Kapuściński: “Old Mossy”

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

2 excerpts here, having to do with Dr. Mossadegh, the Prime Minister of Iran in the 50s.

First excerpt: (Kapuscinski looks at a photograph of Mossadegh – and writes the following observations):

This is undoubtedly the greatest day in the long life of Doctor Mossadegh. He is leaving parliament high on the shoulders of an elated crowd. He is smiling and holding up his right hand in greeting to the people. Three days earlier, on April 28, 1951, he became Prime Minister, and today parliament has passed his bill nationalizing the country’s oil. Iran’s greatest treasure has become the property of the nation. We have to enter into the spirit of that epoch, because the world has changed a great deal since. In those days, to dare the sort of act that Doctor Mossadegh just performed was tantamount to dropping a bomb suddenly and unexpectedly on Washington or London. The psychological effect was the same: shock, fear, anger, outrage. Somewhere in Iran, some old lawyer who must be a half-cocked demagogue has pillaged Anglo-Iranian — the pillar of the Empire! Unheard of, unforgiveable! In those years, colonial property was a sacred value, the ultimate taboo. But that day, whose exalted atmosphere the faces in the photograph reflect, the Iranians do not yet know they have committed a crime for which they will have to suffer bitter painful punishment. Right now, all Teheran is living joyous hours of its great day of liberation from a foreign and hated past. Oil is our blood! the crowds chant enthusiastically. Oil is our freedom! The palace shares the mood of the city, and the Shah signs the act of nationalization. It is a moment when all feel like brothers, a rare instant that quickly turns into a memory because accord in the national family is not going to last long. Mossadegh never had good relations with the Pahlavis, father and son. Mossadegh’s ideas had been formed by French culture: A liberal and a democrat, he believed in institutions like parliament and a free press and lamented the state of dependence in which his homeland found itself. The fall of Reza Khan presented a great opportunity for him and those like him.

The monarch, meanwhile, takes more interest in good times and sports than in politics, so there is a chance for democracy in Iran, a chance for the country to win full independence. Mossadegh’s power is so great and his slogans so popular that the Shah ends up on the sidelines. He plays soccer, flies his private airplane, organizes masked balls, divorces and remarries, and goes skiing in Switzerland.

The 2nd Excerpt about Mossadegh – Kapuscinski interviews someone about Mossadegh. Kapuscinski rightly felt that the story of Mossadegh was one of the keys to the tragedy of what happened in Iran. The revolution, which had begun as a revolution for more freedom, more democracy – had been hijacked by the mullahs. And it was all over from there. Anyway, this is a bit of the transcript from that interview:

Do you know that for twenty-five years it was forbidden to utter his name in public? That the name “Mossadegh” was purged from all books, all history texts? And just imagine: Today, young people, who, it was assumed, should know nothing about him, go to their deaths carrying his portrait. There you have the best proof of what such expunging and rewriting history leads to. But the Shah didn’t understand that. He did not understand that even though you can destroy a man, destroying him does not make him cease to exist. On the contrary, if I can put it this way, he begins to exist all the more. These are paradoxes no tyrant can deal with. The scythe swings, and at once the grass starts to grow back…

Mossadegh! The English nicknamed him “Old Mossy”. He drove them crazy, and yet they respected him in a way. No Englishman ever took a shot at him. In the end it was necessary to summon our own uniformed goons. And it took them only a few days to establish that kind of order! Mossy went off to prison for three years. Five thousand people went up against the wall or died in the streets — the price of rescuing the throne. A sad, bloody, dirty re-entry.

You ask if Mossy was fated to lose? He didn’t lose. He won. Such a man can’t be erased from the people’s memories; so he can be thrown out of office but never out of history. The memory is a private possession to which no authority has access.

Mossy said the land we walk on belongs to us and everything we find in that land is ours. Nobody in this country had ever put it that way.

He also said, Let everybody speak out — I want to hear their ideas. Do you understand this? After two and a half millennia of tyrannical degradation he pointed out to the Iranian that he is a thinking being. No ruler had ever done that! People remembered what Mossy said. It stayed in their minds and remains alive to this day. Words that open our eyes to the world are always the easiest to remember. And so it was with those words.

Could anyone say that Mossy was wrong in what he did and said? Today everyone says that he was right, but that the problem is he was right too early. You can’t be right too early, because then you risk your own career and at times your own life. It takes a long time for a truth to mature, and in the meantime people suffer or blunder around in ignorance. But suddenly along comes a man who speaks that truth too soon, before it has become universal, and then the ruling powers strike out at the heretic and burn him at the stake or lock him up or hang him because he threatens their interests or disturbs their peace.

Mossy came out against the monarchical dictatoriship and against the country’s subjugation. Today monarchies are falling one after the other and subjugation has to be masked with a thousand disguises because it arouses such opposition. But he came out against it thirty years ago, when nobody here dared say these obvious things.

“You can’t be right too early.” Truer words.

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