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A NOBLE LIFE: Tribute to Dr Farhang Mehr

By Cyrus Kadivar

Dr Farhang Mehr: 11 December 1923 - 4 March 2018

The recent passing away of Dr Farhang Mehr on 4 March 2018 brought to an end a vibrant, tumultuous and productive life that spanned 94 years. Born in Tehran on 11 December 1923, he had been raised by his parents as a Zoroastrian. From an early age he had been a top student at the Firooz Bahram High School where he had also dabbled in music developing an interest in playing the violin and learning ballroom dancing. An educated man with Iranian degrees in engineering, law, economics and political science he had also received several Western degrees in England and America. Like many of his generation he had partaken in the rapid modernization of his ancient and proud country.

A leading and prominent Zoroastrian he pursued a technocratic career: serving as deputy prime-minister in the early years of the government of Amir Abbas Hoveyda and holding key positions in oil, finance and education. But it is his role as Chancellor of Pahlavi University, built on the American educational model, in the final years of the Iranian monarchy that he will be forever remembered. In his heyday this cheerful, elegantly dressed and urbane man who sported a bow-tie, a frizzy moustache and rim-glasses, had turned Pahlavi University (with the close cooperation of the University of Pennsylvania) into an international educational centre. Built on a hill, the main grounds of the university enjoyed a sprawling and pleasant campus with trees and rose bushes, lecture halls, a theatre, dormitories and state-of-the art facilities. Noted for the medical, nursing, veterinary, agriculture and liberal arts departments, high calibre Iranian and Western faculty, and co-ed student body, the university was ranked number one in the whole of Iran.

For his good work the Shah awarded Dr Mehr with two of his nation’s highest medals, a rare honour for a non-Muslim Iranian. On the eve of the cataclysmic events that was about to hit Iran, Pahlavi University had achieved national and international status with many graduates looking forward to a bright future. Dr Farhang Mehr was already in his eighth year as Chancellor when nationwide political unrest and anti-shah violence in the streets spilled over to the University. During the troubles Dr Mehr did his best to intercede on behalf of leftist students arrested by the security forces only to watch in horror as Islamic radicals - men in beards and women in black chadors - disrupted classes, burned books, chanted slogans and threw bricks at windows.

On 16 January 1979, after months of violence and mass protests against his rule, the Shah who had ruled Iran for 37 years finally abandoned power and left his battered kingdom. A month later, Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the revolution, came back from Paris exile and swept away the last pillars of the Pahlavi dynasty. After the collapse of the Imperial Army and the victory of the Islamic forces, hundreds of former officials connected to the Shah were arrested and executed. These events and the death threats against Dr Mehr was enough for his devoted wife of sixteen years Parichehre, to beg him to go into hiding. One day Dr Mehr simply vanished from Shiraz with the revolutionary authorities issuing a warrant for his immediate arrest.

Moving from one safe house to another in Tehran, Dr Mehr finally made his escape. It was later in exile that he revealed his daring flight to my father when we met him at our apartment in France. Aided by Kurdish smugglers, wearing a beard, carrying fake papers and riding on a horse, Dr Mehr had crossed over the Iranian border into Turkey to freedom. From Istanbul he had flown to Paris. The one time proud chancellor was now, like many other Iranian exiles walking the streets of foreign capitals, a refugee, a downcast figure.

Unable to return to Iran where certain death awaited him, Dr Mehr eventually immigrated to the USA where in 1981 he was reunited with his wife and three children: Mehrdad, Mehran and Mitra. They too had been forced to escape through the harrowing mountains. Before leaving Dr Mehr’s wife had hurriedly buried all the family valuables in a hole she dug in the backyard. To their dismay they later learned that their house had been confiscated by the Islamic revolutionary court and sold. Sadly, the new owners razed it to build a high-rise apartment. The Mehr family often joked that one day “someone will dig up the grounds and discover a treasure.”

It wasn't until the mid-1980s while I was finishing my studies at Villanova University, that I met Dr Mehr at a seminar on the Middle East. Nothing had changed in him physically along with his signature looks. As a leading Professor of International Relations at Boston University he was in his element talking about the country he had left behind and the bloody and disastrous Iran-Iraq war. It was after the talk that I had introduced myself and although now a few years older than the young man he had known during my schooldays in Shiraz, we retired to the cafeteria for drinks.

My parents had known Dr Mehr and his wife during their time in Iran and his children had attended my international community school. The man before me had taken me into his confidence, showing interest in my studies in political science and offering his advice. Later that afternoon I had spent a few good hours talking and reminiscing with Dr Mehr, quizzing him about the Shah and the fate of so many of his colleagues either killed like Hoveyda or driven underground or out of Iran by the fanatical mullahs. Although his life had been turned upside down, he was thankful to be alive.

Yet his sorrow over what had happened to our homeland was etched on his face like the faces of so many other patriotic and professional Iranians uprooted by history and part of the Persian Diaspora. I never saw Dr Farhang Mehr again but a year after his retirement as a Professor Emeritus he told his story in a book called Triumph over Discrimination. Written by Laylah M. Alphonse and published in 2000 the account only confirmed Dr Mehr's life-one of surmounting adversity. Rebuilding his life in America, Dr Mehr never forgot his past or ancestral roots.

Decades after the revolution, the reformist President Khatami, invited him back to Iran to attend a congress on Zoroastrianism. In a famous moment Dr Mehr, always immaculately dressed, eloquently asked the president of the Islamic republic to amend several discriminatory laws against the 25,000 Zoroastrians living in Iran. Khatami promised to look into it and praised Dr Mehr as one of the country’s eminent scholars and learned men. It was the last time Dr Mehr set foot in his homeland.

A modern, liberal and secular man, he continued to write in scholarly journals, gave lectures and travelled the world speaking about his religious faith and spreading its peaceful creed of truth and goodness. Over the long years away from his birthplace he appeared on numerous television and radio programs. News of his death in Southern California has plunged his family and friends into mourning. However, the memory of his services to Iran and his Zoroastrian community lives on.

Cyrus Kadivar, Author of Farewell Shiraz: An Iranian memoir of Revolution and Exile. London, United Kingdom

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