Review: Shah of Shahs

5 stars
Gripping journalism on Shah-era Iran and the Islamic Revolution by a fantastic writer

Exactly 38 years ago, Khomeini returned to Iran from his exile in France, and set in motion the Islamic Revolution of Iran.

A little over a year ago, I devoured Ryszard Kapuściński’s short book “Shah of Shahs” (rendered into very readable prose by translators William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand) in a single day.

Kapuściński was a hard-boiled journalist, a kind of Polish hybrid of Indiana Jones and Hunter S. Thompson, except far more daring than the latter, and, um, an actual person, unlike the former.

He made it his business to be in Teheran in the late 1970s, just before and during the Khomeini revolution. In the book, he tells the story of the rise of fall of the Shahs, and the Islamic revolution he witnessed in real time.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I took plenty of notes while reading, and, employing my famous Structured Procrastination<tm> technique, I finally found time to process them and offer this (still messy) digest of impressions and quoted passages.

Kapuściński can compose striking sentences, even in translation. E.g. what a poignant use of the phrase “last seen”:

“They must have marched in the front ranks of the demonstration, right into the machine-gun fire. Or sharpshooters on nearby rooftops picked them off. We can suppose that each of these faces was last seen in the gun-sight of a soldier taking aim.”

Or this, about the elder Shah (in the 1950s):

“But at this moment the father is assuming power with all his inborn energy and drive. He has an acute sense of mission and knows what he is after — in his own brutal words, he wants to put the ignorant mob to work and build a strong modern state before which all will beshit themselves in fear.”

And he is insightful, in real time (remember, he is writing as Khomeini’s revolution is taking place), observing simply:

“But the abuses of power and the lawlessness of the palace made the mullahs into advocates of the national interest.”

Another memorable picture:

“So Iran quickly transforms itself into a great showplace for all types of weapons and military equipment. “Showplace” is the right word, because the country lacks the warehouses, magazines, and hangars to protect and secure it all. The spectacle has no precedent. If you drive from Shiraz to Isfahan even today you’ll see hundreds of helicopters parked off to the right of the highway. Sand is gradually covering the inert machines.”

Kapuściński is concise, and gripping. But he is also masterful at summarizing a whole period, or a complex of behaviors, in a single sweeping, vivid paragraph. E.g. about the first Shah:

“The army is the apple of the Shah’s eye, his great passion. The army must always have money. It must have everything. 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. He orders that the nomadic tribes be settled permanently. The nomads protest. He orders their wells poisoned, threatening them with death by thirst and starvation. The nomads keep protesting, so he sends out punitive expeditions that turn vast regions into uninhabited land. A lot of blood flows. He forbids the photographing of that symbolically backward beast, the camel. In Qom a mullah preaches a critical sermon, so, armed with a cane, the Shah enters the mosque and pummels the critic. He imprisons the great Ayatollah Madresi, who had raised his voice in complaint, in a dungeon for years. The liberals protest timorously in the newspapers, so the Shah closes down the newspapers and imprisons the liberals. He orders several of them walled up in a tower. Those he considers malcontents must report daily to the police. Aristocratic ladies faint in terror at receptions when this gruff unapproachable giant turns his harsh gaze on them. Until the end Reza Khan preserves many of the habits of his village childhood and his barracks youth. He lives in a palace but still sleeps on the floor; he always goes around in uniform; he eats with his soldiers from the same pot. One of the boys! At the same time, he covets land and money. Taking advantage of his power, he accumulates incredible wealth. He becomes the biggest landowner, proprietor of nearly three thousand villages and the two hundred and fifty thousand peasants living in them; he owns stock in factories and banks, receives tribute, counts, totes, adds, calculates — if a splendid forest, green valley, or fertile plantation so much as catches his eye, it must be his — indefatigably, insatiably he increases his estates, multiplying his enormous fortune. No one may even approach the borders of the Shah’s lands. One day there is a public execution: On the Shah’s orders a firing squad kills a donkey that, ignoring all warning signs, entered a meadow belonging to Reza Khan. Peasants from neighboring villages are herded to the place of execution to learn respect for the master’s property. But apart from his cruelty, greed, and outlandishness, the old Shah deserves credit for saving Iran from the dissolution that threatened after the First World War. In his efforts to modernize the country he built roads and railways, schools and offices, airports and new residential quarters in the cities. The nation remained poor and apathetic, however, and when Reza Khan departed, an exultant people celebrated the event for a long time.”

Or, again penetratingly observing, this time in a poetic, figurative passage:

“Oil kindles extraordinary emotions and hopes, since oil is above all a great temptation. It is the temptation of ease, wealth, strength, fortune, power. It is a filthy, foul-smelling liquid that squirts obligingly up into the air and falls back to earth as a rustling shower of money. To discover and possess the source of oil is to feel as if, after wandering long underground, you have suddenly stumbled upon royal treasure. Not only do you become rich, but you are also visited by the mystical conviction that some higher power has looked upon you with the eye of grace and magnanimously elevated you above others, electing you its favorite. Many photographs preserve the moment when the first oil spurts from the well: people jumping for joy, falling into each other’s arms, weeping. Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free. Oil is a resource that anesthetizes thought, blurs vision, corrupts. People from poor countries go around thinking: God, if only we had oil! The concept of oil expresses perfectly the eternal human dream of wealth achieved through lucky accident, through a kiss of fortune and not by sweat, anguish, hard work. In this sense oil is a fairy tale and, like every fairy tale, a bit of a lie. Oil fills us with such arrogance that we begin believing we can easily overcome such unyielding obstacles as time. With oil, the last Shah used to say, I will create a second America in a generation! He never created it. Oil, though powerful, has its defects. It does not replace thinking or wisdom. For rulers, one of its most alluring qualities is that it strengthens authority. Oil produces great profits without putting a lot of people to work. Oil causes few social problems because it creates neither a numerous proletariat nor a sizable bourgeoisie. Thus the government, freed from the need of splitting the profits with anyone, can dispose of them according to its own ideas and desires. Look at the ministers from oil countries, how high they hold their heads, what a sense of power they have, they, the lords of energy, who decide whether we will be driving cars tomorrow or walking. And oil’s relation to the mosque? What vigor, glory, and significance this new wealth has given to its religion, Islam, which is enjoying a period of accelerated expansion and attracting new crowds of the faithful.”

He is a keen psychologist, well-schooled by Orwell (I am guessing), e.g.:

“The ubiquitous terror drove people crazy, made them so paranoid they couldn’t credit anyone with being honest, pure, or courageous. After all, they considered themselves honest and yet they couldn’t bring themselves to express an opinion or a judgment, to make any sort of accusation, because they knew punishment lay ruthlessly in wait for them. Thus, if someone verbally attacked and condemned the monarch, everybody thought he was an agent provocateur, acting maliciously to uncover those who agreed with him, to destroy them.”

And he is, of course, writing for and during communist Poland, so his observations aren’t only about Iran. E.g.:

“In this way terror carried off its quarry — it condemned to mistrust and isolation anyone who, from the highest motives, opposed coercion. Fear so debased people’s thinking, they saw deceit in bravery, collaboration in courage.”

Another masterful passage:

“Unfortunately, the monarch’s satisfaction is not to last long. Development is a treacherous river, as everyone who plunges into its currents knows. On the surface the water flows smoothly and quickly, but if the captain makes one careless or thoughtless move he finds out how many whirlpools and wide shoals the river contains. As the ship comes upon more and more of these hazards the captain’s brow gets more and more furrowed. He keeps singing and whistling to keep his spirits up. The ship looks as if it is still traveling forward, yet it is stuck in one place. The prow has settled on a sandbar. All this, however, happens later. In the meantime the Shah is making purchases costing billions, and ships full of merchandise are steaming toward Iran from all the continents. But when they reach the Gulf, it turns out that the small obsolete ports are unable to handle such a mass of cargo (the Shah hadn’t realized this). Several hundred ships line up at sea and stay there for up to six months, for which delay Iran pays the shipping companies a billion dollars annually. Somehow the ships are gradually unloaded, but then it turns out that there are no warehouses (the Shah hadn’t realized). In the open air, in the desert, in nightmarish tropical heat, lie millions of tons of all sorts of cargo. Half of it, consisting of perishable foodstuffs and chemicals, ends up being thrown away. The remaining cargo now has to be transported into the depths of the country, and at this moment it turns out that there is no transport (the Shah hadn’t realized). Or rather, there are a few trucks and trailers, but only a crumb in comparison to the need. Two thousand tractor-trailers are thus ordered from Europe, but then it turns out there are no drivers (the Shah hadn’t realized). After much consultation, an airliner flies off to bring South Korean truckers from Seoul. Now the tractor-trailers start rolling and begin to transport the cargo, but once the truckdrivers pick up a few words of Farsi, they discover they’re making only half as much as native truckers. Outraged, they abandon their rigs and return to Korea. The trucks, unused to this day, still sit, covered with sand, along the Bander Abbas-Teheran highway. With time and the help of foreign freight companies, however, the factories and machines purchased abroad finally reach their appointed destinations. Then comes the time to assemble them. But it turns out that Iran has no engineers or technicians (the Shah hadn’t realized). From a logical point of view, anyone who sets out to create a Great Civilization ought to begin with people, with training cadres of experts in order to form a native intelligentsia. But it was precisely that kind of thinking that was unacceptable. Open new universities and polytechnics, every one a hornets’ nest, every student a rebel, a good-for-nothing, a freethinker? Is it any wonder the Shah didn’t want to braid the whip that would flay his own skin? The monarch had a better way — he kept the majority of his students far from home. From this point of view the country was unique. More than a hundred thousand young Iranians were studying in Europe and America. This policy cost much more than it would have taken to create national universities. But it guaranteed the regime a degree of calm and security. The majority of these young people never returned. Today more Iranian doctors practice in San Francisco or Hamburg than in Tebriz or Meshed. They did not return even for the generous salaries the Shah offered. They feared Savak and didn’t want to go back to kissing anyone’s shoes. 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). The Shah left people a choice between Savak and the mullahs. And they chose the mullahs.”

More psychologizing, this time on a national (and possibly overambitious or facile) scale:

“[The Shah is] talking to an engineer from Munich, a foreman from Milan, a crane operator from Boston, a technician from Kuznetsk. And who are the only Iranians in these pictures? Ministers and Savak agents guarding the monarch. Their countrymen, absent from the pictures, observe it all with ever-widening eyes. This army of foreigners, by the very strength of its technical expertise, its knowing which buttons to press, which levers to pull, which cables to connect, even if it behaves in the humblest way, begins to dominate and starts crowding the Iranians into an inferiority complex. The foreigner knows how, and I don’t. This is a proud people, extremely sensitive about its dignity. An Iranian will never admit he can’t do something; to him, such an admission constitutes a great shame and a loss of face. He’ll suffer, grow depressed, and finally begin to hate. He understood quickly the concept that was guiding his ruler: All of you just sit there in the shadow of the mosque and tend your sheep, because it will take a century for you to be of any use! I on the other hand have to build a global empire in ten years with the help of foreigners. This is why the Great Civilization struck Iranians as above all a great humiliation.”

Kapuściński does not shy away from the sordid:

“Shah Nasr-ed-Din ran up such debts in Paris brothels that, in order to bail himself out and get back home, he sold the French the rights to carry out archaeological expeditions and keep whatever artifacts they found.”

On the extrareligious value of mosques under the Shah:

“There are marked differences in the construction of a mosque and a Christian church. A church is a closed space, a place of prayer, meditation, and silence. If someone starts talking, others rebuke him. A mosque is different. Its largest component is an open courtyard where people can pray, walk, discuss, even hold meetings. An exuberant social and political life goes on there. The Iranian who has been harassed at work, who encounters only grumpy bureaucrats looking for bribes, who is everywhere spied on by the police, comes to the mosque to find balance and calm, to recover his dignity. Here no one hurries him or calls him names. Hierarchies disappear, all are equal, all are brothers, and — because the mosque is also a place of conversation and dialogue — a man can speak his mind, grumble, and listen to what others have to say. What a relief it is, how much everyone needs it. This is why, as the dictatorship turns the screws and an ever more oppressive silence clouds the streets and workplaces, the mosque fills more and more with people and the hum of voices. Not all those who come here are fervent Muslims, not all are drawn by a sudden wave of devotion — they come because they want to breathe, because they want to feel like people.”

Another universally-applicable musing:

“The causes of a revolution are usually sought in objective conditions — general poverty, oppression, scandalous abuses. But this view, while correct, is one-sided. After all, such conditions exist in a hundred countries, but revolutions erupt rarely. What is needed is the consciousness of poverty and the consciousness of oppression, and the conviction that poverty and oppression are not the natural order of this world. It is curious that in this case, experience in and of itself, no matter how painful, does not suffice. The indispensable catalyst is the word, the explanatory idea. More than petards or stilettoes, therefore, words — uncontrolled words, circulating freely, underground, rebelliously, not gotten up in dress uniforms, uncertified — frighten tyrants. But sometimes it is the official, uniformed, certified words that bring about the revolution.”

Kapuściński on the moment of revolution:

“Now the most important moment, the moment that will determine the fate of the country, the Shah, and the revolution, is the moment when one policeman walks from his post toward one man on the edge of the crowd, raises his voice, and orders the man to go home. The policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd are ordinary, anonymous people, but their meeting has historic significance. They are both adults, they have both lived through certain events, they have both had their individual experiences. The policeman’s experience: If I shout at someone and raise my truncheon, he will first go numb with terror and then take to his heels. The experience of the man at the edge of the crowd: At the sight of an approaching policeman I am seized by fear and start running. On the basis of these experiences we can elaborate a scenario: The policeman shouts, the man runs, others take flight, the square empties. But this time everything turns out differently. The policeman shouts, but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman. It’s a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that’s the way it is! 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. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. 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. Here it starts. Until now, whenever these two men approached each other, a third figure instantly intervened between them. That third figure was fear. Fear was the policeman’s ally and the man in the crowd’s foe. Fear interposed its rules and decided everything. Now the two men find themselves alone, facing each other, and fear has disappeared into thin air. Until now their relationship was charged with emotion, a mixture of aggression, scorn, rage, terror. But now that fear has retreated, this perverse, hateful union has suddenly broken up; something has been extinguished. The two men have now grown mutually indifferent, useless to each other; they can go their own ways. Accordingly, the policeman turns around and begins to walk heavily back toward his post, while the man on the edge of the crowd stands there looking at his vanishing enemy. Fear: a predatory, voracious animal living inside us. It does not let us forget it’s there. It keeps eating at us and twisting our guts. It demands food all the time, and we see that it gets the choicest delicacies. Its preferred fare is dismal gossip, bad news, panicky thoughts, nightmare images. From a thousand pieces of gossip, portents, ideas, we always cull the worst ones — the ones that fear likes best. Anything to satisfy the monster and set it at ease. Here we see a man listening to someone talking, his face pale and his movements restless. What’s going on? He is feeding his fear. And what if we have nothing to feed it with? We make something up, feverishly. And what if (seldom though this may occur) we can’t make anything up? We rush to other people, look for them, ask questions, listen and gather portents, for as long as it takes to satiate our fear.”

The tyrant’s downfall spiral:

“After this demonstration, the Shah felt better. He seemed to be getting back on his feet. Until then he had been playing with cards marked with blood. Now he made up his mind to play with a clean deck. To gain popular sympathy, he dismissed a few of the officers who had been in charge of the units that opened fire on the inhabitants of Tabriz. Among the generals, this move caused murmurs of discontent. To appease the generals, he ordered that the inhabitants of Isfahan be fired on. The people responded with an outburst of anger and hatred. He wanted to appease the people, so he dismissed the head of Savak. Savak was appalled. To appease Savak, the Shah allowed them to arrest whomever they wished. And so by reversals, detours, meanderings, and zig-zags, step by step, he drew nearer to the precipice.”

Like Thucydides’s infamous τα δέοντα (“the needful”; “what is appropriate”), Kapuściński volunteers to supply what is not available as hard evidence. He imagines what he laments was missing:

“The cameramen overuse the long shot. As a result, they lose sight of details. And yet it is through details that everything can be shown. The universe in the raindrop. I miss close-ups of the people who march in the demonstrations. I miss the conversations. That man marching in the demonstration, how full of hopes he is! He is marching because he is counting on something. He is marching because he believes he can get something done. He is sure that he will be better off. He is marching, thinking: So, if we win, nobody’s going to treat me like a dog anymore. He’s thinking of shoes. He’ll buy decent shoes for the whole family. He’s thinking of a home. If we win, I’ll start living like a human being. A new world: He, an ordinary man, is going to know a minister personally and get everything taken care of. But why a minister! We’ll form a committee ourselves to run things! He has other ideas and plans, none too precise or distinct, but they’re all good, they’re all the kind that cheer you up, because they possess the best of attributes: They’ll be carried out. He feels high, he feels the power mounting in him, for as he marches he is also participating, taking his destiny into his hands for the first time, taking part for the first time, exerting influence, deciding about something — he is.”

another perfect miniature:

“Further down Engelob Street is a baker’s that sells fresh, hot bread. Iranian bread is shaped like a big, flat cake. The oven in which these cakes are baked is a hole dug into the ground, ten feet deep, with walls of inlaid clay. A fire burns at the bottom. If a woman betrays her husband, she is thrown into such a well of fire. Razak Naderi, a boy of twelve, works at this bakery. Somebody ought to make a film about Razak. At the age of nine he came to Teheran looking for work, leaving his mother, two younger sisters, and three younger brothers behind in his village near Zanjan, six hundred miles from the capital. From that time on he has had to support his family. He gets up at four and kneels by the oven door. The fire is roaring, and frightful heat pours out of the oven. With a long rod, Razak sticks the loaves on the clay walls and sees they are taken out when they are done. He works this way until nine in the evening. What he makes, he sends to his mother. His possessions consist of a suitcase and the blanket in which he wraps himself at night. Razak continually changes jobs and is often unemployed. He knows that he can blame only himself. After three or four months he simply begins to long for his mother. He struggles against the feeling for a while, but he ends up getting on the bus and returning to his village. He would like to stay with his mother as long as possible, but he knows he cannot — he is the sole support of the family, and he has to work. He goes back to Teheran and finds that someone else has taken his job. So Razak goes to Gomruk Square, the gathering place of the unemployed. This is the cheap labor market, and whoever comes here sells himself for the lowest wages. Yet Razak has to wait a week or two before someone hires him. He stands on the square all day, freezing, soaked, hungry. Finally a man turns up and notices him. Razak is happy; he is working again. But the joy wears off quickly, the sharp longing soon returns, so he returns again to see his mother and returns again to Gomruk Square. Right next to Razak there is the great world of the Shah, the revolution, Khomeini and the hostages. Everybody is talking about it. Yet Razak’s world is even bigger. It is so big that Razak roams around it and can’t find a way out.”

Kapuściński on the resilience of structures:

“In every revolution, a movement grapples with a structure. The movement attacks the structure, trying to destroy it, while the structure defends itself and tries to extinguish the movement. The two forces, equally powerful, have different properties. The properties of a movement are spontaneity, impulsiveness, dynamic expansiveness — and a short life. The properties of a structure are inertia, resilience, and an amazing, almost instinctive ability to survive. A structure is rather easy to create, and incomparably more difficult to destroy. It can long outlast all the reasons that justified its establishment. Many weak or even fictitious states have been called into being. But states, after all, are structures, and none of them will be crossed off the map. There exists a sort of world of structures, all holding one another up. Threaten one and the others, its kindred, rush to its assistance. The elasticity that helps it to survive is another trait of a structure. Backed into a corner, under pressure, it can suck in its belly, contract, and wait for the moment when it can start expanding again. Interestingly, such renewed expansion always takes place exactly where there had been a contraction. Structures tend toward a return to the status quo, which they regard as the best of states, the ideal. This trait belies the inertia of the structure. The structure is capable of reacting only according to the first program fed into it. Enter a new program — nothing happens, it doesn’t react. It will wait for the previous program. A structure can also act like a roly-poly toy: Just when it seems to have been knocked over, it pops back up. A movement unaware of this property of the structure will wrestle with it for a long time, then grow weak, and in the end suffer defeat.”

The Iranian revolution compared to Kapuściński’s rich store of revolutions observed:

“Iran — it was the twenty-seventh revolution I have seen in the Third World. Amid the smoke and the roar, rulers would change, governments fall, new people take their seat. But one thing was invariable, indestructible, and — I dread saying it — eternal: the helplessness. These chambers of the Iranian committees reminded me of what I had seen in Bolivia, Mozambique, the Sudan, Benin. What should we do? Do you know what to do? Me? Not me. Maybe you know. Are you talking to me? I’d go whole hog. But how? How do you go whole hog? Ah, yes, that’s the problem. Everyone agrees: That is indeed a problem worth discussing. Cigarette smoke clouds the stuffy rooms. There are some good speeches, some not-so-good, a few downright brilliant. After a truly good speech, everyone feels satisfied; they have taken part in something that was a genuine success.”

Kapuściński’s theory of development:

“The Shah thought that urbanization and industrialization are the keys to modernity, but this is a mistaken idea. The key to modernity is the village. The Shah got drunk on visions of atomic power plants, computerized production lines, and large-scale petrochemical complexes. But in an underdeveloped country, these are mere mirages of modernity. In that kind of country, most of the people live in poor villages from which they flee to the city. They form a young, energetic workforce that knows little (they are often illiterate) but possesses great ambition and is ready to fight for everything. In the city they find an entrenched establishment linked in one way or another with the prevailing authorities. So they first learn the ropes, settle in a bit, occupy starting positions, and go on the attack. In the struggle they make use of whatever ideology they have brought from the village — usually this is religion. Since they are the ones who are truly determined to get ahead, they often succeed. Then authority passes into their hands. But what are they to do with it? They begin to debate, and they enter the spellbound circle of helplessness. The nation stays alive somehow, as it must, and in the meantime they live better and better. For a while they are satisfied. Their successors are now roaming the vast plains, grazing camels, tending sheep, but they too will grow up, move to the city, and start struggling. What is the rule in all of this? That the newcomers invariably have more ambition than skill. As a result, with each upheaval, the country goes back to the starting point because the victorious new generation has to learn all over again what it cost the defeated generation so much toil to master. And does this mean that the defeated ones were efficient and wise? Not at all — the preceding generation sprang from the same roots as those who took its place. How can the spellbound circle of helplessness be broken? Only by developing the villages. As long as the villages are backward, the country will be backward — even if it contains five thousand factories. As long as the son who has moved to the city visits his native village a few years later as if it were some exotic land, the nation to which he belongs will never be modern.”