Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Ka­pus­cin­ski (1982)

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS - JULIE PAR­SONS

Tehran 1979. Ryszard Ka­pus­cin­ski is in his ho­tel room.

“On the floor, chairs, ta­ble, desk lie heaps of in­dex cards, scraps of pa­per, notes so hastily scrawled and chaotic.”

This is the 27th revo­lu­tion that Ka­pus­cin­ski has wit­nessed. The end of Mo­hammed Reza Shah Pahlavi; the be­gin­ning of Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini and the Is­lamic repub­lic. “[G]un­fire from the depths of an in­vis­i­ble city. The shoot­ing starts reg­u­larly at nine as if cus­tom or tra­di­tion had fixed the hour.”

The Shah and his pomps have fallen. Ka­pus­cin­ski flicks through his pho­to­graphs. Shah Pahlavi’s fa­ther, Reza Shah, cre­ator of a huge army. Moderniser. “Ev­ery­one: At­ten­tion! The Shah is­sues an or­der.” The no­madic tribes must be set­tled, im­me­di­ately. “He orders their wells poi­soned, threat­en­ing them with death by thirst and star­va­tion.” The young Shah is crowned Shah of Shahs. Un­der his eye, Savak, the se­cret po­lice, rules the land.

Peo­ple at a bus stop. An everyday scene. Ex­cept: one man, “in­clin­ing his ear to­ward three other men talk­ing . . . he was al­ways on duty at the bus stop, eaves­drop­ping . . . Savak had a good ear for all al­lu­sions.” Thus, avoid words like “dark­ness, bur­den, abyss, col­lapse, quag­mire, pu­tre­fac­tion, cage, bars.” Grotesque tor­tures: skin, burnt and sliced, liv­ing skulls pen­e­trated by drills, fear mak­ing mad­men of the sane.

A Lufthansa air­liner. It flies those of the new class, the “petro-bour­geoisie” who­ever “most pleases the ruler, who­ever can . . . most ar­dently flat­ter him,” from Tehran to Mu­nich, ev­ery day, for lunch. While “fam­i­lies hud­dle in nar­row, crowded hov­els with­out elec­tric­ity or run­ning wa­ter.”

Khome­ini ap­pears on tele­vi­sion. “[N]ot a mus­cle moves in the face of this man. . . of im­pla­ca­ble will.” Ka­pus­cinki’s friends pre­dicted “an im­mi­nent cat­a­clysm”. But Ka­pus­cin­ski visits car­pet seller Mr Fer­dousi. “What have we given the world? We have given po­etry, the minia­ture and car­pets. . . use­less things from the pro­duc­tive point of view. . . mirac­u­lous, unique use­less­ness.”

And Ka­pus­cin­ski gives us some­thing mirac­u­lous and unique too. He gives us un­der­stand­ing. Mirac­u­lous and unique un­der­stand­ing.

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