Roloff and the King of Iran

Can a poor boy from Medicine Hat find happiness in the court of the last great despot-king? Sure, if he plays his cards right

Marci McDonald May 17 1976

Roloff and the King of Iran

Can a poor boy from Medicine Hat find happiness in the court of the last great despot-king? Sure, if he plays his cards right

Marci McDonald May 17 1976

Roloff and the King of Iran

Can a poor boy from Medicine Hat find happiness in the court of the last great despot-king? Sure, if he plays his cards right

Marci McDonald

In the land of the peacock throne, a little rain is falling. It is a gentle rain, a cold steady spring drizzle which chills the blood and freezes to the marrow, but it is no ordinary rain either. This rain is an outrage, a treachery of the skies, for it has dared to rain on His Imperial Majesty, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, King of Kings, Light of the Aryans, Shah of Iran and, not incidentally, on his parade. Like a soft steady tattoo, it falls on the freshly laid red and turquoise broadloom carpeting the entire half-mile approach to the looming white marble monolith that is the tomb of his father, Reza Shah the Great. It sifts down over the acres of tulips planted for the occasion, drenches the miles of gold rope, hundreds of bronze standards and thousands of silver flagpoles all carted in only that week by an army of khaki-clad peasants. It drizzles down upon the heads of the multitudes assembled by imperial command to line the carpeted stands along the endless carpeted avenue. Coiffures fizzle under diamond tiaras. Satin ball gowns wilt under mink stoles which have begun to emit the unmistakable aroma of damp fur. Somewhere in the stands, Canadian ambassador James George, an urbane elegant outdoorsman, is sitting in white tie and tails doing his yogic breathing in a desperate attempt to keep his circulatory system from freezing over.

It is not yet 11 a.m., but these crowds have been here for hours, made-up, bejeweled and fitted out in their finery while the rest of the city still slumbered—desert tribeswomen in white veils and pistachio lame’headdresses beside the relentless chic of Paris-designed gowns, Kurdish tribesmen in rag turbans beside razor-eyed generals in wall-to-wall medals and gold braid, the entire community of diplomats, dignitaries and Iranian elite, representatives from every walk of life and every corner of the country. There are 12.000 of them in all, bused here in the early hours of dawn under armed guard and the sort of security usually reserved for border patrols, each name carefully ticked off a list and matched with a set of pre-cleared pic-

tures, now shepherded into the stands where their slightest movement is picked up by a battery of closed-circuit TV cameras and the rifles of soldiers posted on surrounding rooftops. They huddle under canvas awnings, waiting, waiting—waiting

for the Shah who must not be kept waiting. Any moment now he may descend from the heavens in his imperial jet-powered helicopter, come to collect their homage on this first day of Now Ruz, the Persian new year, at this little celebration he has thrown in honor of the 50th anniversary of his own Pahlavi dynasty.

It will last just slightly more than an hour, employ enough manpower to have built an entire suburb and the most conservative estimates will later put its cost at two million dollars. Still, this is a modest celebration from the king who placed the imperial crown of red velvet, white ostrich plumes, 3,380 diamonds, 368 pearls, five emeralds and two sapphires upon his own head in a 1967 coronation—a mere drop in the bucket from the man who threw his country’s 2,500th anniversary extravaganza in the middle of the Persepolis desert, with a small city of air-conditioned tents draped in velvet and cloth-of-gold, a sit-down supper for thousands catered by Maxim’s of Paris, caviar-stuffed quail and lobster mousse for all. and washing it down, 25,000 bottles of Chateau LafiteRothschild at $100 a bottle. The Shah of Iran has a way with grandeur—a way not entirely unbecoming to one of the world’s last reigning absolute monarchs whose jeweled throne has suddenly come to rest on a firm foundation of liquid black gold. As the second-largest Middle East oil producer, he can well afford it. But it is a grandeur all the more curious considering that not quite 25 years ago Iran was a penniless backward íand and its Shah a playboy ouppet placed on its throne by the Allies. If he has come a long way since then, he has also lost no opportunity to dazzle all beholders with the distance.

Now, 12,000 of them lift their anxious eyes to the sky where a jungle-camouflage helicopter is whirring into view. It hovers, dips lower, lower, then sets down on the

freshly laid landing pad. The man who is disgorged from its innards, however, is not the Shah of Iran but a soft-faced 52-yearold in a brass-buttoned black velvet suit with the Order of Canada medal at his throat. Roloff Beny, jet-set photographer, creator of lavish coffee-table books and current darling of the Persian court, steps gingerly onto the tarmac with a brace of cameras slung over his shoulder. Fresh from the triujnph of his ornate best-selling tribute to traditional Iran called Persia: Bridge Of Turquoise under the express patronage and financing of the Empress, he hasjust been commissioned to do a second volume—chosen by imperial order-incouncil to be the eyes of the world on contemporary Iran. There have been whisperings that none other than the Shah him-

self will write the text, but for now Roloff Beny is keeping his little secret. Indeed, at this very moment he has come straight from photographing the imperial family in their imperial drawing room, whisked here in a helicopter personally arranged for by the Empress to await the imperial arrival.

For what good is grandeur without the lens to record it? What use is pomp and ceremony and progress without the ultimate eye to capture and enshrine it in time? Roloff Beny has his part to play in this drama which is unfolding. He smoothes one eyebrow wearily as he clambers into the car waiting to escort him to his privileged station. After all, if this imperializing has been somewhat hectic, it has also been somewhat heady for a man who is frequently heard to mutter at moments

of great crisis or even moments of great splendor, “Oh dear, I’m just a poor boy from Medicine Hat.”

In the turquoise innards of the Tehran Intercontinental, Roloff Beny is on the phone. It is five days before the Shah’s 50th anniversary party and he is trying to make arrangements with the Imperial Court, never an easy proposition, but rendered virtually impossible by the mysterious workings of the Iranian telephone system. Beyond noon, the lines are so hopelessly

jammed that a call is considered out of the question, and the same frequently applies before noon as well. For two weeks recently the Canadian embassy was without phone service altogether after the Iranian government added four new lines, although a Canadian technician flown in from Pakistan quickly remedied the problem by discovering that every one of the terminals had been attached backwards. Still, Roloff Beny continues to dial.

Persistence has never been one of his weak points ever since he started his photography career as a young Canadian art student in Spain who found himself suddenly robbed of his sketchbook but left with 12 rolls of nicely exposed film. Now, 10 of the glossiest, most glitteringly produced picture books later, he is one of the world’s most celebrated photographers, with international honors, a sumptuous five-floor penthouse in Rome overlooking the Tiber and friends to turn a name-dropper green with envy: Gore Vidal whom he talked into writing the epilogue for his book In Italy; the late John David Eaton, whom he talked into financing his Canada book To Everything There Is A Season, after the Canadian government had turned him down; and now the Empress Farah Diba Pahlavi, with whom he struck up an acquaintance in 1963 when he was sent to photograph her for Chatelaine. She has granted him carte blanche and a brand new contract putting cars, boats, planes, helicopters and donkeys at his disposal, but still it has not always been easy. In Iran, where each arrangement is an intricate minuet, a slow delicate dance of politesse, security cross-checks and official sycophancy, Roloff Beny has frequently spent hours like this in his hotel room, his shutter finger imprisoned in the telephone dial. “People in Canada only see me at cocktail parties or in my little velvet suit on television,” he sighs. “They have no idea what I go through.”

Nevertheless, this is a kind of apotheosis of all of Roloff Beny’s wildest fantasies, and it is clear he glories in each minute of it. “To be working with an Empress!” he says. “It’s all the dreams I’ve ever had. It’s theatre—and I can’t imagine more fabulous actors. To be respected and made to feel at home ... to be chosen ... I mean!” It is all the more remarkable to be chosen to immortalize what is not only the Shah’s 25year plan for his country but also his own imperial vision for it: his dream of Iran as once more the Great Civilization of Cyprus and Darius—the fifth-largest world power within another 10 years.

Beyond the hotel window, signs of the scramble to achieve it are everywhere. Beneath the magnificent snow-dusted peaks of the Elburz Mountains to the north, Tehran heaves up, a city in transition, skyscrapers pushing up out of the dust garlanded with neon and Coca-Cola billboards, construction pits gouged out by every roadside, a crane on every horizon, and over it all, omnipresent, inescapable,

the looming sense of a single man. Driving in from the airport, a visitor must pass the immense swirling nouveau-Gothic arches of the Shahyad monument; to cross the city, one takes the Shah of Shah’s expressway. From every shop, house, humblest orange-seller’s cart and even from the dashboard of taxicabs the imperial portrait stares down, a stern reminder of just who has turned Tehran into this mad consumer festival and filled its hotel lobbies with earnest international executives clutching attache cases. Only the week before, a 15man delegation from Quebec had arrived peddling portable schoolhouses, snowmobiles and lumbering know-how, and others will follow, come courting the Iranian petrodollar. But more than one among them will later speculate that while the Shah is pulling Iran up by the bootstraps and pell-mell into the 20th century, the good people of his country may not yet be up to his dream.

The trappings and technology of westernization are all there, but somehow, the cultures collide and, like the obstinate telephones, nothing ever seems to function as planned. By the side of sleek superhighways, Tehran’s primitive open sewer system still flows on, odiferously uninterrupted, and cars whiz by in such a frenzy that it soon becomes clear why visitors are counseled not to drive. A trip across the city is a knuckle-sucking experience without lanes or apparent rules, which is partly explained by the recent discovery that only one out of four drivers in Tehran actually has a license. In this city of three million, there are an estimated 900,000 registered vehicles, and 300 more pouring in daily, causing such monumental traffic jams that during one rush hour Roloff Beny’s car will take two hours to inch across five miles. The resulting air pollution is said to be worse than New York City’s, or something akin to smoking two packs a day.

The feel of money in the air is palpable, from the Mercedes littering the traffic tieups to the mansions such as the one built by a former truck driver who has become Iran’s king of Pepsi-Cola: a $ 15-million exact replica of the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Devout veiled Moslem women hurry down the streets sporting beneath their long black chadors the latest Paris fashions and platform shoes. Shops spill over with automatic washers and outlandish approximations of Louis XV sofas, but there are sudden serious shortages of such things as onions because Iran’s ports were totally unprepared for its spending spree. Bandar Abbason the Persian Gulfis clogged with a two-month backlog of ships waiting to unload, some with bananas already gone rotten in their holds. Thus, Iran too has been gripped by massive inflation—the price tag of an ordinary Peugeot now $ 11.000, the rent for an unremarkable three-bedroom house $2,000 a month.

Along the way, even the oil boom has somehow been mismanaged. In the rosy flush of peak production, the Shah was ad-

vised that his oil revenues in 1975 would be $22 billion and so he spent $22 billion. Unfortunately those whispering in his ear had not foreseen that general cutbacks, plus his refusal to lower his price per barrel as the Arabs did, would lead to a jolting 12% decline in oil exports and the shock of revenues that are being officially acknowledged as only $20 billion but which, according to experts, are actually as low as $16 or $18 billion. The current budget has been delayed, multimillion-dollar bond issues are being discreetly raised and plans for the Shah’s new palace on the Caspian have been temporarily shelved. While Iran is still far from destitute, it has nevertheless had to confront such embarrassments as the bankruptcy of two Iranian construction companies—reportedly because the

government could not pay its bills.

Still, as this Persian new year approaches, the newspaper summations will never acknowledge this small slip in fortunes. In Iran certain things are never mentioned, nor is press censorship ever admitted, although no day passes without the Shah’s picture on the front pages and there is a 3-year prison term for anyone daring to criticize the King of Kings. Here, one cannot escape glowing accounts of the Shah’s innovative redistribution of farmland to the peasants, the current attempts to install profit-sharing among workers and the creation of a literacy corps—all cornerstones of his White Revolution, so called because it was bloodless. But there are few accounts of the 1963 uprising against it, when blood washed the streets of the bazaar, nor are the statistics easy to come by which testify that 70% of all Persians are still illiterate and that, in the

midst of Tehran’s plenty, two thirds of its families still earn less than $200 per person. Poverty, ugliness, discontent, all signs of a military or police presence—these things are not part of the Shah’s vision, and so they will not find their way into official records, just as they must not find their way into Roloff Beny’s pictures.

Some photographers might chafe at such restrictions, but they do not seem to faze Roloff Beny who answered queries about why he hadn’t included pictures of poverty in his last Persian book with the rejoinder that, “We know poverty exists, I don’t have to photograph it. I prefer trees.” Now it will be difficult to photograph trees when the Shah would prefer steel mills, and this time he will “leave no steel mill unturned.” he “I make beautiful

tures. I’m an interpretive photographer.” As he talks, the phone miraculously rings. It is the Empress’ private secretary calling to announce that Roloff Beny has been granted an imperial audience. “Oh. what shall I wear?” he beams. He has barely hung up before he is trying on outfits. His new art deco jacket? The brown velvet Edwardian number? The purple velvet jumpsuit? Still, he is not worried, for he knows that his troubles with officialdom are temporarily over. “Now, whenever there’s a difficulty, I just say I have an audience,” he says, “and it will be ‘Open sesame.’ ”

Roloff Beny’s car idles at the gates of the National Iranian Radio and Television Centre, the nerve centre that controls all film and broadcasting in the country, but

sesame does not immediately open. It is the night of Chahar Shanbeh Suri, the eve of the last Wednesday before new year’s, and he has come here to photograph the official version of the traditional firejumping ceremonies. But first, names must be checked, calls made, and a guard sent to escort him up to the concrete colossus on the hill, below which the city unrolls, aglow with bonfires before each house like distant flecks of gold. Suddenly, here too, a giant circle of desert thorn blazes up and he snaps away with his Hasselblad as Iranians dash madly through the flames muttering the traditional chant that will consign the old year’s troubles to the ashes. Chahar Shanbeh Suri is a way to forget the past, and in Iran there is much in the past to forget—and much that, officially, is forgotten.

On the eve of this 50th anniversary celebration of the dynasty he founded, histories celebrate the Shah’s father’s strength and foresight but carefully omit that he was an illiterate peasant of hazy origins who taught himself to read at 30, rose up through the army to take command of it, and eventually the country after ousting the corrupt Kajar kings, and that when he crowned himself Reza Shah the Great in 1926 it was largely because he was allowed to by the English, who then controlled the oil fields through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later to be known as BP). They do not mention either that when his son, the Shah of Shahs and Light of the Aryans, came to power in 1941 it was in pain and humiliation, at the price of the abdication of his own father whose sympathies for the Germans were feared by the Allies. In 1941, they marched in and occupied the country, sending Reza Shah into exile where he died in Johannesburg three years later, a packet of Persian soil by his bedside, forbidden to see or discuss politics with the 22-year-old boy they had installed in his place, his letters never beginning, “My son,” but always, scrupulously, “Majesté. ”

The Shah spent his first three years on the throne as a virtual hostage in his own country, powerless, his subjects forced to show their laisser-passer to Allied soldiers who controlled the streets, everything. Even at the end of the war Russia refused to withdraw its armies until the Shah appealed to President Harry Truman, who, it is believed, threatened Stalin with the atomic bomb—thus beginning a long and intimate U.S. involvement with Iran. The Americans have poured a billion dollars worth of aid into the country and that is not all: in 1953, when the fiery nationalist prime minister Mossadeq had virtually imprisoned the Shah in his palace and forced him to flee the country in his own Beachcraft, the CIA staged a $390,000 counter-coup that mobilized the Persian army and brought him back from Rome three days later, to stay. Even as late as 1961 Iran was tottering, uprisings on every side, generals openly plotting coups, the treasury $500 million in debt and the cur-

rency shored up only by the awesome collection of crown jewels which the Royal Ontario Museum was called upon to catalogue.

But now that the Shah has gotten a hold on his peacock throne, it has become a vise-like grip reinforced by the most modern, swift and deadly weapons in the hands of probably one of the six most powerful armed forces in the world. In 1974 alone, the Shah bought five billion dollars worth of arms from the United States, as well as 800 Chieftain tanks from Britain and 80 new long-range Grumman fighter bombers to add to 100 Phantoms and the world’s largest helicopter and Hovercraft fleets. Twenty-seven percent of Iran’s national income is spent on defense, compared to 9% on education, and it is said the


Shah reads military hardware catalogues the way others read bedtime novels. Still, with memories of his own bitter history still fresh, with Russia looming to the north and his uneasy, sometimes contemptuous relationship with the Arabs to the west, there are those who can understand this obsession that verges on paranoia, although few Iranians themselves even know the extent of the military buildup, which is considered top secret, and mention of it therefore verboten. Indeed, at a private dinner party that Roloff Beny has been invited to later on the eve of Chahar Shanbeh Suri in the home of one of the most distinguished members of the Iranian elite, a stranger will broach the subject and the small group will suddenly stiffen. A chill unease settles over the room. Roloff Beny quickly decides he must be going. He has an imperial audience on the morrow and besides this conversation is taking risky directions. In Iran there is no amusement at the ancient proverb that the walls have ears.

Tehran is a city of walls. It slopes up toward the Elburz Mountains on an incline that is a precise scale of wealth and social status, the poorest clustered around the teeming feverish textures of the bazaar at the bottom, the rest of the city rising toward the elegant enclaves of the rich with their mirrored halls and lavish lily ponds all hidden behind mud-brown walls that reveal nothing. Above, in the rarefied air of the foothills, Niavaran, the Winter Palace of the Shah, towers—a virtual city within a city behind the thickest walls of all which safely distance the Shah of Shahs from his people.

It is the morning of Roloff Beny’s audience with Her Imperial Majesty and he is being driven there now by imperial car. It is a small muddy blue Fiat, and he would

have preferred something grander, but still he is excited as we approach the high concrete walls behind which glimmer the old Kajar palace which now serves as the Shah’s office, the Crown Prince’s own small castle among the trees and, beyond, down the long drive, the magnificent modern white marble edifice of the main palace where he will be received. It is not his first invitation behind these walls, and he has breathless tales of mornings in the Empress’ new malachite library where the two-storey crystal chandeliers hang like stalactites; of twilights in the imperial rose gardens, one wave of her imperial wrist summoning the fountains gushing to life. He has found entree to imperial ski trips where, in the midst of photographing Her Imperial Majesty, he once slid halfway down the mountain backward, much to the imperial amusement. And he has been admitted to Kish, the imperial island in the Persian Gulf, where the Empress herself once had to fetch him out of the water when he was paddling dangerously close to some lumps of black which turned out to be the Shah’s carefully camouflaged bodyguards. It is clear from the dazzling, bemused smiles that she will suddenly flash him in the midst of official ceremonies that Roloff Beny has found a special place in her imperial affections. “Oh, I’m the court jester,” he says.

For today’s audience he has finally settled on his little brown velvet Edwardian number and now he disembarks by the blue iron gates to have his picture taken before entering. Suddenly a bayoneted guard jumps forward, shouting, “It is forbidden!” The phrase will reecho many more times during the days to follow. In Iran much is forbidden and even more is feared, for this is a police state ruled over by one of the most ruthless secret police forces in the world, the dread SAVAK. Set up in 1965 with the help of the CIA, it is said to number 70,000, with more informers everywhere, on the phone, in hotel lobbies, at the cocktail parties of the richest and most powerful, always listening for the slip that will betray a malcontent or potential coup-maker, no slur against the Shah going unreported. One student in four is said to be a SAVAK agent. Among the Iranian elite, friends, family—no one is trusted. Overnight, high officials suddenly vanish. Amnesty International estimates there are 45,000 political prisoners currently in Iranian prisons and there are documented cases of brutal torture, the exquisite agony of electric shocks and pulled fingernails, spines left paralyzed by the tools of this reign of terror by which the Shah holds power. Ironically, of four assassination attempts on him, at least one was orchestrated by the former head of SAVAK.

Certainly the Shah has his enemies—a small underground hard core of Islamic Marxists formed by a curious alliance between the outlawed Communist Tudeh party and the most fanatical wing of the Muslim Mullahs or high priests who be-

lieve that his path to westernization is the road to ruin. The very day of this audience, the Shah has just added 1,180 years to the Iranian calendar with one imperial gesture—has decreed that this would henceforth be year 2,535, as based on the coronation of Cyrus the Great of Persia, and no longer the year 1,355 according to the Muslim calendar. It is an obvious slap at Islam, and already the rumblings are being heard privately, the noise of dissent quietly gathering on the horizon.

As Roloff Beny is escorted offbehind the palace walls, I am led elsewhere, behind other less lofty walls, where a wealthy Iranian whose business has just been nation-

alized sits under the obligatory picture of the Shah on his bookcase and tells me he is only waiting now for the right moment to leave the country forever. “1 do not care to live in a despotic system.” he seethes. “This whole country is for one man. You turn on the news and out of 32 minutes 23 are devoted to one man. You go out in the streets and everywhere you see the police of one man. I hate him. He is worse than Hitler.” Later, friends tell me to distrust such a declaration. It is too open. Although they feel the same way about the Shah, they say that they would never tell such things to a perfect stranger. This man, they say, sounds like a plant for SAVAK..

In the sky above the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Pahlavi dynasty, a helicopter hangs suspended. It pauses, makes a slow circuit over the crowd of 12,000 assembled under concentric circles of police guards, then slowly begins its descent. The time has come for Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Shahs and Light of the Aryans, to come down to his people. These days, he travels almost nowhere except by helicopter, for security reasons, the whirring blades overhead a constant Kafkaesque reminder of his passings. Wherever he walks, a red imperial carpet is unrolled before his feet. As he emerges now, his dark blue uniform emblazoned with gold braid and medals, he is a handsome, ramrod-stiff commanding presence, but also a surprisingly small man who, it is said, wears lifts in his shoes. The Empress, who is taller, walks several steps behind him with the Crown Prince, and together they climb into the midnight blue imperial landau drawn by six magnificent plumed Arabians that will take them up the long broadloomed avenue to the steps of his father’s tomb. The crowds rise to their feet and begin a rhythmic applause.

But there is something infinitely sad about this procession inching forward with its enforced grandeur and gaiety. Something plaintive about the tension that is thick as the rainclouds in the air. There is a sense not of the wonder of this dynasty, but of its fragility. In almost 200 years, no king of Persia has died except at the hand of an assassin or in exile, and this tomb bears vivid witness to that history. Indeed, it is said that the metamorphosis that began the Shah’s ascension did not come until he was guaranteed an heir by this Empress, his third wife, after he had divorced first King Farouk’s daughter Fawzia of Egypt who bore him only a daughter, and later his beloved childless Soraya. Without a son, his dynasty, and thus his political position, could not be assured, and even now it is not safe until this heir, the Crown Prince Reza Cyrus, comes of age.

The Shah makes a ceremonial speech now from the tomb wall, but suddenly, as he drones on, the Crown Prince sways and staggers beside him. He weaves sickly to the side and appears to faint. Cushions are rushed to him, hot tea passed up and doctors boosted to his aid. But the Shah does not falter in his speech. When the Crown Prince finally stumbles back to the ceremony, his return is not welcomed, just as his absence was ignored. Across Iran, the masses tuned into the festivities will be none the wiser for the TV cameras have turned away from this acknowledgment of weakness, just as they know the Shah would have wished them to. In the stands, Roloff Beny too makes no photograph. There are unwritten laws in the land where there is an ancient proverb that all things come from the Shah.

And later.whenhe ischattingwith friends about this gala. Roloff Beny will only say. “Wasn’t it grand?” Ç?