What is there left to say about Alireza Pahlavi? The pundits have weighed in, and opinions have been flying from Iranian ex-patriots to American journalists and heads of state from all over the world. The sad news that the man who was once the youngest prince of the Pahlavi family, took his own life on January 4, 2011, touched those of us outside of our homeland deeply. We could not help but react with sadness.
Sadness is nothing new to Iranians. When we see our youths being jailed for their beliefs, lawyers being tortured for the clients they accept, and far too many hunger strikes by prisoners who have no other voice outside the walls of places like Evin, Rajai Shahr, and 59 Sepa, how can we not feel sadness?
Then we hear about the Shah’s youngest son’s suicide. To understand the reaction many of us had to Alireza’s death, you need only look as far back as our history over the last century. I am not a monarchist. I am also not religious. I was still a child when the Shah of Iran packed his bags and left, replaced by the Islamic regime that has been in power since the revolution in 1979. Had I been an adult at that time, I believe I would have been in support of opposition to the throne, but only in so much as to support secular democracy in my country.
The Pahlavi family represents a past that is bittersweet at best. For those of us who have spent our lives battling the oppression of the Islamic Republic of Iran the last three decades, a certain nostalgia for the monarchy might be tempting. However, as hard as we might try, we cannot change history.
What is perhaps unique and without a doubt necessary in understanding Iranian people, is that for us, our culture runs deep. Alireza Pahlavi lived the biggest part of his 44 years of adult life outside of Iran, yet what I’ve read about him is that he was deeply rooted in its history and culture and disturbed by its current political climate. This isn’t uncommon for Iranian people. For those of us who left our homeland, our ancient Persian past runs deep, and we tend to live half our consciousness wherever our escape took us, and the other half in Tehran, Mashad, Shiraz, Esfahan, Tabriz, Sanandaj, Zahedan, Rasht, Abadan, or wherever else we may have grown up, in our beloved Iran.
When we think of Alireza Pahlavi, we remember him as the youngest son of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. There are photos all over the Internet of Alireza as a child in Iran, later as an awkward teen in the U.S., and more recently looking, as his American neighbor referred to him in one article I read, “dapper.” What the world really knows about him is very little. We know that he was well-educated. He completed his undergraduate work at Princeton and he went on to Columbia where he studied ancient Iranian studies and earned a Masters degree. At the time he died he was working on his PhD at Harvard. We know that he mourned the suicide of his younger sister, Leila, who took her own live in 2001. We also know that he lived in Boston, that he appeared to be physically fit and from the outside seemed to have every reason to live.
As a people, Iranian ex-patriots don’t necessarily mourn Alireza Pahlavi, the man. How could we? We barely knew him. The closest comparison I can think of would be the way Americans felt when John F. Kennedy, Jr., fell from the skies in a plane crash in 1999. Americans remember the “John John” of 1963, just over three years old, saluting his father’s casket. Yet even this isn’t the right comparison because there was far more to know about John F. Kennedy, Jr., as he grew into manhood, even if it was cut short too soon.
But similarly, maybe we prefer to remember Alireza Pahlavi, the child, standing next to his parents and sisters and brother. How could that boy have come to the end that he did. Was it a sense of helplessness? Did he look at the current situation in Iran, at the executions of political prisoners and the human rights violations that are eating away at the citizens of our country and feel, as many of us do, that he could never do enough? Was he lonely? Did he feel inadequate? Perhaps he succumbed to the enormous pressure of being a Pahlavi. He was born a prince—a fate one might not necessarily choose.
In the end, we’ll never know what prompted Alireza to end his life. For me, I look at how much work there is left for us to do if we are to free our country from the clutches of the Islamic government that abuses its power and rapes and pillages our country. From where I sit, I can only hope to do some good for those still inside the country. That is why I go out in protest. It is why I read news sources about political prisoners in Iran every day. It is why I write. Yet, I can’t help thinking that Alireza might have done something more than all this with his name, his family connection, his history. I wonder if he ever thought of what he might have done. I wonder if he felt his hands were tied. I’m sorry that he didn’t live to tell us.