My father, Siamak Pourzand, committed suicide on Friday, April 29: he leaped from the 6th floor balcony of his modest and solitary apartment in Tehran as a final stand against an Iranian regime that did everything to break his spirit. No one in our family thinks of it as suicide so much as a reiteration of his free spirit. He flew to the arms of liberty, and once and for all plunged his dagger clear through the heart of the inquisitionist regime in Iran.
In his marvelous tribute article to my father, Ben Cohen likened him to several national heroes who committed suicide in protest against the respective tyrannies they lived under; Ben mentions that my 80-year-old father was the oldest of them. Yet my father was young at heart, a trait he showed by befriending young and patriotic student leaders such as Ahmad Batebi — with whom he shared a prison cell.
My father was one of the most notable leaders of Iran, and though he was an icon inside Iran, the international media never gave him the recognition he deserved. So it is to that end that I am penning this tribute to him in death. To know him is to know about the invisible hand of modernity still persevering in Iran.
Importantly, his name had been on the short list as a future head of state, had he lived to see the removal of the inquisitionist regime of the Khomeninists. But to the Iranian state and to its autocratic mullahs he was anathema.
My father loved the West but he embodied the ideals of “the Iranian” — a true son of Cyrus the Great. He was a progressive and worldly individual who did not in any way forgo his national identity in order to assimilate to any other culture, yet his profound love and appreciation of his roots was the thing that made it easy for him to adapt to and appreciate Western civilization.
He was erudite and yet he was a doer. He was the most positive spirit, yet he was no-nonsense. He was compassionate, yet he refused to suffer fools. He was disarmingly charming, yet he was uncompromising. Most threatening, he was an individualist in a conformist state theocracy. He was an intellectual’s version of John Q. Public and John Q. Public’s version of an intellectual.
My father rejected ideology and institutionalized weltanschauung. For that, he became a hostage of Iran’s Shiite mafia, which has conspired against intellectualism and modernity and against which the Iranian people have fought tooth and nail for over 120 years. He was above all a patriot and he respected anyone who was a patriot as opposed to a partisan.
One of my father’s talents was bridging the political gaps; he took it upon himself to know people from across the ideological spectrum. His ongoing debate with all those whom he disagreed with was not only cordial but lively and civilized.
My father knew God but he believed in the spirit of free inquiry and thought worshipping should be a private matter. He was suspicious of collectivism in the name of God.
He came from a long line of military men, though at 17 he was expelled from military school for playing hooky a dozen times. My grandfather — the general — realized that his eldest son would not be carrying on the family’s tradition, so he enrolled him in a high school that encouraged his talents as a writer. He never made it to college; when I have told people who know something about him this fact, they are invariably astonished. He was truly a learned, educated, and eloquent man and his intellect enchanted the brainiest.
At 18, having already been published in several important newspapers and journals in Iran, my father was offered the position of the city beat reporter of an ailing but respected newspaper titled Aatash (fire). This was during the era of Mossadegh, a period marked by passionate political exchange and slippery maneuvering by political parties: most obviously by the nakedly pro-soviet Toodeh Party. Iran was adrift, and my father and his group of young journalist pals (most famous among them, the teenage Amir Taheri) covered the daily intrigues throughout the country. The Cold War era was a hotbed of ideological topsy turvydom in Iran; but considering all of that my father remained squarely focused on freedom.
During the ‘50s, a time when most Iranians were only concentrated on internal affairs, my father was a window to the outside world. From the political and movie scene in India to the French new wave and Italian neo-realist cinema, to Eisenhower and General MacArthur, to Elvis the Pelvis, Khrushchev and Castro, Mao … you name it, my father pursued and covered. Every newspaper and media outlet he joined he singlehandedly turned into a gold mine with his innate feel for news that would fire the public imagination.
During that time in Tehran, my father organized salons, rock n’ roll danceathons, bike races, marathons, fashion shows, and much more in the way of fresh and fun events. He opened the first Cine Club where intellectuals and film enthusiasts could watch the latest movies from around the world. He essentially created the aesthetic arena for Iranian cineastes to flourish; the Kia-Rostamis and Panahis of Iran owe their careers to my father’s efforts and vision. My father launched the very first film festival in Iran that even now is continued under the mullah regime, the Fajr Film Festival. It was also my father who launched a magazine called Setaareh’yeh Cinema (Movie Star).
This was when my parents met. My mom, who was my father’s first wife, was also a young intellectual interested in so many of the creative enterprises that my father was spearheading. The two of them became something of a team. She worked and traveled right alongside him, doing everything from interviewing and reporting to spending her wedding night with him at the printing house, typesetting.
In the late ’50s, the innovative publisher of the Kayhan publications, Dr. Messbahzadeh, threw his support behind my father and sent him abroad to cover everything from politics to culture, film, and current events around the world. (After the Khomeinist takeover of Iran, Kayhan moved to London — to this day, that publication is known as the main Iranian media outlet.) Without any contacts or anyone pulling strings for him, he met, interviewed, and wrote about people and events that I can only describe as historic. To name a few:
- Indira Gandhi in 1960 just after she became the president of the Indian National Congress
- Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem in 1961
- Various film directors, producers, and actors in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, which led to friendships with such luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, King Vidor, George Cukor, Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and many more. He became an occasional contributor to the legendary French film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Many of these international cineastes ended up coming to Iran to participate in the Tehran Film Festival.
- In 1961 — when the name of Mossadegh was anathema in Iran, and Dr. Mossadegh had exiled himself to his quiet country estate of Ahmadabad — my father was the first journalist to go for a visit and an interview. When his friends and colleagues warned that this may cost him and that such reportage could compromise his political relationships, he did it anyhow. He breathed new life into the old man’s reputation and gave him the opportunity to set the record straight, which allowed him to die a beloved national hero.
Throughout the ’60s, my mother and father lived in Los Angeles, where my mother went to college and grad school and where he continued his film and political reporting. He took me to sets, where I met Alfred Hitchcock, Julie Andrews, Paul Newman, Red Skelton (whose TV show at the time was my favorite), Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Billy Wilder, and Walt Disney. He became close friends with Steve McQueen, with whom he would go motorcycle riding through the Hollywood hills and the canyons. He got an enormous kick out of McQueen calling him “Mack.”