Her Majesty Farah Pahlavi had been empress of Iran for 20 years when, in 1979, she and her family left the country amidst the turmoil of the Revolution that would bring to power Ayatollah Khomeini. Raised in Iran, Pahlavi would pursue architecture studies in Paris and soon after, in 1959, she married the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Shahbanu Farah came to the Wilson Center on March 10 to discuss her new book, An Enduring Love: My Life with the Shah, A Memoir. Nearly 300 people attended the talk, which took the format of a candid conversation with the Wilson Center's Middle East Program Director Haleh Esfandiari, herself an Iranian woman. Following the talk, Pahlavi greeted the event's attendees and autographed hundreds of copies of her book.

Pahlavi discussed the sadness that engulfed her and the king during their last days in Iran, while hanging onto hope that they might one day return, and the societal pressures that led them to leave their homeland. Although she lives in permanent exile, she still considers Iran her home.

"Home is a country that was once one of the cradles of civilization," she said. "Home is Iran. And she will rise from her ashes."

In her view, the Shah was trying to develop Iran into a modern, progressive society with greater political participation and freedoms for the people. "[Islamic] countries cannot become democracies overnight," she said. "It took decades for other countries. And he really wanted to open up slowly but, unfortunately, the moment this opening happened was the worst moment, and it ended up the way we saw it."

As empress, Pahlavi had the chance to travel around Iran, talking with everyone from common people to government officials allowing her to understand the needs, and the mood, of the people. She had served as an advocate for education, health, and the arts, and expanded opportunities for orphans and the handicapped. She also was a strong supporter of women's rights and helped establish the first women's university in Iran. "Many Iranian women had fought for a right place in this society," she said. "And after all, I was one of them...We didn't want to be second-class citizens in our country."

By the early 1970s, the mood began to change in Iran. Inflation created social problems, she recounted, and opposition groups, particularly religious fundamentalists, were growing more active. She said some groups that opposed the reforms begun in 1963 started their activities in that year. While rising expectations and a worsening economy fueled the discontent, she added, "but really, with hindsight, all the problems were not in such a way that we needed such a revolution. They were solvable."

The Empress expressed gratitude to the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat for providing a refuge when other countries had turned their backs. "I will forever be grateful, my children as well...to the Egyptian government for allowing us to go there, in a very difficult period of our life. I think President Sadat showed that even in politics, moral values count."

Although she cannot return to Iran, Farah Pahlavi has been in contact with Iranians through letters and more recently via the Internet. "E-mails are coming from Iran which are very touching for me," she said, "because sometimes, most of the time, they're from young people who grew up in Iran after the Revolution."

Pahlavi also reflected on the illness that took the Shah's life in 1980. She first heard about his cancer in 1977 from doctors in Paris who told her that the Shah had a curable disease. Looking back on their life together, she said, "My best teacher was my husband."

Drafted by Dana Steinberg, Wilson Center staff