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Politics

Elli Antoniades, Close Friend of Iranian Shah’s Wife, Speaks with TNH (Pics)

October 1, 2018
Aris Papadopoulos

ATHENS – Elli Antoniades lives a life that many probably envied or thought of as a fairy tale. From the Pahlevi of Persia, she started her life’s journey, continuing on paths once bright with joy and sometimes shaded when she followed her close friend, the Shah of Iran’s wife, into exile.

And through these trips all these years, she remained a dynamic Greek woman of the Diaspora, with very strong pride in her Greekness.

They called her “Greek woman born in caviar,” “Elli of Persia,” “Greek woman of Iran”… All this corresponds to the truth.

In fact, Antoniades was born in a caviar region but grew up in Tehran, and indeed she was deeply involved with the Greek community, which flourished in the old days until she had to flee with her sister and mother when the Ayatollah Khomeini took power…

She went to Greece, but as a true and good friend, she accompanied Farah, the wife of the Shah, to their exile, when the family was chased out by the Khomeini regime, going from one country to another.

For her it was not a fairytale, but a reality that presented her with many emotions and, above all, a great deal of experiences, which we probably would have liked to have had ourselves, given the opportunity.

And when we asked her what she thought after all these years of wandering, she told us that she still dreamed of her Ithaca. An odyssey like the one that thousands of Pontians who had been uprooted from their homes experienced. Only her own remote Ithaca is in Iran.

Besides, she says with great humor, “I was born in the caviar in the Caspian Sea.”

In fact, Antoniades was born in the only hospital in Pahlavi, now called Anzali, which belonged to the caviar company.

“When I see boats with migrants now, I remember my mother, (Efterpi, maiden name Paraskevopoulou) telling me how her family was forced to leave Trabzon by boat to escape the genocide by the Turks. A Turk was told that they were working for the family in the tobacco fields they had and saying, ‘Go, they’ll kill you.’ The grandfather had already gone to Sochi, Georgia, with the two older boys.

“Her mother was five years old in the 1920s, wrapped in a blanket, put on a boat and sent to Sokhumi on the Black Sea, where they were worked odd jobs. In 1930, many in the Soviet Union returned to Greece. The Communist regime gave them the choice to become communists or to leave. Stalin also divided the families. Later, I found my father’s sister in Tashkent, another uncle Antoniades again from my father’s side was in Siberia,” said Antoniades.

Her grandfather was a well-read man. And he knew that in Persia, the Shah needed workers. Persia then was growing. Her ancestors were “smokers,” that is, they were involved with tobacco. So her grandfather went to the Persian embassy and took out a five-year visa. So began 40-50 Greek families immigrating to Persia. Her own family from Sokhumi via Baku, Azerbaijan, passed to Pahlavi.

“Before the Second World War, my grandfather with one of my mother’s siblings returned to Greece. They gave him a plot of land in Rodopi. The other children were settled and remained. Later, they sent my family to the other side of Persia, on the border with Afghanistan, because there were large areas of tobacco crops there. My late sister was born there. She was two years younger than me,” Antoniades recounted.

In 1942, the war with Germany began to affect Persia. The allies had taken over the country, although there were many Germans in Persia. “Something like a fifth colony,” says Elli Antoniadou, explaining that the old Shah admired the Germans, and the British exiled him first to Mauritius and then to Johannesburg where he died. They put in place his young son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. They wanted in every way to protect Iran’s and Iraq’s oil from Hitler’s aspirations.

The story goes on and so “when my father began to hear about the war, like many other Greeks, we picked up and moved to Tehran, thinking we were better off. There was already one of my mother’s brothers there who had become a very good tailor and was sewing for the elite. I was 5-6 years old. The British began to gather Greeks through the Greek consulate, allegedly as volunteers.

“They recruited all Greeks from 18 to 40 years old. They dressed them in English uniforms and through Baghdad, Basra, and Haifa sent them to Alexandria. My father, because he knew a little more about technical issues, was put on board the Averoff. They sent him on a mission to Cairo, but there he was killed in a tram accident. It was August 1943. Later on, I tried to find his tomb in the Church of Saint George and the embassy, but I found nothing. Only his name in the Averoff: Vasilios Antoniades, born in Turkey in 1908.”

She continued, with an impressive recollection of many details. “We had five people in Tehran where starvation was beginning to take hold. We were children and where we saw a queue in the shops, we lined up, too. One of us children, however, went out and told our mother and the rest of us we lined up to get what they were handing out. I even remember my mother getting up early in the morning to stand in the bread queue.

“The next year I started school. I remember in November 1943 that Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt came to Tehran to plan the end of the war. We saw them because our home was opposite the English Embassy. And I remember that it had snowed a lot then.”

Why French? She laughed spontaneously. “Because it was next to our home.” She grew up to the age of four with Russian. Then, at home, they spoke Greek. And at the age of seven she already spoke four languages, having already learned Persian and French at school. Later, she also learned English.

At the Jeanne-de-Arc School, she met Farah Dibah and they became best friends. There was no nobility in Persia, but Farah belonged to a rich family. Its origin traced back to the Prophet Muhammad. And this gave the family some glamor in the broader circle. Both girls had lost their fathers and this brought them closer. They went everywhere. And as girl scouts they also made trips to France where, for propaganda purposes, the French government organized these trips and paid all the costs.

When they graduated, in 1957, they went together to study at the Sorbonne. Elli for French Literature and Farah for Architecture. But Mother Efterpi became ill, forcing Elli to return, leaving her studies aside.

Dibah returned on vacation shortly afterwards in 1959. Then the Shah met her, liked and married her. “Our life changed radically” after that, said Antoniades.

Dibah was the Shah’s third wife.

When asked if she loved the Shah who was much older than Dibah, Antoniades said, “yes, he was 20 years older than her. But he was an athletic guy, he was in good shape, dressed very well, so she was impressed. He had also explained to her that he wanted a mate because governing was a difficult affair. She loved him. They also had four children. It was a tightly knit family.”

Antoniades remembers and laughs that when she saw him she was drawn to his eyes. “He had very nice eyes,” she said, and she told him, “Your Majesty, you have nice eyes.”

When the wedding day arrived, she first went to Dibah’s house and helped her dress. She then ran to her own home to get dressed and went to the wedding accompanied by the Greek Ambassador, who was then Alexander Matsas, accredited in Ankara.

“After the wedding I lost her for two months,” she told TNH.“She had to learn the protocol. One day she called me and told me to come visit her. Since then, we have remained inseparable. And especially every Friday – the day of rest for the Muslims – we ate together at the Palace.”

She explains that the marriage took place in 1959, but the coronation of Farah as Empress (Shah-banu) and successor to the throne took place in 1967 because the Shah wanted to make sure he had successors.

This movement of the Shah was revolutionary for the time in his country. For the first time in the 2,500 years of the Persian monarchy there was an empress and successor.

“All these years I have been dealing with the Greek community, the Church and the Russians, who as Orthodox have not had contact with the Soviet Union. At the same time, I traveled with the imperial couple. In fact, our first trip was in 1962 to America to meet President Kennedy. Together with them I entered the White House as the Lady of Honors, although there was no such title.”

Antoniades dined twice at the White House, once with Kennedy and once with President Nixon. Three times at the Kremlin, once with Premier Nikita Khrushchev and twice with Premier Leonid Brezhnev, and once in Beijing in 1972 at an official dinner with Zhou Enlai, since Mao Zedong was ill.

One understands how full of her life was at that time. From the Greek colony where she was elected president – a worldwide first- to the palace, her life was always in the interest of others! There was no time for a family of her own. “I am alone, but not lonely,” she says with a smile.

Antoniades became godmother to six children, who remain close to her. And because three of them were orphaned they even call her mom. “I share with them their joys, sorrows, and loves,” she says, and her face takes on a motherly expression, that is, she softens immeasurably.

And that was not just it. In her years in Tehran, she helped eight orphaned children be adopted. And because she watches over their course, she says with clear satisfaction that some of them have become very successful.

But the conversation goes back to the palace. When asked if the Shah was effusive with her she told TNH, “No, he did not distinguish me, though he knew I was Greek. ‘You’re Elli?’ he asked me the first time he saw me. He appreciated me because he knew I was very active. I was reading about the community, the Orthodox Church, where I became the president of the community… I knew the diplomats, I was mediating where I could for various affairs of the Omogeneia. And this was appreciated by the Shah. Besides, as folks, we have a lot in common…”

Indeed, as the president of the community, she met all those who visited from Greece. ambassadors, ministers, artists… she met everyone.

“Because we share similarities with the Persians,” she pointed out, “we are two peoples that do not belong to elsewhere. The Greeks are not Latins, neither Slavs nor Anglo-Saxons. We are unique with our language. And the Persians with a deep culture are not Arabs or Indians, they are unique and their language is also. There was a mutual appreciation… And their Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda had lived in Athens after the war. Of course, the Shah was never able to come to Greece due to longstanding ties with Turkey, but he wanted to very much.”

She helped a great deal in the writing of the book Greeks in Modern Iran by Professor Evangelos Venetis (published by Poreia).

Former President of Greece Karolos Papoulias had told her that he had visited Tehran twelve times. And he appreciated the Persian people. He once told her he liked Persian food. Then, she prepared the best of Persian cuisine for Papoulias and his twelve guests, who dined at her home.

Antoniades continued to travel to Greece where she was constantly aware of politicians and diplomats. She was warned in November, 1978 not to return to Iran, because “they want to exile the Shah.” But she returned to Tehran. Her mother, her sister, and her friends were there. How could she leave them? “I left on January 4, 1979, definitively from Tehran. The Shah and Farah left on February 15, 1979. Farah herself had told me to leave. Then we had martial law. I still remember the situation at the airport. Thousands of Americans and Israelis with their families, their dogs, their things, all crowded to leave. A nightmarish situation.

“Every day they wrote outside our house ‘Death to the Shah.’ My elderly mother would go out and erase the slogans. And they wrote them again.If I stayed I would certainly have been in danger.

She left her mother with her sister, pet dog, and housemaid. Indeed, she was crying for the servant because she was afraid she would be killed, since as a Muslim she was working for Christians. “My mother stayed in the house. ‘I’m not afraid of revolutions,’ she said. She stayed until May 1979 when the Islamic Republic was established. And they killed people then. A lot of people.

“But they started to bother my mother and my sister. I pushed them and finally they went to Greece with their Greek passports. It was only then that I could calmly go and find Farah with the Shah in the Bahamas, after they had left Morocco. The Shah was diagnosed with cancer. But no one wanted to host the royal couple. I was in New York with contacts to persuade the Foreign Office to give them a visa to stay in the Bahamas. They were adamant and the couple departed for Mexico. And from there they were told to leave, and because the cancer was aggressive, we went to New York for the Shah.

“Every day I remember around the hospital Iranians protested against him. And the Americans had told him to have the surgery and go. No one wanted them. Such horrible behavior to an ill person.”

Antoniades lived through all the troubles of the royal couple. They then went to Panama. They didn’t stay there either and flew to the Azores on a plane they leased. They made a stop at a military airport with the Shah suffering from a fever on the airplane. No country, not the United States, wanted to cross Khomeini, who had asked for the Shah’s head. The once mighty leader of Persia was no longer welcome except in Egypt, where they eventually landed. Only President Anwar el-Sadat had been his loyal friend.

“In Egypt, the Shah was operated on by physicians from the United States and France.

He had already had his first surgery in New York, but doctors in Cairo said he did not have much time left. He underwent chemotherapy, but dies within six months.” All that time, Antoniades lived next to his wife, housed in a palace outside Cairo.

When asked about her, today, Antoniades said that Mrs. Pahlavi is “in Paris” and her children and grandchildren are now American citizens.”

About her life today in New York, Antoniades said, “when the Shah died, I returned to Athens looking for work. I knew Ilias Lalaounis from Tehran, and had set up a meeting for him at the Palace. He then asked me what I wanted to do and told me he wanted someone to oversee the store (an exclusive, lavish jewelry store) in New York. I accepted and in April, 1981 I arrived there.But I had many acquaintances with Americans since the Tehran era. From Barbara Walters to Washington Post Publisher Katharine Graham, and many others. But when I went to the U.S. Embassy to get a visa, they did not give it to me because I was born in Iran. Then, our Greek-American connections helped, and so I got my visa.”

At the high-end jewelry store, Antoniades encountered many notable public figures: Donald Trump, Pablo Picasso, and Elizabeth Taylor, who once arrived at closing time, 6PM, and shopped for two hours. “Eventually, she bought two bracelets,” Antoniades said. Madeline Albright also visited the store, who was a hesitant shopper, and so received a bit of a sales push from Antoniades.

She says she had a great time in New York and never felt like a foreigner. “I found a nice Greek community there that embraced me.”

She would leave the store late in the afternoon and help out at the Hellenic Cultural Center, and also was involved with the Greek Orthodox Church and Archbishop Iakovos. She mentions other notable Greeks. Alekos Papamarkou “knew how to tie Greece and Greek-Americans together. A true patriot, he loved both countries and was a very lively man. A bon vivant.

“I met the Michael and Mary Jaharis family, also important expatriates. Petros

Goulandris, Maria Patera, Froso Bey, the Kefalides family, TNH Publisher-Editor Antonis Diamataris, and I cannot fail to mention Andreas Dracopoulos. I met him as a student and later when the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) was established, I tried to help him with my knowledge and experience. And I have to express my pride that the SNF has grown into a global charity. Without, of course, underestimating other charities.”

She and Alexander Iolas “had a great friendship. I appreciated him both as a human being and as an artist. And I was especially pleased that the other day I read that the Municipality of Agia Paraskevi decided to make a museum of his villa.”

Antoniades returned to Greece when her sister was ill. She has not stopped traveling, accompanying the Shah’s wife to his grave in Cairo and visiting her in Paris. But even today, she dreams of Tehran, where she cannot set foot.

Beyond that, her dream is to see great benefactors assist the Kazasis Center for the Greek Language in Thessaloniki, because “we have to help keep the Greek language alive. We all proudly well up with tears when we see the Greek flag at the start of the Olympic Games. And so we should be proud not only of the past, but also of the present and the future.”

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