Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, in a much-quoted speech on the 2,500th anniversay of the Persian monarchy founded by Cyrus the Great, once uttered these lines: "Cyrus rest in peace. We are here."
The phrase has taken a new twist these days, with some of the demonstrators surging through the streets of Tehran chanting: "Cyrus awake. He messed it up."
Jokes about the shah, once taboo, are flourishing here. They mock everything from his imperiousness to the corruption of those surrounding him to the spread of opposition sentiment among the population.
There's the one in which an aide to the shah tries to lift the spirits of the despairing monarch after the rest of the royal family and many wealthy supporters have fled abroad.
"Remember in France in 1968 when Gen. de Gaulle was having such a hard time with all those demonstrations?" the aide says. "Then he rallied his supporters and 200,000 people marched down the Champs Elysees cheering his name." The shah brightens a little and says, "Perhaps you're right. I, too, can get 200,000 people to march down the Champs Elysees."
Another has the shah presiding over a Cabinet meeting when he gets a call from his wife, Empress Farah. "Come home quick," she screams. "Thieves are ransacking the palace."
"I don't believe it," the shah says, and puts down the receiver. The empress calls back and cries, "You've got to do something. The thieves are taking everything we've got." Again the shah puts down the phone. A little while later it rings again and the empress repeats her plea.
"I tell you it's impossible, the shah yells. "All the thieves are right here with me."
With Iranians' reverence for poetry, it is not surprising that some of the jibes have been put into verse, including an epic cleverly translated into English. The poem, sometimes sacrilegious and a bit ribald, recalls the tumultuous days of former prime minister Mohamined Mossadegh, who briefly drove the shah from Iran before Mossadegh's overthrow in a CIA-backed coup, and fancifully recounts the shah's soliloquy before apparitions of God and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the religious opposition.
An excerpt: "I'm very displeased and very distressed. He makes Mossadegh seem really quite blessed. Oh God, please ask this ayatollah to leave me alone, in the name of Allah. These troubles are really too much to bear. It's no longer fun being Aryamehr. I'm wretched and gloomy and very dismayed My throne and my crown are beginning to fade. The nights I sleep well are tiny in number, though Cyrus, it seems, continues to slumber. Oh Cyrus, awaken. Why do you keep quiet? The whole damn country is now in a riot."
Even anti-shah slogans written on walls across Tehran sometimes make light of the situation.One wag, apparently feeling the oft-repeated "Death to the shah" did not capture the true spirit of things, scrawled: "Long live the shah. Death to 35 million Iranians."
With Tehran and 11 other cities under martial law, similar examples of gallows humor abound on the subject of troops enforcing the capital's 11 p.m. curfew.
One such joke has a colonel and his lieutenant standing together when they spot a man walking down the street after curfew. "Halt," the colonel shouts, whereupon the man stops in his tracks. The officer draws his revolver and shoots the man dead on the spot.
"But he obeyed your order to halt," his incredulous lieutenant says. "Why did you shoot him?" To wich the colonel replies, "They're too hard to hit when they're moving."
In a similar tale, the officer shoots a man seen shuffling down the street at 10:30. "But it's still a half hour before curfew," his aide says. "I'm aware of that," the commander snaps. "I know that man. He walks very slowly. By the time he gets home it will be at least 11:15."
Another curfew story is set in the Caspian Sea town of Rasht, whose residents traditionally have been the target of jokes by other Iranians. A Rashti goes home to find his wife in bed with another man.He goes back outside and wanders the streets after curfew until he is arrested by martial law forces. Asked why he is out, he replies: "But I can't go home because gatherings of three people are illegal."