When the shah fled Iran, my newspaper colleagues and I actually thought we were covering a promising new era.
Only a few newspaper headlines become iconic, a story in their own right. The headline “Shah Raft”—”The Shah Has Left” in Persian—is one of those. It was printed on the front page of Iran’s two main daily newspapers, Kayhan and Ettelaat, on Jan. 16, 1979, after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi left Tehran for good.
“Shah Raft” captured the victory of the revolution. It encapsulated history in the making. It ran in bold Persian letters, in size 84 font, across the top of the page. Over a million copies were printed. In Iranian journalism circles, the headline has sparked years of debate: Who wrote it? Who picked it? How did it come about?
This month marks 34 years since “Shah Raft” hit the press. I was a deputy editor at Kayhan at that time. Here is what I remember from the newsroom in Tehran that night.
More than a million supporters of an Islamic republic assembled around Shayad monument in Tehran.
All day on Jan. 16, Kayhan’s offices had been packed, buzzing. We’d brought a television set to the newsroom to watch the departure of the shah. The reporter assigned to the story was glued to the television in anticipation. His sleeves were rolled up. He was ready to write. Another reporter was at the Tehran airport reporting live from a payphone. There were no cellphones in those days. I was responsible for talking to the reporter and relaying his minute-by-minute dispatches to the copydesk.
The newsroom staff resembled a team of wandering spirits, proceeding from the television set, to the phone, to the editorial desk.
In our morning editorial meeting that day, we had discussed how we would handle the headline if the shah really did leave Iran. Would we use the shah’s name with the singular or plural form of the verb “to leave”? In Persian, a plural verb is often used with a singular noun to suggest utmost respect for the subject.
Until then, we had always been obliged to use the plural form of the verb when writing about the shah. But things were changing fast. Kayhan’s editor in chief, Rahman Hatefi, said at the meeting: “Once the shah leaves there is no coming back. He is as good as dead.”
That settled it. Worried about the possible repercussions of our coverage, we agreed with Ettelaat to use the same font and to go to press at the same time. Safety in numbers.
Still, our page designer was anxious. A political prisoner under the shah, he had dreamed of this day. He prepared the layout of “Shah Raft” in advance and kept it in his desk drawer. He paced around the newsroom, chain-smoking, sometimes walking over to my desk to put his hands on my shoulders. His eyes sparkled.
None of us knew then what we know now: Publishing the headline “Shah Raft” would spell the end of our careers. None of us knew that most of us would end up in jail, tortured and interrogated. We could have never known that out of 110 newsroom staff present that day, only one person would still be working at Kayhan today.
Around noon, I heard the reporter screaming on the phone. “Houshang, Houshang, the shah left!”
I couldn’t believe it. “Did you see with your own eyes?” I asked.
“I saw with my own eyes. The shah left. He left!”
I hung up the phone and screamed, “The shah left!”