When, in February 2011, American Vogue came under fire for its laudatory portrayal of Asma al-Assad, first lady of Syria, by Joan Juliet Buck, the magazine was reproducing a glossy tradition of obsessing over the Westernised wives of Middle Eastern and Persian dictators.
Reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, his account of the fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, I was reminded of how I first became aware of the dynasty’s existence: through a 1998 coffee-table book on legendary princesses, amongst which was the Shah’s third wife, Farah Pahlavi.
That book by French journalist Henry-Jean Servat, like most features on Iranian imperial life you could read in magazines such as Paris Match in the 1970s, couldn’t have been further from Kapuscinski’s account of fear, terror and torture.
Much like Buck's profile of al-Assad, it was all about fairy tale weddings and designer dresses, about a simple love story between a man and a woman and how good they were to their people and at modernising the country, about charity work and Western-educated women.
Western education is a key part of many dictators’ wives narrative, including for al-Assad and Pahlavi, who respectively studied in London and Paris. If they like our clothes and were educated in our universities, how can they not embrace our values and bring them back home? There is an underlying arrogance to these articles not dissimilar from the European empires determination to assimilate the world to their values over six centuries.
The Pahlavis might not have hired an American PR company to promote them in the West, but their oil money did the trick. Kapuscinski explains the frenzy governments got into the second they realised how much they could make of the Shah’s petrodollars. This focus on selling contracts to Iran might have been why foreign magazines chose to highlight the glossy, even though the state’s abuse of human right was already documented.
In her 2009 Sundance documentary The Queen and I, Nahid Persson Sarvestani touches upon the difficulty of remaining objective about her subject, something many biographers apparently struggle with. Sarvestani grew up in an impoverished Iranian family and, as part of a Communist group, took to the streets in 1979. Both her brothers were murdered by the Khomeini regime shortly after. Yet she waits until the last minute to ask Pahlavi about her husband’s regime abuse of human rights.
She acknowledges two reasons for this: a fear of her access to the Queen being cut short and her growing fondness for the Shahbanou.
When Sarvestani finally asks Pahlavi about human right abuses, the answer is a very nuanced acknowledgement
I’m not claiming that Iran was a democracy like in Europe. You have to take the conditions of the time into consideration. That was the period of the Soviet Union. It was the Cold War and it was the wish of the Soviet Union to make Iran communist and to have access to the Persian Gulf. So for the security of the country we needed a secret service. They did things that were wrong in comparison to the rest of the civilised world. If Savak was so powerful, how come they couldn’t identify the mullahs? All the leaders opposing the Shah in Iran and abroad are alive and well.
Knowing how much the wife of a tyrant is involved in his dealings can be difficult. Some, like Leila Trabelsi in Tunisia, are integral to their husbands’ reign of terror. Others, like al-Assad and Pahlavi, are seen as little more than arm candy focusing on charity and cultural work. How much can you ignore of what is going on in your own country and of what your spouse is doing? At what point does willing or self-imposed ignorance become tacit assent?