This fascinating book shines a light on, what is for me, an unknown subject. Iran, or Persia, as it was known hides in the tapestry of history giving glimpses of a gorgeous past rich with colour and culture. Most of us now know it more, sadly, for its intolerance, Revolution and mullahs rather than its extraordinary history, poetry, artistry and its cultural tolerance.
Taking a character, about which little is known, and explaining his part in saving his contemporaries can be fraught with problems. Fariborz Mokhtari avoids much of this by providing us with an history lesson and context.
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Put succinctly this book follows Abdol-Hossein Sardariís life and how he became an Iranian Schindler by putting his life on the line and saving the lives of the hundreds of Iranian Jews who were caught up in the Second World War. Through his charm, hospitality, networking skills and intelligence he challenged the Third Reichís racial laws by arguing that Iranian Jews were not Jewish because by blood and race they were Iranians, and thus Ayrians.
This feat becomes even more noteworthy when set against the backdrop of Iranís relationship with Germany and the West during the Second World War. Despite declaring its neutral status, both Russian and Britain invaded Iran, forced its king to resign and sent him into exile. Iran had built up an excellent relationship with Germans through trade, but when occupied by the Allies could no longer hang on to its neutrality so declared war on Germany. As a foreign diplomat in Paris, with all support from his government withdrawn Sardari continued to find ways and means to look after his fellow countrymen in Paris. He saved them from transportation to the gas chambers, having to wear the yellow badge of Ďshameí, fed and watered them out of his own personal means until he was almost bankrupt. And then in 1952 was called back to Tehran to face charges of misconduct and embezzlement. These were finally dropped in 1955.
Sardariís personal life was marked by tragedy. The love of his life Yen Chow, disappeared during the Chinese Revolution. Despite his love of entertaining, his intelligence, his love of his country, saving the lives of many of his countrymen, and being a steadfast and generous friend, the turmoil that was and is Iran exacted a high cost. The coup in July 1958 that ended Iranís monarchy ended Sardariís diplomatic career. He moved to London in 1958 and joined the National Iranian Oil Company. His properties in France (Parisian studio, small country cottage) through a series of unfortunate events disappeared, and in 1978 an Iranian revolution deprived him of his pension, the life of his favourite nephew and all his property. He ended his days in a rented flat in Croydon and when he died all his belongings including a Rodin sculpture just disappeared.
What makes this book particularly interesting is that Fariborz Mokhtari presents chapters detailing some of Iranís history, in particular the events that lead up to Reza Shah taking over the monarchy of Iran and its subsequent rise in prosperity and importance. What happens to Reza Shah, his achievements and faults, and final death are almost mirrored by those of Sardari.
This is a fascinating read, but left me with questions about parts of Sardariís life where I felt there was just too little information. In addition, I suspect that if you are at all au fait with the history of the Second World War, reading this history of Iranís take on what happened could make one uncomfortable. It is not an area of history I have studied, although this book makes me wish that I had. The book left me feeling somewhat frustrated, despite all the footnotes and all the research that has obviously gone into it.
Wine glasses: 4
In the Lion's Shadow by Fariborz Mokhtari published by The History Press
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