The Man Who Flew the Devil –and the Emerald-Eyed Empress

By Nasser Tufail

My wife and I took early retirement several years ago and decided to consciously invest our time and resources on life experiences and creating memories, and not on material possessions. Travel was certainly the best way to do that, so that is what we’ve been doing passionately for quite a few years.

Cemetery hopping around the world

In our itinerary, we try to include visits to notable and/or unique places of worship in every city we go – cathedrals, churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, and cemeteries. Friends have often asked me about my ‘morbid fascination’ with cemeteries, and so let me first get that out of the way:

We were captivated by Spanish missions whilst living in Southern California. Cemeteries are often an integral component of the missions and so one ends up checking out the graves as well… at least we do. The San Fernando Mission was barely a 15 minute drive from our house, and Bob Hope is buried in this one, not in the typical site of the stars – the Forest Lawn cemetery. As our interest grew in the missions, we managed to visit many more in California (San Juan Capistrano, Santa Barbara, San Francisco de Asis/Dolores, Santa Cruz, Santa Ines Solvang, etc.) and a couple in Arizona as well – Tucson and Nogales.

Mission San Juan Capistrano
Mission San Juan Capistrano – where swallows return every year after flying 10,000 km from Argentina

Serendipity moments at cemeteries

Cemeteries are peaceful and serene places to visit; they are also a compelling reminder of the transience of life, the evanescence of our being and the finality of death. They give us an opportunity to reflect on the frailty of human vanity and the incorporeity of our acquired status/cachet. But most of all, I love surprises – those fortunate or accidental discoveries, the ‘serendipity moments’, as I like to call them! This is one of a series of serendipity moments from a 6 month trip my wife and I took across Europe using airplanes, high speed trains, rental cars, buses, and a pair of legs.

On a visit to the Olympiapark in Munich where Mark Spitz won 7 gold medals at the 1972 Olympics, all in world record time, I get off at the Westfriedhof U-Bahn station, named after a cemetery by the same name right next to it. How convenient, I think – why not check it out as well on the way back?

Olympiastadion Munich
Olympiastadion Munich, the main venue for the 1972 Summer Olympics

The names on tombstones at Westfriedhof cemetery are as recognizably German as they come: Otto, Karl, Hans, Wolfgang, Rudolph and Bernhard. And then I come across one familiar first name that really stands out.

The CIA, the Shah of Iran and the desperation for a male heir

The illegal overthrow of the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran, engineered by CIA (in-cahoots with the British Intelligence service), was immediately followed by the installation of their stooge, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to do their bidding in protecting their oil interests. The Shah of Iran, or Shahanshah (King of Kings) as he preferred to be known, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had followed his despotic father on the Persian peacock throne, had divorced his first wife, Fawzia, the daughter of the then Egyptian king, because she had not been able to give him a male heir to the throne; he was now ‘in the market’ for a new wife.

The Emerald-eyed Empress of Persia

Meanwhile, there lived a young lady in London named Soraya who was studying English, just having finished high school in Switzerland. She was born to a German mother and an Iranian diplomat, and had a German and Catholic upbringing in Berlin. Her cousin introduced her to the Shah of Iran via a photograph. The King spontaneously fell in love with the woman in the picture, almost half his age. After just one meeting with Soraya, the King asked for her hand in marriage and sealed the deal with a weighty diamond ring. A fairy tale wedding would soon follow on which no expense was spared. The pretty little girl with mysterious eyes would become the Empress of Persia.

The Shah, considered a “weak-willed and cowardly man who was incapable of making a decision” by American and British diplomats, would live a lavish life of luxury, having affairs on the side and plundering his country’s riches. He gave himself a mouthful of an official title: ‘His Imperial Majesty, Bozorg Artestaran, Aryamehr, Shahanshah Mohammed Reza Pahalvi.’

Seven years would go by until in 1958, the Shah would divorce Soraya, as she too was unable to give him a son, a male heir to the throne. Soraya left for Germany and graciously issued a statement to the Iranian people stating, “Since His Imperial Majesty Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi has deemed it necessary that a successor to the throne must be of direct descent in the male line from generation to generation, I will with my deepest regret in the interest of the future of the State and of the welfare of the people in accordance with the desire of His Majesty the Emperor sacrifice my own happiness, and I will declare my consent to a separation from His Imperial Majesty.”

Those who retire in Malaga..

One of the most glamorous women of her day, the emerald eyed Soraya would remain lonely and depressed for much of her remaining life, and those who met her called her the “Princess with sad eyes.” She would spend her last years in Paris and the province of Malaga in Spain (as all good folks do) and forlornly leave this mortal world at the age of 69. In the interest of full disclosure, I currently live in Malaga!

The Shah would marry a third time, and his third wife, Farah Diba, did give him two sons and two daughters. But as fate would have it, the youngest daughter, Leila, would commit suicide at a London hotel at the age of 31.  The youngest son, Alireza, would follow suit by shooting himself in the head in Boston. The eldest daughter never married.

The extravagant life of a Shahanshah

The Shah would blow $145 million of public funds (in today’s value) on the Pahlavi dynasty’s 2,500th anniversary celebrations at Persepolis. Food and wine were catered by Maxim’s de Paris, 250 red Mercedes-Benz 600 limousines were provided to chauffeur guests and 50,000 song birds were imported from Europe, for good measure!

Alas, the very Pahlavi dynasty, for which Soraya could not give the Shah an heir, would soon be no more – every single vestige of the Iranian Pahlavi dynasty would be destroyed within hours of the revolution a few years later. The Shah had developed cancer and would hop around in his last days in exile, staying for a few weeks or months in different countries for treatment till he could no longer manage to, as no country particularly wanted his presence on their soil. Egypt’s Anwar Sadat finally granted him asylum, but soon the Shah would die a miserable death in exile at the age of 60, leaving behind his only remaining ‘worldly possession’ under his death bed – a bag of Iranian soil.

Mortal remains of kings and queens

Death and life always have their determined rendezvous, and never let you leave any better off than when you came. “For we brought nothing into the world, and neither can we carry anything out of it.” [Timothy 6:7].

The grave at Westfriedhof in front of which I stand is indeed that of Soraya… emerald eyed Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary! I pay my respects and offer Fatiha (blessings for the soul and God’s mercy). May I give you, glamorous Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary, that lady who couldn’t give an heir to the Shah for his Pahlavi dynasty!

Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary
Soraya Esfandiary-Bakhtiary

And her grave…

The grave of the emerald-eyed Soraya
The grave of the emerald-eyed Soraya

A chat with the cemetery caretaker

Moving along, I cross paths with the cemetery supervisor/caretaker, an elderly man who hardly speaks any English. I enter the words ‘any graves of famous people here?’ in my German translate application and show it to him. The man pauses for a few seconds, then holds his hands out, banking and dipping them as he tries to make flying gestures, and says something in German but the only words I pick up are ‘zweiter weltkrieg’ (second world war) and ‘pilot’. He continues, ‘berühmt… berühmt pilot’, trying to recall the English word, until he finally manages to say ‘famous pilot’. He gives me the grave number right off the top of his head, and points me in the general direction.

A World War 2 history buff, as well as a pilot and aviation enthusiast myself, you can understand my excitement and eagerness to find out who is this famous WW2 pilot? As I make my way to the grave, all kinds of names of Luftwaffe aces start to pop up in my head – Eric Hartmann, Adolph Galland, Gerhard Barkhom, Walter Krupinski, Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Eric Rudorffer, Hermann Graf, Otto Kittel, Günther Rall…

The man who once flew the devil in the back seat

I finally reach the grave and immediately recognize the name on the tombstone, utterly astonished! It’s none of the above.

the man who flew the devil
Grave of Lt-Gen. Hans Baur, Hitler’s personal pilot!

The Man Who Flew the Devil…

For here lie the mortal remains of the man who once flew the devil in the back seat and famously said: “the fate of the world was in my hands.” This is the grave of Lieutenant-General Hans Baur, Hitler’s personal pilot for a dozen years and one of his most trusted members of staff as well as one of the last people to see him alive in the bunker.

… And Arturo Toscanini Too!

Our home in Malaga is located on Calle Arturo Toscanini, named after the famous Italian musician and conductor by the same name, whose grave we had a chance to visit at Cimitero Monumentale in Milan. Toscanini was once the music director at NY Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera in NY.

Arturo Toscanini’s grave. The famous pianist and composer, Vladimir Horowitz, who was married to Toscanini’s daughter, Wanda, is also buried in the same tomb!
Arturo Toscanini’s grave. The famous pianist and composer, Vladimir Horowitz, who was married to Toscanini’s daughter, Wanda, is also buried in the same tomb!

It was rather extraordinary to learn that exactly 90 years ago this April 1, 2021, the Deutsche Luft Hansa’s inaugural flight from Berlin to Rome carried Pope Pius XII, the Tsar of Bulgaria… and one Mr. Arturo Toscanini! The pilot of that inaugural flight: Hans Baur!


Click here for more of Nasser Tufail’s musings: Legendary Mines of Rio Tinto and King Solomon’s Wealth

Nasser Tufail

Nasser Tufail grew up in Pakistan and after finishing his secondary education at a boarding school, moved to the USA where he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies. After working in aviation and IT for such companies as Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and IBM, he ventured out on his own and founded two IT companies involved in Business Intelligence/analytics and Supply Chain Execution. He sold his stake in the businesses and took early retirement to travel and see the enchanting world. He has lived in 6 countries and travelled extensively to scores of others in Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. He currently resides with his lovely wife and best friend, Selma, on the Costa del Sol in Spain.

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  1. Are you the same Nasser Tufail that worked for IBM in the late 1980s in Los Angeles? Your Bio sounds like you might be.
    I used to work on IBM’s Area Staff in their Engineering Scientific group with Charlie Brooks, Ray Blonn, and Phil Simon to name a few. I’ve often wondered about you and how life has been for you after you left IBM … especially since you said you would probably be moving back to the mid-East.
    Fyi, I retired from IBM in 2006 and stay in contact with most of my old IBM ESI team mates and many other IBMers.
    I hope this note finds you in good health and happiness. — Bill

    • What a wonderful surprise, Bill, and thanks for reaching out! Yes, that’s me… the same Nasser from the good old IBM (Vector processor) days :). And of course I remember the ESI folks you mentioned – Ray, Phil and Charlie. Charlie and I spent some time in Kingston. He was a great ‘vectorization’ guru/mentor, and is a wonderful human being to boot. Do convey my regards to all of them whenever you have a chance to speak to them.
      Hope you have been staying happy and healthy and are coping well with this pandemic. Would love to hear from you about your life journey. I am sending my contact details to your email ID so that we can continue the dialogue through that channel. Be well and stay safe. / Nasser

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