Mary Gharagozlou

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The Independent Online

Mehri Leila Gharagozlou, farmer and horse breeder: born Tehran 1927; married 1947 Jacques de Bouvier (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1952 Majid Khan Bakhtiar (marriage dissolved); died Tehran 14 September 2001.

On a summer's evening in 1975, in a mountain village of north-west Iran, the tribesmen put away the remains of dinner and brought out the opium pipe. Mary Gharagozlou began to tell us a wistful story. Some years before, she said, she had been driving down the dusty road from Isfahan to Shiraz when her ancient Buick broke down. Coming towards her was a Land Rover with a Baluchi driver and what appeared to be a dashing English officer beside him. Unsure that they would stop to help, she hitched up her skirt and stuck her leg out of the door.

While the Baluchi driver mended her car the Englishman explained that he was on leave from the Trucial and Oman Scouts and heading for Khorasan, where he hoped to get some sandgrouse shooting. Mary told him that she was bound for Shiraz, but that if he cared to break his journey at her house in Tehran she would entertain him on her return. Three days later she came back to Tehran and whirled him round the night-clubs for a week, but the call of the sandgrouse was too strong and the officer went on his way to Khorasan.

Some 10 years later, at a dinner party in London, I was astonished to hear a once dashing ex-army officer, now a diplomat, embark on a wistful story of a journey he had made many years before to Iran when he was on leave from the Trucial States. When I told him that I was able to complete his tale for him the evening turned into an exchange of legends about Mary Gharagozlou, each one more extraordinary than the last.

Mary Gharagozlou came from a long line of Persian landlords and statesmen. Her father was Naqi Khan, son of Amir Tuman, who was Persian Minister to Washington and the brother of Nasser ol-Molk, a Balliol man and a friend of Curzon, who in 1910 was appointed Regent. The Gharagozlou tribe had been brought from Central Asia to north-west Persia by Tamerlane in the late 14th century and the family owned hundreds of villages around Hamadan.

Mary's mother was an American librarian at Johns Hopkins University, née Katherine Ladd, whom Naqi Khan swept off her feet. He brought her back to live in Varkaneh, a village in the mountains outside Hamadan most of which disappeared under snow in winter, and where there was no running water. He died when Mary was about four and she and her sister were educated by the Presbyterians in Tehran. Mary was the man of the family.

A spirited girl, at the age of 10 she came to the attention of Reza Shah when her horse bolted and nearly knocked him off his horse as he was watching cavalry manoeuvres. Later, she became the foremost expert of Iran on dry farming. In 1945 the Soviet-backed Tudeh party established collectives in north Persia but Mary, although only 18 at the time, enjoyed such respect from her village headmen that they refused to accept forced sequestration of her estates. She was a great beauty in her youth and retained a lasting glamour all her life.

She married Jacques de Bouvier, the son of the Swiss ambassador, but the marriage did not last long. She then married Majid Khan Bakhtiar, the rather louche chief of the Bakhtiari tribe, who had met de Bouvier's father in a Tehran night-club. Mary and Majid Khan led a dual life. In the spring they migrated with the tribe from the plains at the head of the Persian Gulf up over the mountains to their summer pastures near Isfahan.

Mary persuaded Majid Khan, a man of flocks and herds to whom a plough was anathema, to start dry farming on his winter quarters. They were very successful and prospered greatly. They hunted gazelle with salukis on the plains and mouflon and ibex in the hills, while in the winter they went to the night-clubs of Paris.

On one occasion she was asked to entertain Sir John Russell, the British ambassador, who wished to shoot francolin. He told the Bakhtiari khans, who prided themselves on their marksmanship, that he was only a moderate shot. He missed not a single bird and shot more than his host, who was much put out of countenance. In the evening, as the men of the tribe were engaged in stick-dancing, the khan challenged him to a bout. Mary, who had heard that the khan intended to break Russell's leg, showed him how to parry and saved the ambassador from a thrashing.

At the time of the Persian land reforms in the early 1960s Mary Gharagozlou was put in charge of tribal affairs, reporting directly to General Hosain Pakravan, the new head of Savak, the security service. The government wished to settle the nomad tribes, who were seen as too independent and destabilising to central authority. Mary did her best to resist this policy, pointing out that the nomads provided the country with its meat and that, if they were forced to settle, their sheep would die.

To be able to do this job she divorced Majid Khan, who did not wish her to be involved. She travelled by jeep, horse and camel in regions that no educated official would contemplate visiting. During a tribal famine she was instrumental in saving the Bakhtiari by supplying them with wheat and flour. At the time of the Qazvin earthquake in 1962 General Pakravan put her in charge of an astonished army battalion, with instructions to arrange relief. Secretly fortifying herself with benzedrine, she ran them all into the ground, thus gaining their respect and unquestioning obedience.

In 1974 Majid Khan took a bet that he could not land his aeroplane by night on the beach near the Shah's palace on the Caspian coast. He was killed in the attempt. Shortly afterwards there was a misunderstanding that Mary might have been inciting a tribal revolt against the Shah's policy of settling the tribes.

During the famine she had ordered an enormous quantity of flour and animal feed without waiting for government authority. The ministry refused to pay and she had to sell her house in Tehran to meet the bill. She was removed from her post and forbidden to enter tribal territory. Left with no money, she retreated to Majid Khan's home near the Gulf and concentrated on his stud of Khersan Arabs, which was all that she had left. One of these horses she sent to the Tehran races, where it ill-advisedly beat the Shah's horse. Fortunately for her, the Shah was in a good mood and decided to take over her stud and put her in charge of it. This she agreed to, on condition that she could take the horses up to the cool of her old home at Varkaneh in the summer.

She then dedicated herself to persuading the World Arab Horse Organisation (WAHO) to give official recognition to the Persian Arab. They required her to compile a detailed stud book of all these horses, whose lines were printed in the minds of their owners seven generations back but had never been recorded in writing.

Sixteen years after she had been banned from the Bakhtiari country she felt that it would be safe to return. In the hills near the old oil-wells of Masjed-i-Soleiman she stopped a 14-year-old boy to ask directions. The boy, who could not even have been born when she was last there, gradually realised who this strange, authoritative woman must be, who knew the names of all his uncles. He shouted out that Mary Khanom had arrived, and the tribe, which she had saved during the famine, held her as a guest for three days, as they poured down from the hills to pay their respects to her.

Immediately after Ayotallah Khomeini's revolution in 1979 Mary Gharagozlou was arrested and put into the Qasr prison in Tehran. The new regime had found the file concerning her supposed plot to arrange a tribal revolt. She was due for immediate execution but the tribes rallied and protested, pointing out that she had in fact saved them from famine.

Her life was spared but she remained under arrest for some months in the women's section of the prison, which she soon ended up effectively running, through sheer force of character. She satisfied the new regime of her loyalty by translating an early Shiite text into English.

After her release she was forbidden to leave the country but was eventually allowed to come to England, accompanied by a minder, to present her case to WAHO, who were meeting to consider the Iranian application to have the Persian Arab horse recognised internationally. She was successful and the horses found much demand among breeders in Europe. Thereafter she regularly attended WAHO conferences all over the world.

Mary had lost all her money and for the rest of her life lived on air and windfalls from occasional benefactors. In her final years she built a traditional arched house at the foot of the mountains to the west of Tehran, where she lived, surrounded by her horses. There she was looked after by old tribal retainers. Hundreds of them came to her funeral and they brought her horses, fully caparisoned, to her graveside.

Although half American, Mary Gharagozlou felt herself to be thoroughly Iranian. It never occurred to her to flee the country at the time of the revolution and, in spite of her months in prison at their hands, she remained on good terms with the new regime.

The daughter of a khan, she treated people of every degree with the greatest respect, and was respected in return. She had no interest in material possessions, other than having sufficient feed for her horses and for her people. She was a true patriot, full of a commanding dignity, but when it was fitting to do so she would have all around her in stitches of laughter at her stories, most of which involved poking fun at the pompous.

Antony Wynn

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