Kapuściński: “Uneasy Teheran nights”

From Ryszard Kapuscinski’s book Shah of Shahs (about the last Shah of Iran):

Kapuscinski describes being in Teheran during the revolution:

I walk back upstairs, through the empty corridor, and lock myself in my cluttered room. As usual at this hour I can hear gunfire from the depths of an invisible city. The shooting starts regularly at nine as if custom or tradition had fixed the hour. Then the city falls silent. Then there are more shots and muffled explosions. No one’s upset, no one pays attention or feels directly threatened (no one except those who are shot). Since the middle of February, when the uprising broke out in the city and the crowds seized the army muitions depots, Teheran has been armed, intensely charged, while in streets, houses, under cover of darkness, the drama of assassination is enacted. The underground keeps a low profile during the day, but at night it sends masked combat squads into the city.

These uneasy nights force people to lock themselves in their own homes. There is no curfew, but getting anywhere between midnight and dawn is difficult and risky. The Islamic Militia or the independent combat squads rule the looming, motionless city between those hours. Both are groups of well-armed boys who point their guns at people, cross-examine them, confer among themselves, and occasionally, just to be on the safe side, take those they’ve stopped to jail — from which it is difficult to get out. What’s more, you are never sure who has locked you up, since no identifying marks differentiate the various representatives of violence whom you encounter, no uniforms or caps, no armbands or badges — these are simply armed civilians whose authority must be accepted unquestioningly if you care about your life. After a few days, though, we grow used to them and learn to tell them apart. This distinguished-looking man, in his well-made white shirt and carefully matched tie, walking down the street shouldering a rifle is certainly a militiaman in one of the ministries or central offices. On the other hand, this masked boy (a woolen stocking pulled over his head and holes cut out at eyes and mouth) is a local fedayeen no one’s supposed to know by sight or name. We can’t be sure about these people dressed in green US Army fatigue jackets, rushing by in cars, barrels of guns pointed out the windows. They might be from the militia, but then again they might belong to one of the opposition combat groups (religious fanatics, anarchists, last remnants of Savak [Ed: Savak was the secret police of the Shah]) hurrying with suicidal determination to carry out an act of sabotage or revenge.

But finally it’s no fun trying to predict just whose ambush is waiting for you, whose trap you’ll fall into. People don’t like surprises, so they barricade themselves in their homes at night. My hotel is also locked (at this hour the sound of gunfire mingles with the creaking of shutters rolling down and the slamming shut of gates and doors). No friends will drop by; nothing like that will happen. I have no one to talk to. I’m sitting alone looking through notes and pictures on the table, listening to taped conversations.

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