Born in Minnesota to Iranian-French parents, Cyrus Kadivar grew up during the Shah’s reign in the Persian city of Shiraz. At sixteen he and his family were uprooted by the 1979 revolution. He has since worked as a banker, freelance journalist, and political risk consultant and lives in London.
His book Farewell Shiraz: An Iranian Memoir of Revolution and Exile, released in hardback in 2017, is now out in paperback (AUC Press, 2019). In this contributing essay, Kadivar reminisces about his happy years in Iran as a boy and reflects upon the fall of the Shah and the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, while stressing that it is his duty to tell his story and that of his country, through memories and interviews. Photo caption: The author with his book at Hatchard’s bookshop in London
Since the publication of Farewell Shiraz I have often been asked why I wrote this memoir. It seems like a simple question and yet I’ve struggled to find a simple answer. I suppose my first response would be that I wrote this book in order to free myself from the memories that have haunted me for close to four decades since I had to leave my beloved homeland. Another response I may give is that every generation has a responsibility to the following one: to pass on an authentic account of what they witnessed, experienced, and felt, particularly during times of great national upheaval. On an emotional level it is about reconnecting with my former self, making sense of my roots and identity, remembering where I come from.
I have many wonderful memories of Shiraz. As a boy, I cherished hearing my grandparents, parents and older family members telling me anecdotes and tales of the past. Who would have thought that after the unexpected events that changed our lives so dramatically, I would become the sole repository of those stories, the only person to try to pass them on to a younger generation of Iranians, like my cousin born in 1979 who frequently asks me what it was like living under the Shah. Once at a party she introduced me to her friends in London as a person who had lived a fairy-tale existence before his family had to leave their big house and everything behind. Non-Iranians curious about my origins inevitably seek to delve into my former experiences with questions that require a long answer. How does one summarize an entire life and the history of a country in a few words? The answer is that you can’t, except to write, write, and write. Thus my book—a memoir and like all memoirs a deeply personal undertaking. Photo caption: “The house we left behind, 1978”
The world, of course, is filled with exiles and refugees, and I am not the only person pining for a Paradise Lost. However, every individual has a right to tell their story and record it as part of the human experience and for in the end, it is all about memory. There are those moments, when I dream of an enchanting city cradled in the arms of the high mountains that surround it, a place filled with fun-seeking people and wine-loving poets, lovely gardens where cypresses stand tall, straight, and dense against a blue, cloudless sky; where the roses, splendid, and fragrant, are serenaded by the nightingales.
Do I have nostalgia for my childhood and adolescent years in Shiraz? Of course I do but I also miss the country I lost. Iran today has no relation to the one I knew but my story hopefully captures what I recall and seeks to also challenge some of the clichés of the Pahlavi epoch and pre-revolutionary years that sadly often misrepresent what actually happened and trivialize the destruction and suffering that followed the collapse of the monarchy.
Farewell Shiraz is essentially a story divided into three distinct yet interweaving parts. The first part called Of Things Past draws heavily on my family history and picturesque recollections of growing up and my coming of age in pre-revolutionary Iran during the reign of two Pahlavi monarchs: Reza Shah and his son Mohammad Reza Shah and the early months of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s rise to power in the wake of his triumphant victory following the overthrow of the imperial order. The second part Exile deals with my displacement and the years of living in the West during which I pursued my obsession with trying to understand why I lost my country. Photo caption: “Our last summer at Ab Barik, 1979. Front row (left to right): me, Hassan, Mojghan, Soraya, and Shahrbanu; back row (left to right): unknown boy, Darius, and Sylvie.”
Finally, in the third part entitled Witnesses and Survivors readers will be introduced to a select group of men and women who were part of the last Shah’s inner circle or key spectators of the unfolding drama and subsequent catastrophe that was the Iranian Revolution—a political earthquake whose reverberations still live with us today. Each of the people interviewed, whether a former empress, ex-courtiers, disaffected revolutionaries, or the bereaved relatives of those who perished in the cataclysm, provides a richly detailed historic and personal testimony of an extinct world.
Revisiting the past, especially for us Iranians outside the country, can be a cathartic experience. In the early years when 2-3 million of my compatriots fled the revolution to the four corners of the globe, mostly to Europe and the United States, the trauma of surviving the maelstrom was epic in scale, intimate in detail, and ultimately a heartbreaking tale marking the end of an era. For some looking back has been painful, filled with anger, frustration, and the sad realization that we all belong to an uprooted generation, whether our parents, ourselves or the children born outside Iran. A small minority have gone back—few have stayed permanently, most return with mixed feelings.
What seems to have endured is a sense of loss. The Shah and Khomeini died a long time ago but their legacy continues to shape Iranian minds even today. There is also a sense of regret that the revolution ended not only 25 centuries of monarchy but also the modernizing Shah’s promise (flawed as it seems in hindsight, but not at the time) of a great and proud Iran. Worst of all, the events of 1979 did not usher freedom, democracy and happiness in Iran but years of intolerance, war, excess, and mayhem. In 2017 over eighty million people live in an Islamic Republic governed by a Supreme Leader and an oppressive theocracy. Photo caption: The author as a boy, in Shiraz
It seems incredible that my book is appearing thirty-eight years after I kissed my first love goodbye and left my home, city, and country behind for the west. For most of those years, like many in the Persian Diaspora, I brooded over the loss of my former idyllic life and the homeland that had disappeared in between the pages of history. Gone are those halcyon days. Overcoming the trauma of losing everything can be painful and humiliating, but it can also be liberating. Writing turned out to be my solace, my path to making sense of everything.
When I visited the late Shah’s tomb in Cairo in 1999, the tragedy and enormity of what had transpired became even clearer. It took another eighteen years or so to face the past with greater understanding, compassion, and historical objectivity.
I now confess that on a personal level I have undergone a transformation. Looking back at family albums, re-reading my teenage diaries (much of which served me in reconstructing the years leading to the revolution), and watching old home movies, I am filled with the recognition that I must be grateful for the life given to me. There is also another realization. The little boy who had spent his formative years in Shiraz, and the sensitive adolescent who had been caught up in the events of a time of nation-building and revolutionary upheaval that shattered his world forever, bears scant resemblance to the melancholic adult I have become.
My late father’s decision to bring his family out of Iran, difficult as it was, resulted in a different life for all of us. There have been joys and sorrows but also rewards. There comes a time when you have to let go of the past and perhaps by burying the ghosts of yesterday, I, like other Iranians of my age, can finally look forward to a new chapter. Now in my fifties I wonder what will be the future of Iran’s young generation. What will be their tomorrow? Photo caption: The author at the Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo, July 2000. The last shah is buried in the mosque complex.
For someone who has not been back to his country I am fully aware that Iran is a different place today because of what happened so many years ago. Despite all the shortcomings of the current system running their lives, we can see how many Iranians are better educated and self-sufficient, politically and intellectually aware yet seeking a better life. At the end Iran belongs to the Iranians living there and we who have lived outside for so long can only watch from afar and hope to return one day (I would like to write that second book!)
By Cyrus Kadivar