Revolution Redux: The Shah of Shahs
02 Jul 2009 23:20
Revolution Redux: Looking back on Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shah of Shahs
By MATTHEW GHAZARIAN
[TEHRAN BUREAU] It has become popular for analysts of the Middle East to make a comparison between the recent post-election unrest in Iran and the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Last month's violence has been the most widespread the country has seen since the overthrow of the Shah thirty years ago. But there is an argument to be made that recent events bear a greater resemblance to the decades of events leading up to the 1979 revolution--street rallies, state violence, cyclical unrest--and not the revolution itself.
For those less-informed readers who would like to test these comparisons themselves, Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shah of Shahs is an ideal starting point. The book is rich with historical fact but has the powerful detail of a personal memoir. Told from the vantage point of a Polish reporter, it makes few assumptions about the reader's prior knowledge. The book starts with the Pahlavi dynasty's inception and concludes with its downfall; it tells the story of the Shah's fatal flaws and the oppressed society that overthrew him.
Kapuscinski studied history but practiced journalism. The format of his work reflects a marriage of the two. He combines a well-documented historical narrative and a candid journalistic recount of the Iranian Revolution. The wider story is constructed from a series of vignettes based on photographs, notes and audio recordings that he gathered during his stay in Iran. At first, readers may feel barraged by a series of seemingly unrelated anecdotes and descriptions. As the work progresses, though, these smaller stories begin to write the larger story.
Both critics and admirers of Kapuscinski note his abundant use of detail. His descriptions of Iranian secret service illustrate the paranoia that gripped the minds of Iranians during the 50s and 60s. The Shah constructed a culture of fear, allowing his brutal secret service, SAVAK, a free hand in silencing dissidents. SAVAK agents would linger in public places--bus stops, cafes, storefronts--and eavesdrop for subtle expressions of discontent (one man was kidnapped simply for calling the sun's heat "oppressive"). Oftentimes, SAVAK did not need a reason for abducting someone. They would do so simply to reinforce the reigning culture of fear.
"They would kidnap a man as he walked along the street, blindfold him, and lead him straight into the torture chamber without asking a single question. There they would start in with the whole macabre routine--breaking bones, pulling out fingernails, forcing hands into hot ovens, drilling into the living skull, and scores of other brutalities--in the end, when the victim had gone mad with pain and become a smashed, bloody mass, they would proceed to establish his identity. Name? Address?"
This type of attentive detail is typical throughout The Shah of Shahs, setting the book apart from the large number of historical narratives on this period. Rather than merely narrate the discontent and rallies as early as 1963, Kapuscinski offers the reader the bloody details that explain the long-term buildup of Iranian frustration that eventually boiled over in 1979.
Throughout the work, our reporter offers many of his own observations. Kapuscinski explores both the nature of Iran and the nature of societies in general. Having reported on more than twenty-five third world revolutions before Iran, Kapuscinski brings an impressive amount of experience to the table. Even the most informed readers won't take his insights too lightly. "The Shah had created a system capable only of defending itself, but incapable of satisfying the people," he explains. "This was its greatest weakness and the true cause of its ultimate defeat." After last week's violent backlash against June's presidential elections, one can't help but draw some parallels between the popular backlash in Iran of the Shah and the current situation in the Islamic Republic.
Our reporter also explores how Iranians felt about their leader during the 1970s push for modernization. An elated Shah announced a dramatic spike in oil prices set to quadruple Iranian oil revenues. He planned to modernize Iran and build what he called the "Great Civilization" with the new found riches, making Iran the world's "third power" (presumably after the US and USSR). Within one generation, he declared, he would bring Iranians a Western standard of living. Kapuscinski describes the Great Civilization's greatest misstep, its importation of skilled labor and subsequent exclusion of native Iranians. This, he contends, doomed the push to failure and drove many Iranians into deeper resentment for their leader.
"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 Iranians into an inferiority complex... This is a proud people, extremely sensitive about its dignity." This is why, Kapuscinski explains, "the Great Civilization struck Iranians as above all the great humiliation."
Kapuscinski also pinpoints the moment at which the discontent of many Iranians flared into a revolution. He illustrates the shift with a snapshot of a police officer's abortive attempt to disperse protesters.
"The policeman shouts but the man doesn't run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman... he doesn't budge. 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... the policeman turns around and begins to walk heavily back toward his post."
Kapuscinski doesn't limit his pessimism to the regime of the Shah. He also points out that the consequences of the monarchy will echo into Iran's future. "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," he predicts. "It is not always the best people who emerge from hiding." Unlike the many Iranians who welcomed the Islamic Republic with a new found optimism for their country, Kapuscinski's broad experience in the third world allows him to make a sobering prediction, which he passes on to the reader. The Islamic Republic was no godsend, he contends. It too would take the same missteps of the monarchy and it too would devolve into a system "capable only of defending itself, but incapable of satisfying the people." As Iranians today continue to risk their lives in protests expressly forbidden by their Supreme Leader, Kapuscinski's pessimism looks less like cynicism and more like genuine foresight.
Overall, this relatively quick read--an acute historical narrative of roughly 160 pages--is both entertaining and illuminating, given the recent and continuing unrest in Iran. Is the frustrated outcry of the Green Movement simply the sound of a young republic's growing pains, or is it the sound of cracks forming in a crumbling regime? Although Kapuscinski's work does not offer a clear answer, it offers readers the necessary tools to draw their own parallels, ask their own questions, and make their own predictions.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau