By Cyrus Kadivar, author of Farewell Shiraz, An Iranian Memoir of Revolution and Exile (AUC Press, 2019, paperback edition).
My fascination with Egypt dates to my childhood in Iran, where studying Persian history, I grew to appreciate the interwoven history of these two great civilisations. My father’s generation was brought up on stories of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s visit to Egypt in 1939, where as the Crown Prince of Iran, he married Princess Fawzia, the sister of King Farouk, at the Abdeen Palace. For several years the beautiful Egyptian was Iran’s queen. The Shah later divorced Fawzia and married queen Soraya and finally Farah Diba, the future Shahbanou. Diplomatic links with Egypt grew cold during the late Farouk era and the volatile Nasser period.
But by the early 70s, at the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran secretly granted US $1 Billion in aid and supplied Egypt with oil during the war with Israel, and Anwar Sadat never forgot this and took extraordinary steps to rekindle ties between our great countries. The Sadats visited Tehran in 1977 and a deep and personal friendship was forged based on mutual respect of two solid leaders and their socially-progressive wives which continued even after Iran was engulfed in revolution. When the Shah left his country on 16 January 1979 he was welcomed with a red carpet and honour guard by the Sadats, in Aswan. One month later Khomeini seized power and Iran became an Islamic Republic and the 2500-year-old monarchy abolished. Several million Iranians fled their country as it descended into a political hell which continues to this day. I too was uprooted with my family later that year and have spent over 42 years hoping to one day return.
The saga of the Shah’s odyssey has been documented in many books, articles and news reports. Regardless of one’s views of the Shah and his reign, the treatment he received has echoes of a Greek tragedy. Many Iranian exiles who had seen better days before the Shah’s overthrow were appalled if not offended by the shabby treatment of their sovereign by his so-called former allies. Carter’s mishandling of the Iran Crisis was compounded by the U.S. Hostage Crisis provoked by his reluctant decision to allow the Shah into New York for medical reasons. Later when the royal patient moved to Panama rumors that the Carter administration was planning to swap the Shah for the American hostages prompted Mrs. Jehan Sadat to call the Empress Farah and convey President Sadat’s extended hand of friendship to the Shah and his family.
As a young man studying in Pennsylvania, President Sadat’s moral courage truly impressed me. His decision to welcome the homeless Shah in the name of Egypt, Islam, and ethics, was the height of chivalry. The emaciated Shah and his wife arrived in Cairo in late March. Despite all the medical care he received at the Maadi Hospital, the cancer-ridden Shah passed away on the 27 July 1980 aged sixty. Sadat ordered a grand state funeral that proved a poignant epitaph for the last emperor of Iran and the monarchy. The Sadats had demonstrated their willingness to place human decency above political expediency.
Imagine the horror we felt when a year later in October 1981 President Sadat was assassinated during a military parade. This time the Shah’s widow stood by her friend Mrs. Sadat in her grief and their special relationship was cemented further. My respect for Mrs. Sadat grew further after reading her memoir, A Woman of Egypt, and watching numerous interviews with this intelligent, beautiful, and patriotic lady who never ceased to speak for peace and women’s rights. In October 1999, I decided to visit Egypt as part of my research into the Shah’s downfall but also to close a personal and historical chapter in my life by visiting Mohammed Reza Shah’s tomb. Twenty years had passed since losing my country and with melancholic feelings I found a small part of Iran in the Egyptian mausoleum.
During my stay in Cairo I marveled at the heritage of Egypt, sailed on the Nile, gazed at the Sphinx and the Pyramids, and enjoyed the charm and affection of ordinary Egyptians. Every time I stepped into a taxi the driver would wonder where I came from. Once he discovered my Iranian background he would smile and remind me how President Sadat made their country proud by welcoming the Shah to Egypt to die in peace. I returned to Cairo in July 2000 to write an article for The Middle East Magazine and to attend a commemorative ceremony by Iranian exiles to mark the Shah’s death, an annual event. Here I had the special honor of meeting the Empress Farah and Mrs. Sadat.
I still recall my timid steps towards the Egyptian widow, elegant in black, her make-up simple but impeccable, standing inside the Shah’s flower-decked marble mausoleum. Iranian exiles wandered in and out to pay their respects. A friend introduced me and I blurted out: “We Iranians are grateful for all you and your late husband did for our late King… and I, as one of many Iranians who lost his country, thank you.”
There was an aura of goodness about the pleasant-looking former First Lady of Egypt. Mrs. Sadat smiled widely, placed her small hand on mine, and whispered, “We did nothing… nothing, only our duty to God and our conscience.” With those sincere words she left me and joined Empress Farah and her children.
My wife and I spent our honeymoon in Luxor and made several more trips to Cairo over the years (the last time in 2010, eight months before the political uprisings in Egypt.) We met Mrs. Sadat and Empress Farah again and admired their sisterhood and dignity. In 2017 my book Farewell Shiraz: An Iranian Memoir of Revolution and Exile was published by AUC Press and again I renewed my relationship with Iran and Egypt.
News of Mrs. Sadat’s passing in Egypt on 9 July 2021 came as a shock as I was not aware that she had been unwell. Suddenly, memories flooded me and what emerged was that of a remarkably courageous woman who marked her times by defying convention and obscurantism. Images of her funeral and knowing that she is now reunited by the side of her late husband provides an endurable legacy for a couple who lived and died for their ideals, their country and the betterment of their people.
When Empress Farah will visit Egypt this year, she will no doubt miss her loyal friend by her side as for almost four decades Mrs. Sadat attended the pilgrimage made every summer to honor their late husbands. This time the exiled Iranian empress will be honoring the Sadats for showing the world that good deeds are truly everlasting.