Exiled: Iran’s Prince Turned Immigrant Commits Suicide

 Exiled: Iran’s Prince Turned Immigrant Commits Suicide

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The suicide this week of Alireza Pahlavi, the youngest son of Iran’s ex-Shah, has been carefully woven by the former royal family as the culmination of decades of political grief—a political statement that was no doubt intended as a reinvigoration of Crown Prince Reza Pahlavi’s efforts to reclaim the throne he feels is rightfully his. While this official version has been received negatively by Iranians everywhere, many Iranians in the diaspora have been drawn to the allegory not of a fallen royal but of what happens to all immigrants who surpass the uncertain yet hopeful realm of departure from a troubled homeland into the painful certainty of permanent exile.

“Exile is a very, very heart-wrenching process,” says Professor Abbas Milani of Stanford University, author of the newly published biography, The Shah.
 “In his brilliant book A Captive Mind, [the Polish author] Czeslaw Milosz says that exile is a decision you cannot make rationally, your body has to make that decision. Your body has to physically reject your homeland. Otherwise you cannot make that decision.” 

The 44-year-old prince, son of Iran’s former U.S.-backed leader, who was toppled following the 1979 popular revolution, allegedly shot himself to death earlier this week at his home in Boston. He left a suicide note—the contents of which, like many of the important details of this powerful family, will never be known to the public.

For many Iranians, news of the suicide was the first they really learned of the Shah’s youngest son. Even now, the only information publicly available about him is that he studied ancient Iranian history as part of his undergraduate and graduate studies at top universities in the United States and was encouraged to stay in the political shadows so that his elder brother, the Crown Prince, would remain the leading contender for a throne that no longer exists.

For Iranian-Americans—perhaps the diaspora group with the greatest number of monarchists, due to a large population of Shah-era elites residing in the Los Angeles area in particular—Pahlavi’s suicide has had a visible impact, whether they are pro or against the monarchy. "The death of anyone—that, too, a young person— is cause for sadness," says Mahnaz Badihian, a renowned poet who runs Iran's most censored online literary magazine, the Bay Area-based MahMag.org , whose audience and contributors span the diaspora and Iran itself.

"In the last 30 years, the Iranian people have suffered so much," Badihian says. "They have been lied to so much, so many insults have been hurled at them, they have been raped and tortured physically and emotionally and so many of our activists have been destroyed in various ways, that the death of yet another young person—even if he is the son of the former Shah who many people do not like—is grievous." 

For many Iranians in the diaspora particularly—whether they cling to the distant memories of a royal Iran or they have realized the endurance of the Islamic Republic, reformed or otherwise – the pain of exile that Pahlavi is said to have endured is all too real.

“Generally, exile is very difficult,” Milani says, “but then you have the much more specific case of Iranian exile, where you have all the troubles of exile and the added problem that you have been forced out of your country by this brutal, corrupt, incompetent regime, yet people hold you responsible for the actions of that regime.”
 Milani is referring to the particular dilemma Iranian-Americans face of defending their pride and compassion for their country and people, while at the same time having to answer to the current problems which they themselves also find fault with. “You have this undercurrent of anti-regime sentiment among Iranian-Americans, yet people here hold you responsible for the actions of that very regime.”

The politics at the heart of this suicide—whether manufactured as the most immediate reason for it or as manifested by lingering anger against a royal family whose failures are widely credited for being a significant reason why the people’s revolution ended in the Islamic clerics’ rule—are profound.

"Critics of the Shah have really gone, in my view, overboard. They have gone to remarkable extremes in forgetting the human aspects of this news—a 44-year old, depressed man who took his life," Milani says. "You might dislike the Shah and the Queen, but she is a mother who has lost her son."

While some Iranian-Americans have not been able to look beyond the politics, others have seen the human issues at play. For poet Badihian, the symbolism is hard to escape. “As an Iranian, a citizen of the world who is neither on the left or the right, and someone who is only a follower of beauty, humanity and kindness, I see the passing of Alireza Pahlav—a young man and symbol of the youth of Iran—as sad news and a bad start to the new year."