Kapuscinski: The Bus Stop

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

The following is an essay on SAVAK, the Shah’s brutal secret police force:

Savak had a good ear for all allusions. One scorching afternoon an old man with a bad heart turned up at the bus stop and gasped, “It’s so oppressive you can’t catch your breath.” “So it is,” the Savak agent replied immeditaely, edging closer to the winded stranger. “it’s getting more and more oppressive and people are fighting for air.” “Too true,” replied the naive old man, clapping his hand over his heart, “such heavy air, so oppressive.” Immediately the Savak agent barked, “Now you’ll have a chance to regain your strength,” and marched him off.

The other people at the bus stop had been listening in dread, for they had sensed from the beginning that the feeble elderly man was committing an unpardonable error by saying “oppressive” to a stranger.

Experience had taught them to avoid uttering such terms as oppressiveness, darkness, burden, abyss, collapse, quagmire, putrefaction, cage, bars, chain, gag, truncheon, boot, claptrap, screw, pocket, paw, madness, and expressions like lie down, lie flat, spreadeagle, fall on your face, wither away, gotten flabby, go blind, go deaf, wallow in it, something’s out of kilter, something’s wrong, all screwed up, something’s got to give — because all of them, these nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronouns, could hide allusions to the Shah’s regime, and thus formed a connotative minefield where you could get blown to bits with one slip of the tongue.

For a moment, for just an instant, a new doubt flashed through the heads of the people standing at the bus stop: What if the sick old man was a Savak agent too? Because he had criticized the regime (by using “oppressive” in conversation), he must have been free to criticize. If he hadn’t been, wouldn’t he have kept his mouth shut or spoken about such agreeable topics as the fact that the sun was shining and the bus was sure to come along any minute? And who had the right to criticize? Only Savak agents, whose job it was to provoke reckless babblers, then cart them off to jail.

The ubiquitous terror drove people crazy, made them so paranoid they couldn’t credit anyone with being honest, pure, or courageous…

Fear so debased people’s thinking, they saw deceit in bravery, collaboration in courage. This time, however, seeing how roughly the Savak agent led his victim away, the people at the bus stop had to admit that the ailing old man could not have been connected with the police. In any case, the captor and his prey were soon out of sight, and the sole remaining question was: Where did they go?

Nobody actually knew where Savak was located. The organization had no headquarters. Dispersed all over the city (and all over the country), it was everywhere and nowhere. It occupied houses, villas, and apartments no one ever paid attention to…Only those who were in on the secret knew its telephone numbers…Whoever fell into the grip of that organization disappeared without a trace, sometimes forever. People would vanish suddenly and nobody would know what had happened to them, where to go, whom to ask, whom to appeal to. They might be locked up in a prison, but which one? There were six thousand. An invisible, adamant wall would rise up, before which you stood helpless, unable to take a step forward.

Iran belonged to Savak.

It was Savak that banned the plays of Shakespeare and Moliere because they criticized monarchical and aristocratic vices. Savak ruled in the universities, offices, and factories. A monstrously overgrown cephalopod, it entangled everything, crept into every crack and corner, glued its suckers everywhere, ferreted and sniffed in all directions, scratched and bored through every level of existence…

The people waiting at the bus stop knew all this and therefore remained silent once the Savak agent and the old man had gone. They watched each other out of the corners of their eyes, for all they knew the one standing next to them might have to inform…Without wanting to (even though some of them try to hide it so as not to provoke any aggressive outbursts), the people at the bus stop look at each other with loathing. They are inclined to neurotic, disproportionate reactions. Something gets on their nerves, something smells bad, and they move away from each other, waiting to see who goes after whom, who attacks someone first. This reciprocal distrust in the work of Savak…This one, this one, and that one. That one too? Sure, of course.

Everybody.

What I LOVE about this excerpt is that you can see how Kapuscinski – in focusing on life under Savak in Iran – he is criticizing the life he grew up in – life in Poland under the thumb of the Soviet Union. By writing about these other totalitarian regimes, he was able to freely criticize the USSR.

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