not been there [during the Shah] but they feel something. They feel [the pull to] come back to history, a yearning for their history and the Shah," he explains. When asked if he fears for his safety when coming to and from Egypt for the third time for this event, he says, "Doesn’t matter, I’m ready for it," and slices his hand across his neck while beaming.
No one at the gathering provides me with evidence of popular support in Iran for the Shah’s return. Parvin says she has spoken to over a million people about the Shah’s legacy, and seems the most convinced of everyone in attendance of the monarchy's imminent return. To her, it is not just for democracy that hundreds of thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets in recent weeks. "Everybody loves Shah come back [to] Iran," she declares. "One hundred percent! ... I promise you." And without another glance, she turns and walks back into the reception, her handlers at either side.
Sarah A. Topol is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.