Saturday, March 10, 2018

Dr. Farhang Mehr, 1923-2018: Zoroastrians Mourn the Loss of One of Their Brightest Lights

I was honored to be asked to help Dr. Farhang Mehr write his memoirs as a Permanent Legacy Project for the Seventh International World Zoroastrian Congress. I knew of him through my grandmother, Roda Mistry, the first Zoroastrian member of India's Parliament; she had met him during a trip to Iran in the 1970s. After more than a year of interviews and casual conversations in Dr. Mehr's cozy home in Newton, Massachusetts, I had learned not just about his incredible life experiences, but about the rich heritage of the religion and culture I had been born into and his hopes and dreams for the future of Zoroastrianism. The memoir morphed into a full-fledged biography, a project much larger in scope than I had anticipated, and even now, nearly 20 years later, I'm grateful to both Dr. Mehr and his wife, Parichehr, for their patience as this then-young journalist learned how to become a biographer on the fly.

Dr. Mehr rose through the ranks of academia and politics in Iran, shaping economic policy there before fleeing persecution during the Islamic Revolution and settling in the United States. An accomplished scholar, dedicated public servant, and pillar of the Zoroastrian community in diaspora, he died on March 4, 2018, in Southern California. He was 94.

“A thriving Zoroastrian community and a prosperous Iran were my twin dreams,” he said in a 1999 interview for his biography, “Triumph Over Discrimination: The Life Story of Farhang Mehr.” “These dreams were constantly in my thoughts, and their realization is my life’s goal.”

Born in Tehran on Dec. 11, 1923 to Merhaban and Paridokht Mehr, Dr. Mehr earned Bachelors of Science and Bachelors of Laws degrees from Tehran University before traveling to England to earn a Masters of Laws degree from the London School of Economics at the University of London and a PhD from the University of Southampton. He returned to Iran and took a position with the National Iranian Oil Company, heading their International Contracts and Industrial Relations department while also serving as an advisor to the Minister of Commerce.

Dr. Mehr was able to combine his expertise in law and economics with his love for his country by serving in Iran’s Ministry of Finance, where he helped guide economic policy as the Director General of Oil and International Relations, Governor for Iran in OPEC, Director General of Economic Affairs and Monopolies and, eventually, Deputy Minister in charge of finance and economic affairs.

He was nominated to become Iran’s Minister of Finance, but was prohibited from serving in that capacity; only Muslims could hold the title of minister and Dr. Mehr, a devout Zoroastrian, was disqualified due to religious discrimination.

“My religious identity was public knowledge, and my every action was a translation of my beliefs,” he said in 1999. “I fully observed and respected the Muslim customs and traditions, consciously extended equal treatment to the followers of other faiths, all while remaining devout to my own religion. I believed then, and still believe, in a civil society.”

“In a civil society, Zarathushti citizens should be politically active,” he continued. “Without power or access to power, survival and progress are unattainable.”

Persuaded to remain in politics, Dr. Mehr became General Deputy Minister of Iran, and later served as Acting Minister. When he objected to the prohibition against non-Muslims, Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda appointed him to be Deputy Prime Minister of Iran -- the first non-Muslim ever to serve in the highest levels of the Iranian government.

“I resisted exchanging my religion for a higher political office, and I refused to sacrifice my heritage at the altars of prestige and political acceptance,” he said in 1999. “As such, I was able to set an example for other Zarathushtis in Iran, one that I hope will continue.”

Dr. Mehr eventually resigned from government service and became the Chairman of the Board and Executive Director of Bimeh-ye Iran, the largest insurance company in the country. In this capacity, Dr. Mehr reshaped the insurance industry, creating a new regulatory agency and a new college of insurance to train agents in Iran and other countries.

His illustrious career extended to positions of great responsibility in higher education, including teaching positions at Tehran University, the National University of Iran, the College of Insurance, and the country’s military academy. He was president of Pahlavi University in Shiraz for eight years, guiding the school to greatness and polishing its reputation on the world stage.

In 1981, Dr. Mehr was forced to flee from Iran to avoid religious persecution, risking his life during a perilous journey through Turkey and eventually finding freedom in the United States. His wife and children joined him and they settled in the Boston area, where Dr. Mehr taught international relations at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University.

But he did not limit himself to the classroom. Dr. Mehr authored more than 80 articles and 12 books, including “The Zoroastrian Tradition, An Introduction to the Ancient Wisdom of Zarathushtra” and “A Colonial Legacy: The Dispute Over the Islands of Abu Musa, and the Greater and Lesser Tumbs.” He retired from Boston University as professor emeritus in 1997, later moving to California.

“When I left Iran, I also left my dreams for that country unrealized,” he said in 1999. “But I carried within me my dreams for the future of Zoroastrianism, and I continue to work toward strengthening the fabric of the Zoroastrian community in diaspora.”

His dedication to his faith and community was a driving force throughout his life. As a very young man Dr. Mehr was focused on fostering unity and securing rights for Zoroastrian youth in Iran; he served in leadership positions in Anjumans and cultural associations in Iran, England and the United States, and was a founding member of the Ancient Iranian Cultural Society and the World Zoroastrian Organization. While in Boston, he was active in establishing and supporting the Zoroastrian Association of the Greater Boston Area, gave speeches at Harvard University, the World Zoroastrian Congress and the North American Zoroastrian Congress, and mentored countless young Zoroastrians, encouraging them to understand and live their faith.

He personified the most important tenets of the Zoroastrian religion -- good thoughts, good words, good deeds -- and worked tirelessly to create unity and inspire the Zoroastrian community to evolve and “work toward the greater good.”

“As a single entity we should be showing love, upholding justice, exercising compassion, working for peace, engaging creatively in constructive work,” he said in 1999. “These goals cannot be achieved with the current social and religious attitudes of our fractured community. Though at times difficult, some traditions can -- and should -- be modified as social conditions demand change.”

Dr. Mehr was awarded a FEZANA Lifetime Achievement Award for his service to the Zoroastrian community worldwide, an honor bestowed upon just five others in the history of the organization.

He is survived by his devoted wife, Parichehr Naderi, and their children, Mehrdad, Mehran and Mitra Mehr, whom he adored with all his heart.

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