Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari

I Want to Cry Like Soraya

Or, Three Faces in Paris: Soraya, Sadegh, and Sa’edi

I really should be getting on, but I don’t want to go to the gathering; no, anything but that. The sun is again but a memory, this chichi avenue draped in damning black and blue; whoever said autumn was romantic can go to hell. Behind those hissing maws of steel, a pale-faced boy is licking coffee grounds from his thumb whilst half-heartedly listening to the eschatological banter of a bundled-up blonde. Could this vignette be any more miserable? I suppose things can always get worse; I mean, just imagine if Phil Collins were to pop on the radio. Maybe it’s just the weather and the grim reality of November, and I shouldn’t think too much about things. I’ve heard it’s been snowing quite a bit in Tehran. It’s difficult to imagine, because I’ve never seen Tehran at this time of year. Like the sun, it seems so far away; but then again, it would, even if I were tossed in the smoggy thick of the city. I always seem to have my head in the clouds and stars in my eyes, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Yes, I am a year older, and yes, if I don’t make a move, the gods will take a proper piss on me, but – I wonder what the streets of Tehran look like now …

They must be lying under sullied shrouds of snow, the boughs blanketing endless Vali-ye Asr Avenue, the skirt of the Alborz Mountains. I don’t know why, out of all the times I found myself glued to the backseat of a Paykan careening hell for leather towards the idyll of Darband, I never once bothered to venture past the creaky gates of the Zahir-o’Dowleh cemetery. But what would have been the point? It is not in his strange, beloved homeland that Sadegh lies, but faraway Paris, cold and grey. Beside his pointed gravestone in Père Lachaise, Grandpa read the fateheh and made poor Sadegh roll over. At the very least, he’d escaped the clutches of the dreaded undertakers, in whose hands he would have ‘died twice’.

Sadegh Hedayat

This charming man: Sadegh Hedayat

What had taken Sadegh to Paris and wrested him from the Iran he so loved, but which could never love him back? Dashed dreams and a heavy heart, just like Sa’edi, a stone’s throw away from Sadegh, just like Soraya. Sadegh’s undoing was that he knew too much. He’d read the story of Iran, and over its bloodied pages wept in vain; and, in searching for Iran, he found himself on the torrid shores of Hindustan, to which his people were bound in blood and spirit alike. No sooner did he catch sight of a twinkling of hope, though, than Sol couched behind that humbled lion and his chimeras crumbled to dust. But unlike Sae’di, who in lieu of the liberties he so sought found Parisian exile and a bottle, Sadegh perhaps fared better. Having failed to drown himself in the River Marne, Sadegh finally found freedom from the fetters of his cruel reality lying supine on his pillow, as if lost in a child’s dream, in his gassed flat on Rue Championnet. Iran had lost a lover once and for all, but outside, it was just another uneventful April’s day in Paris.

You knew their time in Paradise, unlike your beauty, would come to pass; the house would fall, the Garden be lost and but a haunting thought

As Sadegh before her had carried the burden of knowledge with him to his frigid grave, Soraya did that of her pride; Sadegh knew too much, and Soraya wanted too much. She wouldn’t play second fiddle to anyone, neither in this life nor the next. It may have mattered little to the King of Kings and the girl with the mousy hair, but not to the Principessa, to whom certain things were holy, inviolable. You could have had it all! Yes, your Imperial Highness, you could have faded away, slowly, watching your soul splinter into a thousand little pieces in those glittering glass halls, day in, day out. They would have wrapped you, an afterthought, in velvet and mink, and sent you to live out the rest of your days in the shadow of what you once used to be; and you, feigning joy, would smile and wave a bejewelled hand, comforted beneath satin sheets only by the thought that you were a ‘queen’. But what need had you for petty titles when you would always be a queen, with or without God’s Shadow? You would have rather died than sully that which you deemed sacred, and, above all, submit – just like Sadegh, just like Sa’edi. Three faces, three souls, each with the same desire, all of which met their untimely ends broken and alone in the city of lights.

Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari

Drama queen: the late Shah of Iran and Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari on the cover of an edition of Italy’s La Domenica del Corriere dated March 23, 1958. The two would divorce in April of the same year, and the Shah take Farah Diba as his third wife in 1959.

Sombre nymph of fire and stardust, the ring of clinking sheep bells in your ears and flowers smeared upon your visage; as you beheld your splendour then, you recalled Egypt’s fallen daughter and fair Lilith. Even the thought of them, though, was not enough to dull the glow of your eyes, daubed with brightest white. Fawzia’s story you knew all too well, and in Lilith you saw sororal kin; Lilith, banished from the Garden for not succumbing to Adam’s whims. Cursed she may be, you thought, caressing your powdered cheeks, but she still has her pride. Eve roamed then about Paradise, bearing upon her head a wreath not of leaves, but of jewels, bone, and Aryan light. So be it: you knew their time in Paradise, unlike your beauty, would come to pass; the house would fall, the Garden become but a haunting thought.

So much for Lilith. What became of our Principessa? Far from the Marble Palace, she gave up the ghost in her ‘Palace of Loneliness’ fifteen years ago, down and out in Paris: just like Sadegh, just like Sa’edi. Would that they in their misery, had, like Michaux, found a miracle; but alas, there are none to be found in exile’s bleak hollow. Lady Stardust lives now amongst the stars, as does the lad who fell from up above; and Eve now weeps not for them, but Leila, Leila, Leila, whom they finally took away. Clinking glasses with ghosts and misty-eyed sycophants, Persia’s favoured child remembers the paradise lost with heavy sighs in Paris. 

And here I am in Toronto, beneath the incandescent bulbs of some wretched little café, turning my eyes away from the night sky. Mithras will come soon, that bringer of light, to herald the dawn and the end of our suffering; that I know. But for now, there’s only darkness, the nothingness of November, and the creeping death of winter. If only I could be like you, Soraya. I don’t want to be like common people and cry like they do; I don’t want to cry over cold Americanos in my torn blue jeans. I want to cry like you, Principessa. I want to cry like Soraya. For what, though? My tears wouldn’t change anything, or bring you back. What could they ever do? ‘Dir shodeh, joonam’, I can hear you saying, swallowing the bitterness of it all. ‘It’s too late, my dear …’

In memory of Soraya Esfandiary Bakhtiari (1932 – 2001), Sadegh Hedayat (1903 – 1951), and Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi (1936 – 1985).

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About the Author

Joobin Bekhrad
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An award-winning writer, Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the founder and Editor of REORIENT. He has contributed to such publications as The Guardian, The Economist, the BBC, Forbes, i-D/Vice, The Columbia Journal, The British Library's Untold Lives, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Aesthetica, Artsy, and Harper’s Bazaar Art Arabia, been interviewed by news outlets including Newsweek, The Art Newspaper, and the CBC, and seen his writings republished and translated into a variety of languages. He is the author of a translation of Omar Khayyam’s Robaiyat, the foreword to Mahdi Ehsaei's Afro-Iran, Coming Down Again, and With My Head in the Clouds and Stars in My Eyes (forthcoming).