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How a Turkish girl broke the heart of a shah

In her latest book, Turkish novelist Nazli Eray shares the story of her mother, a woman whose beauty once stunned Middle East elites and left the Iranian shah heartbroken.

The mother of renowned Turkish novelist Nazli Eray was the only daughter of Turkey’s ambassador to Baghdad in the 1930s, a 17-year-old of proverbial beauty.

In her book “Bir Ruya Gibi Hatirliyorum Seni” (I Remember You as a Dream), Eray describes her mother as a “girl as beautiful as a drop of water.”

Her picture is on the cover. It's a visage that Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fell for the moment he saw it, and one that an Iraqi photo studio, Photo Arshaq, displayed in its window for almost six decades until US airstrikes on Baghdad and the ensuing chaos destroyed the shop.

Turkey’s ambassador to Baghdad in the 1930s, Tahir Lutfi, would take his daughter Sermin with him to receptions. Sometimes she would appear at cocktail parties hosted by the Turkish Embassy. Her beauty was the talk of the town. As she took part in Baghdad's social life, often out playing tennis, her popularity grew.

Sermin’s fame eventually crossed borders and reached Iran, where Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was not yet married to Princess Soraya. A popular figure in European high society and the United States, Pahlavi mingled with Hollywood stars and often appeared in the pages of the tabloids.

His relatives told him about Sermin and showed him her pictures before the two met at a reception. The shah had an instant crush on the Turkish beauty. Wasting no time, he sent her family a wooden box full of emerald jewelry — necklaces, earrings and bracelets. It was not only a declaration of love, but a marriage proposal.

The emissaries who took the box to the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad delivered a message as they opened the lid: “By accepting this box or by taking a piece of jewelry from it, you indicate you accept the marriage proposal.”

The shah, however, was neither on Sermin’s mind nor in her heart. She turned down the proposal and the jewelry box went back to Tehran untouched.

Eagerly awaiting the emissaries' return, the shah was heartbroken to see the box return in the stead of a message of acceptance. Years later, he would wed Princess Soraya.

Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi is seated at a table, Jan. 1, 1950. (photo by Riad Shehata/Getty Images)

The shah’s unrequited love has become public knowledge with the latest book by Sermin's daughter, who recounted the details above to Al-Monitor. Asked whether she had heard the story personally from her mother, Eray replied, “Many times.”

So what did Sermin do after she turned down the shah?

Eray recounts the story in her book: “My mother, the young woman who had infatuated many as an ambassador’s daughter in Baghdad, eventually married my father. He had fallen in love with her after seeing her in the garden of the two-story family house in Ankara’s Guvenevler neighborhood. He kept sending her bunches of red roses for a long while. Their wedding party took place at Kerpic in Ankara.”

So, it was red roses and not emeralds that stole the heart of the woman “with unique green eyes and pure beauty,” as her novelist daughter describes her. The shah had certainly chosen the wrong method to impress!

The Baghdad lover

Besides the Iranian shah, Sermin enthralled the scion of a wealthy Turkmen family from Kirkuk. The young man, a student at the Baghdad Faculty of Medicine, never missed an opportunity to see her at receptions and other gatherings. His love went unrequited as well.

In later years, that young man would immigrate to Turkey, establish the Hacettepe and Bilkent Universities in Ankara and serve as the head of the Council of Higher Education.

He was none other than Ihsan Dogramaci, the late physician and educationalist who enjoyed great respect and recognition not only in Turkey but around the world. A pioneer of higher education in Turkey, Dogramaci lectured in European and American universities, led the International Conference on Higher Education and advised the World Health Organization on the establishment of medical faculties in Cameroon, Nigeria, Brazil and Canada.

Two years before he died in 2010, Dogramaci told his daughter, Sermin, about his infatuation with the Turkish girl, confessing that he had chosen her own name in memory of his unrequited love.

Following Dogramaci’s death, his daughter contacted Eray and the two got together for lunch. Sermin revealed her father’s secret to Eray, of his love and how she ended up with her mother as her namesake.

This was the first time that Eray has shared this story, and she has done so for Al-Monitor readers.

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