By Ryszard Kapuściński
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, embarks on an ill-considered push towards modernization, fuelled by oil wealth and driven by a greed for admiration. Kapuściński recalls photographs, using them as cross-sections of history’s great worm through time. Here, Reza Pahlavi, the Shah father, is pictured with his young son. They wear identical uniforms. The symbolism is powerful and entirely intended.
Lacking entirely the iron resolve of the first Shah, Mohammad Reza could only inhabit indolently the high life of palace and ski slope. Kapuściński, in his mind, interviews the young Shah for Hello! magazine. “The most difficult thing to do while living in a palace is to imagine a different life – for instance, your own life, but outside of and minus the palace.” And so further and further he detached himself from the people he ruled over, though never forgetting to lash out at them from afar, consciously or unconsciously aping his paternal role model.
Iran too has its own psyche and hang-ups. The unconscious rural poor are irreconcilable with the Pahlavi ego, keen to strive forward. And the rebellious streak in Shiism means that Iranians are never sad to see their Shahs’ heads fall. One of the most delightful moments in this book is when the author conjures up the first Shiites’ teaching Iranians that “you can be a Muslim without being an establishment Muslim… you can be an opposition Muslim! And that makes you an even better Muslim!” “Shiism”, he later defines is “a form of national survival” but he does not face head-on the brooding spectre of Ayatollah Khomeini in his reckonings. The rise of the Islamic Republic only proves that “it is not always the best of men who emerge from hiding.”
In one of the longest sections of the book, Kapuściński turns novelist and tells of the first tentative words of opposition in the fashion of a Dostoevsky, but instead of a murderer as a subject/protagonist, he follows a returned émigré intellectual who witnesses the beginnings of unrest but remains in denial, running in fear from SAVAK. Then from the novel to the theatre. Kapuściński goes on to portray the Shah as an incompetent director using vast amounts of “imported scenery” for his play, “The Great Civilisation” – an absurdist piece in which, against his wishes, the extras tear down the stage at the end.
A veteran of political unrest (by his own count, Iran was his 27th revolution) journalist Ryszard Kapuściński leads us on an impressionistic journey through the roots in history and psychology of the players right up to the tipping point “when the policeman shouts but the man doesn’t run.” His observations weave the mundane with the profound to achieve drama, involvement and even comedy. Clearly appreciating the Python-esque surrealism, he includes, from an Iranian newspaper, an interview with a professional “wrecker of the Shah’s monuments” who unwittingly tells the story of the last Pahlavi monarch through that of his own travails with rope and hook.
“––Does that mean you would pull down, he would set up, then you would pull down what he set up, and it kept going like this?
––That’s right. Many times we nearly threw in the towel. If we pulled one down, he set up three.”
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