Book Review: “Shah of Shahs”

Ryszard Kapuscinski (Vintage Books – 152 pages)

Reviewer – Luke Brown

The reporter studies a photo of a group of men standing on a street in Teheran, waiting for a bus to arrive. Nothing really unusual at first glance; a typical scene full of weary and tired people, that could be of anywhere. Our reporter is encouraged to take a closer look. Look at the angle of the shot, taken from a hidden position, from a window across the street. See a guy standing near three others who are talking, his ear deliberately bent towards them?

On another occasion our reporter is told a story of a sickly old man who, sapped of strength, on a particularly hot day, stumbled up to the bus stop and remarked how oppressive the day was, how he couldn’t catch his breath. A man near him moved in close. “So it is,” this man replied, “it’s getting more and more oppressive and people are fighting for air.” The old man concurred: “Too true, such heavy air, so oppressive.” For this, the other man, an agent of Savak, the secret service that operated under the Shah of Iran, whisked the old man away, his crime being that of saying the word “oppressive” to a stranger. The crowd around the old man had listened in dread, aware of the dangers of any allusions to public criticism of the Shah, however slight. But was not this old man just feeble and tired, oblivious to his own naivety?

“For a moment, for just an instant, a new doubt flashed through
the heads of the people standing at the bus stop. What if the sick
old man was a Savak agent too? Because he had criticized the
regime (by using “oppressive” in conversation), he must have
been free to criticise. If he hadn’t been, wouldn’t he have kept
his mouth shut or spoken about such agreeable topics as the fact
that the sun was shining and the bus was sure to come along any
minute? And who had the right to criticise? Only Savak agents,
whose job it was to provoke restless babblers, then cart them off
to jail.”

So Ryszard Kapuscinski brilliantly captures the paranoia and fear that existed in Iran under the reign of the Shah of Iran, before he fled the country in 1979 and the Islamic Revolution began, with the previously exiled Ayatollah Khomeini as its leader. Through the use of literary set pieces that create a patchwork of themes, moments in history, conversations with ordinary Iranians and his own observations as an outsider, he paints a compelling picture describing the circumstances that led to the downfall of the Shah.

The book begins after the Revolution has taken place, with Kapuscinski, the only guest left, sitting in his hotel room in Teheran, examining front covers of various newspapers. He looks at one edition announcing that the Ayatollah has left and later ones proclaiming his return. As he notes in parentheses:

“And between that departure and that return, what heights of
emotion and fervor, rage and terror, how many conflagrations!”

His own situation is not too dissimilar:

“On the floor, chairs, table, desk lie heaps of index cards, scraps of
paper, notes so hastily scrawled and chaotic, I have to stop and think
where I jotted down the sentence “He will deceive you and make
promises to you, but don’t let yourself be fooled.” Who said that?
When? To whom?
Or, covering a whole sheet of paper in red pencil: “Must call
64-12-18.” But so much time has passed, I can’t remember whose
number it is or why it was so important to call.
Unfinished letter, never mailed. I could go on at length about what
I’ve seen and lived through here, but it is difficult to organise my

He ponders the mess:

“Now, at the very thought of trying to put everything in order
(because the day I’m to leave is approaching), I am overcome by
both aversion and profound fatigue. When I stay in a hotel (which
is quite often) I like the room to be a mess because then the
ambience has the illusion of some kind of life, a substitute warmth
and intimacy, a proof (though illusory) that such a strange uncozy
place, as all hotel rooms in essence are, has been at least partially
conquered and tamed. In a room arranged into antiseptic order, I
feel numb and lonely, pinched by all the straight lines, corners of
furniture, flat walls, all that indifferent, stiff geometry, a strained,
meticulous arrangement existing only for its own sake, without a
trace of human presence. Fortunately, within a few hours of my
arrival, influenced by my unconscious actions (the result of haste
or laziness), the existing order breaks down, disappears, objects
come to life, begin moving from place to place, and enter into
ever changing configurations and connections; things take on a
cramped, baroque look, and, all at once, the room’s atmosphere
becomes friendlier and more familiar. Then I can take a deep
breath and relax.”

Before the clean up, he goes down to sit with some hotel staff who play cards and drink tea, a television on in the background. On the television can be seen the visage of the Ayatollah Khomeini, in the holy city of Qom, as exultant crowds gather to see and hear him. Khomeini exhorts the crowd and the people of Iran to stay strong, that things will be different from now on, an Iran freed of foreign influence. Later, pictures are shown of missing people, along with the pleas of their distraught parents who wish to find out the fate of their children who went missing, because they dared to struggle against the Shah. Following on are pictures of those, who in all likelihood, as the officials of the Shah, ordered these disappearances, with an accompanying list of their crimes. Soon these people will disappear as well, victims of the backlash of the Islamic Revolution.

So what caused this entire furore? We must take a trip back in time for the answers. Iran had always been a country caught between the power plays of more powerful and ambitious nations and empires, particularly Russia and Britain in modern times. Using photos as a starting point, Kapuscinski skilfully weaves Iran’s modern history.

He begins with a photo of two men; one being a man in chains, who was responsible for assassinating Shah Nasr-ed-Din in 1896; the other his capturer, a soldier who is the grandfather of the last Shah. Next is a photo of a young officer named Reza Khan, the son of the soldier in the previous photo, who, later with the help of the British, stages a coup and proclaims himself Shah. We then move onto a photo of Reza Khan with his young son, the last Shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

Reza Khan was a brutal man and was determined to modernise Iran, particularly the army, any opposition being crushed; his son was taught well. Reza Khan, however, was not to last forever, backing the wrong side during WW2. The British and the Russians invaded Iran in 1941 and gave Reza Khan no other option but to abdicate his throne in favour of his 22-year old son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

We come across Prime Minister Mossadegh, who attempts a more independent policy for his country. He makes the mistake of nationalising the oil industry. He is disposed with the help of the British and the United States in 1953. The Shah left before this and returned after the coup was completed; Mossadegh being replaced with General Zahedi, the Western oil companies compensated, gaining a 50% stake in the oil industry.

The Shah sees oil as a means to fast track his country into modernity. So begin various economic reforms, with the army budget being boosted and massive industrial works commissioned. However, as Kapuscinski notes, “Oil, though powerful, has its defects. It does not replace thinking or wisdom.” The attempt to create the second United States, The Great Civilization, through the White Revolution, is flawed. Massive orders of goods and equipment are placed, but their ports are not big enough to handle these imports, nor do they have the transport to move them where needed. Foreign experts are called in. Meanwhile the locals are ignored and miss out in the direct participation of the wealth that is generated by the oil production, while the Shah and his friends live in luxury. Furthermore, it is the secularised vision of Iranian society that causes more discontent, which rumbles underneath the surface, the future Ayatollah Khomeini a key player. Fearing this threat, Khomeini is exiled. Through his secret police, Savak, the Shah cracks down on dissent, forcefully suppressing any attempts at real democratisation; citizens are coerced into supporting his political party; censorship is harsh, and holding gatherings, no matter how innocent they may be, is banned. Offenders are interrogated and tortured. This cannot surely last. Public protests become bolder and the Shah’s grip on power and, ultimately, on reality, slips. The spiral is contagious and despite attempts at appeasement and superficial reforms, it is ultimately too much to control.

But this was not just, as mentioned, a mass political revolution, but an Islamic one, by the majority Shiite Iranians. Turmoil and persecution was something that the Shiites had experienced since their birth. And only through an understanding of the history of Shiite Islam and the subsequent conversion to it by the majority of Iranians, can the Islamic Revolution be fully explained. Kapuscinski is more than capable in outlining the Shiite struggle from their origins out of the split with the Sunnis, and the attending slaying of Hussein that forever marked the Shiites feeling that life is a struggle and sad, as they embarked upon their own diaspora. With Iran yet again under threat from another foreign invader, this time the Sunni Muslim Arabs in the 7th century AD, the Iranians were filled with dread. But this new threat coincided with the arrival of the pious Shiites, with their tales of persecution from the Sunnis and their view that the Sunnis had lost sight of the more humble aspects of Islam. The Iranians empathised with these Shiites and eventually were converted from their Zoroastrian faith. History violently repeated itself in the 20th century; Kapuscinski describes a Shiite as being a “rabid oppositionist” and it is too true.

Shah of Shahs is a masterful work of literary journalism made richer due to the personal experience of the author (he has witnessed 27 revolutions or coups). Not a word seems wasted. The descriptions and characterisations are tight, yet poetic, the tone non-judgemental. What Kapuscinski has achieved is a fascinating and timeless portrait of an untenable situation coming to its inevitable and natural conclusion.

One may ask what lessons can be drawn from the events of 1979 described in this book and be applied to the current situation where the repressive conservative leadership is out of step with what the populace is aching for. What I brought away from this account is that reform, not revolution, will be the nature of the continued existence of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It would be prudent for Western Policymakers to learn and act on this lesson, a lesson that interference in Iran through force is not just morally the wrong thing to do, but born out by history to be ultimately disastrous. Kapuscinski puts it best when describing the results of the overthrow of the Shah:

“Seldom does a people live through such moments! But just then
the sense of victory seemed natural and justified. The Shah’s Great Civilization lay in ruins. What had it been in essence? A rejected
transplant. It had been an attempt to impose a certain model of life
on a community attached to entirely different traditions and values.
It was forced, an operation that had more to do with surgical success
in itself than with the question of whether the patient remained alive
– or equally important – remained himself.”

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