Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Between the time when Ryszard Kapuściński saw the revolution in Iran in 1979 and when Shah of Shahs, his book on the subject, was published in 1982, his home country of Poland lived through its own revolution, one that started with strikes at a shipyard in the northern port of Gdańsk but collapsed as the Communist government declared martial law and fought back against its own people more effectively than the Shah’s forces had done, some two years previously and some three thousand kilometers to the southeast.

Kapuściński tells of the Iranian revolution mostly through a series of stories inspired by photographs he looks at while locked in a hotel room in Tehran, interspersed with accounts gleaned from his own daytime reporting in the city, before he again locks his hotel door against the armed bands that rule the night. The photos allow him to sketch the recent history of Iran, while the stories from his notes cover how the revolution came to pass, and what it meant to people he encountered.

The oldest photo he has acquired shows, according to its caption, the grandfather of the last Shah as a soldier holding another man — the assassin of Shah Nasr-ed-Din — prisoner at the end of a heavy chain. The two had made their way across the countryside from the site of the assassination to the Persian capital where the prisoner was to be executed. Thus began the ascent of the Pahlavis to the height of power in their country.

The soldier’s son gained command of Persia’s most important military unit. With that strength and foreign assistance, he seized first effective control of the government and then the throne itself, exiling Ahmad Shah in 1925. Kapuściński writes about how the first Pahlavi Shah set about modernizing the country, in part to set the stage for a similar push by his son that would lead to the conflict that would eventually bring the dynasty down.

The army will make the nation modern, disciplined, obedient. Everyone: Attention! The Shah issues an order forbidding Iranian dress. Everyone, wear European suits! Everyone, don European hats! The Shah bans chadors. In the streets, police tear them off terrified women. The faithful protest in the mosques of Meshed. He sends in the artillery to level the mosques and massacre the rebels. (p. 22)

In a different book, Kapuściński might have drawn a comparison with efforts to modernize another great Islamic polity just west of Iran. Atatürk changed Turkish dress, Turkish writing, and much more at almost exactly the same time that Reza Shah Pahlavi’s policies were upending Iran. (In fact, the rush of modernity in the 1920s is a global theme of that period; consider, for example, Japan, Italy and Russia in that decade.) Kapuściński, however, focuses his stories strictly on Iran.

Here is a picture of Allied leaders at the Tehran conference in 1943; the British who had helped elevate Reza Shah cooperated with the Soviets and deposed him when he tilted too strongly toward Germany in 1941. “Empire giveth; empire taketh away.” Here is a picture of Prime Minister Mossadegh in triumph on the day Parliament nationalized Iran’s oil. Here is another of the Shah, out of the country during the coup that topples Mossadegh. Here are notes from conversations with people who lived through those times, some of whom fell afoul of the regime and suffered at the hands of Savak, the secret police.

And yet, as firmly grounded in Iran as all of those stories are, I kept thinking back to Kapuściński’s Poland. The Communists, like the Pahlavis, had been installed on the strength of a foreign power. The interests of the empire had done more to shape Poland’s leadership in those years than any domestic concerns.

During the twenty-five centuries of their recorded history the Iranians have always, sooner or later, managed to outwit anyone with the impudence to try ruling them. Sometimes they have to resort to the weapons of uprising and revolution to obtain their goal, and then they pay the tragic levy of blood. Sometimes they use the tactic of passive resistance, which they apply in a particularly consistent and radical way. When they get fed up with an authority that has become unbearable, the whole country freezes, the whole nation does a disappearing act. Authority gives orders but no one is listening, it frowns but no one is looking, it raises its voice but that voice is as one crying in the wilderness. Then authority falls apart like a house of cards. (p. 71)

Poland does not have as much recorded history, but that’s about as good a one-paragraph description of Polish attitude toward authority as one is likely to find anywhere. It’s all the more apt because it was published in 1982, as martial law was trying to clamp down, only to find that no one was listening, no one was looking, and alternative institutions were springing up all across the country.

The Shah’s reign was not just an empty exercise in attempting twentieth-century monarchy. He proposed to surpass his father’s modernizing drive, to build Iran into a Great Civilization. Not everyone saw it that way. “In the eyes of the average Iranian the Great Civilization, the Shah’s Revolution, was above all a Great Pillage at which the elite busied itself.” (p. 63) Oil money brought much more wealth for Iran’s elite to plunder than was available to Poland’s comrades, but for average people, the effect of corruption was the same. “Everyone in authority stole. Whoever held office and did not steal created a desert around himself; he made everybody suspicious. … Whenever possible they got rid of someone like that in short order—he spoiled the game. All values thus came to have a reversed meaning.” (p. 63)

An Iranian at home could not read the books of the country’s best writers (because they came out only abroad), could not see the films of its outstanding directors (because they were not allowed to be shown in Iran), could not listen to the voices of its intellectuals (because they were condemned to silence) … A dictatorship that destroys the intelligentsia and culture leaves behind itself an empty, sour field on which the tree of thought won’t grow quickly. (p. 58)

That was Iran under the Shah, and many other countries under their dictators, but certainly also Poland under martial law as Kapuściński was writing Shah of Shahs.

In the final section of the book, Kapuściński writes about how the revolution came to pass, what the first months of the aftermath revealed about the new order, and finally what first-hand observation of more than two dozen revolutions led Kapuściński to think about their patterns and prospects. Despite that experience, however, revolution remained, at its heart, a mystery to him.

Revolution must be distinguished from revolt, coup d’état, palace takeover. A coup or a palace takeover may be planned, but a revolution—never. Its outbreak, the hour of that outbreak, takes everyone, even those who have been striving for it, unawares. They stand amazed at the spontaneity that appears suddenly and destroys everything in its path. (p. 104)

The people remain silent, patient, wary. They are afraid and do not yet feel their own strength. At the same time, they keep a detailed account of the wrongs, which at one particular moment are to be added up. The choice of that moment is the greatest riddle known to history. Why did it happen on that day, and not on another? Why did this event, and not some other, bring it about? (p. 106)

Kapuściński imagines a confrontation between a policeman and someone in a crowd. Every time before, a policeman has ordered a crowd to disperse, and they, ruled by their fear, have gone home. This time is different:

The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn’t budge. He glances around and sees the same look on other faces. … Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence. We don’t know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid—and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. (p. 109)

As in Tehran, so too in Gdańsk and many other places that Kapuściński had visited.

And afterward? What happened afterward? What should I write about now? A melancholy topic, for a revolt is a great experience, an adventure of the heart. (p. 139)

The legacy of the dictatorship is not so easily thrown off; the new rulers repeat many of the patterns of the old. Kapuściński finds exhilaration, but not salvation, in casting down the old tyranny and reaching for freedom. Shah of Shahs tells how that happened in one place, with echoes of Kapuściński’s homeland, and patterns of revolutions more broadly considered.

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