Fereydoun Hoveyda’s book “Feudal Nights” starts with the description of a long walk in an autumnal New York with a friend during which both realise that they will never be what they had been without knowing what they will become. At the end of the walk, Hoveyda enters his empty apartment and hears the telephone ring. He picks up the receiver and hears an unknown voice shout: “Is that you?”
The question haunted Hoveyda for the rest of his life as he constantly posed the question: who any of us may really be? He expanded the question beyond its individual dimension to examine broader beings: the Iranian nation, the Middle Eastern family, Islam, the so-called Third World.
From the 1980s until his death in Virginia, the United States, on 3 November 2006 Hoveyda transformed himself from a professional diplomat and acclaimed novelist into one of the most original thinkers about the place of Islam in a world created and dominated by the non- Muslim powers of the West. Thanks to his amazingly vast reading- he could dig out nuggets from long forgotten obscure texts in half a dozen languages- he was always able to offer a panorama of how ideas developed. Fluent in Persian, his mother tongue, Arabic, the language of his early schooling, French, in which he had obtained his doctorate, English, which had been his working language as a diplomat, and German, the language of his second wife and life-long companion Gisela, Hoveyda had direct access to almost all the cultures that mattered in his research.
Hoveyda had strong credentials to pose the question. He had been born in Damascus in 1924 when Syria was under the French mandate, where his father Ayn al-Molk, a career diplomat, headed the small unofficial embassy that represented Iran’s interests.
Hoveyda’s father had been a self-made man. Son of a pastry baker in Shiraz he had worked his way up the social ladder thanks to education and hard work, and ended up a government functionary in Tehran.
There he had managed to marry a minor Qajar princess in 1917 just seven years before a new one, Pahlavi replaced the old dynasty. The title Ayn al-Molk (Eye of he Kingdom) had come with the marriage as a gift from the Qajar Shah.
Despite the change of dynasty, Hoveyda senior’s career continued to progress and reached its peak when he was appointed Iran’s first full ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1931 where he served for four years during which he also had the title of Emir al-Hajj, or the head of Iranian pilgrims coming to Mecca for the Hajj rites each year.
Fereydoun, along with his elder brother Amir-Abbas and their mother, were left behind so that the boys could continue their education at French schools, first in Damascus and then in Beirut. This gave Fereydoun, in his own words, a balcony seat from which to watch the shaping of the many dramas that were to strike the Middle East in the coming decades.
He witnessed the rise of Arab nationalism, the spread of Nazi and Communist ideologies among Arab intellectuals, the growth of what would one day become the state of Israel in Palestine, the emergence of new versions of Islamic radicalism, notably one represented by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the rising tension against colonial presence and Western domination. Through all that time the Arab possessions of the defunct Ottoman Empire, carved into several new states, were desperately trying to establish their distinct identities.
Unlike most of his schoolmates in Damascus and Beirut, Fereydoun never became obsessed by politics. The reason for this was that he had discovered another field of interest: cinema, which he considered an alternative reality.
By the time the Second World had started the Hoveydas were back in Tehran where Amir-Abbas then aged 21 joined the army as a conscript. Fereydoun, too young to be called up, remained in Beirut to complete his schooling supervised by Iranian friends of the family.
Back in Tehran at the end of the war in 1945, Fereydoun was briefly involved in the leftist and nationalist agitations that were to crescendo into the oil nationalisation movement of 1950-51. But, before he had time to find an anchor in what was a particularly stormy time, the young Hoveyda had to pack his bag and leave for Europe to pursue his studies in Paris.
His encounter with Paris was “ love at first sight”, and the French capital always retained a special place in his heart. It was in Paris that he made some of his longest lasting friendships, including with Henri Masse, Henry Corbin, Raymond Aron, Maxime Rodinson, Claude Bourdet, and the exile Iranian novelist Sadegh Hedayat.
Having obtained his doctorate in economics, Hoveyda managed to secure a position in the press office of the Iranian embassy in Paris, allowing him to stay in his favourite city for almost a decade, including a stint with UNESCO.
It was also in Paris that he had his first exposure to high diplomacy when he was included in a three-man delegation representing Iran in a preliminary conference on human rights. That was the start of Hoveyda’s long association with human rights issues. In 1949 he was part of the Iranian delegation at a conference that wrote and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human, Rights. And in 1968, Hoveyda was one of the principal authors of the Tehran Declaration, an international conference that marked the 20th anniversary of the charter.
While in Paris, Hoveyda met and married his first wife, Touran Mansour, whose father had been a prime minister of Iran in the 1940s. The marriage proved unhappy and brief, but helped bring Hoveyda closer to a group of young reformers led by Hassan-Ali Mansour, Touran’s elder brother who was to become Prime Minister in 1964.
(Mansour was assassinated by an Islamist in 1965.)
It was in also Paris that Hoveyda wrote his first novel “Les Quarantines” (The Quarantines) in French. Published by Gallimard, “ Les Quarantaines” was the first novel written by a non-French writer to be nominated for a Goncourt, France’s highest literary prize.
Even today, “Les Quarantaines” remains one of the most original novels of its time with the perpetual failure of understanding between the Muslim East and the largely secularised West as a background theme against which the lives of three individuals change for ever during a dinner party hosted by a wealthy Parisian lady.
“Les Quarantaines” was followed by a number of other novels, including “Airport”, “In A Strange Land”, and “ The Snows of Sinai”, all published by Gallimard. Hoveyda is also the author of several essays, including “ Iranian Oil”, a passionate plea for nationalisation, published in 1951, “ The Eroticism of the One Thousand and One Nights”, and “ A History of Detective Novels.” A collection of short stories, “ Losanges”, also written in French in the 1960s is a reminder of Hoveyda’s brief but fruitful flirtation with the avant-garde literature of his time.
In the mid-1960s Hoveyda was persuaded to abandon his UNESCO career and return to Iran to re-join the diplomatic service. Those were the days of great hopes about the Shah’s proposed reforms known as “ The White Revolution” which included a change of generation of people in charge of the government. That generational change enabled Hoveyda’s elder brother Amir-Abbas to assume the position of prime minister in 1965.
Now a confirmed member of the Iranian diplomatic corps, Fereydoun Hoveyda soon established himself as a key figure in the foreign ministry, rising to become deputy minister for international organisations. In 1971, Hoveyda was sent to New York to serve as Ambassador to the United Nations, a post he resigned in 1979 after the establishment of an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Khomeini
The end of the 1960s had also marked the stabilisation of Hoveyda’s private life with his second marriage, to German-born Gisela who remained at his side until the very end.
During his term at the UN, Fereydoun played a crucial role in promoting detente between the two superpowers and served as chairman of the disarmament commission for four years.
Having tried from diplomacy, Hoveyda devoted himself to a vast research into the confrontation between Islam and modernity. This led to scores of learned essays published in French and American journals, as well as lectures and conferences delivered at a dozen universities across the globe.
In 1980 he published his “ The Fall of the Shah”, a fast-paced a narrative of the Khomeinist revolution propelled by Hoveyda’s anger at the execution of his brother Amir-Abbas in Tehran in April 1979. That was followed by a more extensive dip into the Khomeinist universe in the form of a parable under the title of “ The Mirrors of the Mullah”. A decade later, followed “The Broken Crescent”, a study in political violence in Islamic history”, the first book that Hoveyda wrote in English. His other books in English include “ The Shah and the Ayatollah”, an attempt at understanding modern Iran through a juxtaposition of ancient Persian myths and more recent Islamic traditions. His historic noel “ The Sword of Islam” was published in French in 1981 followed by his essay “ Dead End Islam” which studied the death of Islamic theology and its replacement by a radical political system disguised as religion. “ What Do The Arabs Want?” which hit the bestseller lists in the 1990s remains a major contribution to the debate on the future course of Arab societies. Hoveyda’s final published book “The Hidden Meaning of Mass Communication” marked his return to one of his favourite subjects: the word of images.
In the 1990s Hoveyda joined the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP) and became a member of its executive board while directing its special programmes on the Middle East and the Muslim world in general.
Hoveyda’s love of cinema and images in general was reflected in several screenplays he wrote for Iranian and foreign film-makes, including Roberto Rosselini. In the 1960s Hoveyda had been a leading member of the young generation of cineastes in Paris who launched the French nouvel-vague school of filmmaking and a contributing editor to the influential magazine Les Cahiers du Cinema that helped reshape French attitudes to the seventh art.
In the 1980s, Hoveyda also revealed another aspect of his talent by producing a series of paintings and collages that won the admiration of such renowned American modernists as Andy Warhol and the Irano-American poet and painter Manuchehr Yektai.
Hoveyda, who died after a long fight against cancer, is survived by his wife Gisela and their two daughters Mandana and Roxana.
Feredyoun Hoveyda : diplomat and writer
Born: 1924 Damascus, Syria.
Died: 2006, Virginia, United States.