Book review: ‘Farewell Shiraz,’ an exile’s journey to another Iran
A journey into Iran’s recent history and a tale of nostalgia and longing for pre-revolutionary Iran, Cyrus Kadivar’s memoir “Farewell Shiraz” details what life was like in a liberal society for his family against the tumultuous backdrop of 20th-century Iran.
Kadivar, an exiled Iranian living in London, spent more than ten years seeking out witnesses, collecting testimonies and conducting interviews of those who witnessed the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Kadivar’s quest to shed light on what happened to his family and him after their uprooting was triggered by a visit to Cairo in 1999, during which he visited the tomb of the last shah. His account covers the period from the 1905-07 Constitutional Revolution to the 1979 Islamic one.
In his book, Kadivar recalls a protected childhood in his home city of Shiraz and his coming of age during the revolution. He said his grandfather was born in 1905 when schools were run by mullahs. As he grew older, he fumed at daily injustices. Even though Fasa, a town near Shiraz, was known to be open-minded, the religious people were ignorant and blamed sickness and starvation on jinns.
Kadivar’s grandfather witnessed farmers starving, burned-out wheat and opium fields and vultures picking at rotting animal carcasses. Thousands died of influenza. The government was powerless as it could not collect taxes or impose law outside the capital. Iran needed a saviour.
When Reza Shah took power near the end of 1925, he set up a centralised government and imported modern ways by decreeing that men adopt Western dress. He promised to restore Iran back to glory.
Kadivar noted in his book that, although most Iranians praised the shah for improving and modernising Iran, his was iron rule. There were spies and informers and hundreds of political prisoners. Several tribal khans and noblemen died under mysterious circumstances.
By 1936, the hijab and chador were banned in public places. Taj ol-Molouk, the dowager queen, and her daughters appeared in Western clothes to set an example to Iranian women. Women entered rooms with their husbands by their side, not behind them. However, conservative women found the unveiling law traumatic as they thought it was bound by religion.
The shah was not against religion but said women could not be free and educated unless they were free from the hijab and chador, Kadivar said.
The changes that the shah sought to introduce sparked violence and opposition with one cleric accusing him of blasphemy. When the governor-general tried to arrest the cleric his men were attacked. A mob took to the streets the next day and soldiers surrounded the theological school, shooting several people. The shah banned sharia and confiscated lands and properties of many religious foundations. Western-educated Iranians led the change in Iran by bringing a cosmopolitan atmosphere.
However, the shah was worried about his future and the fate of Iran, Kadivar said. Most Iranians were poor and illiterate and religion was their only refuge. There were food shortages, a thriving black market and bread riots.
By the end of the second world war, Iran was unstable and both the monarchy and country were threatened. Tribes went back to their old ways and order in the countryside deteriorated. In 1949, the shah was nearly killed and used that experience to reassert control.
By 1969, the world was astounded by the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Iran was stable and had initiative. Oil revenues poured into infrastructure projects and new universities were built. The police and army were modernised and expanded and living standards improved.
“Farewell Shiraz” is an informative account of Iran’s history and an introduction to understanding the political and economic tensions that have led to Iran’s unrest today.
Recent protests that swept Iran sparked by an increase in prices of goods and continuing social problems cannot be disassociated from the country’s turbulent history between the religious conservatives and liberals.