New Year’s Eve in Teheran, 1979

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

Kapuscinski was in Iran when the American hostages were taken. He had a front-row seat for the entire revolution. On New Year’s Eve, 1979, he takes a stroll at night through Teheran, and walks by the US Embassy.

I’d made up my mind to go to the US Embassy on New Year’s Eve. I wanted to see what this place the whole world was talking about would look like that night.

I left the hotel at eleven. I didn’t have far to walk — a mile and a half, perhaps … The cold was penetrating, the wind dry and frigid; there must have been a snowstorm raging in the mountains. I walked through streets empty of pedestrians and patrols, empty of everyone but a peanut vendor sitting in his booth in Valiahd Square, all wrapped and muffled against the cold in warm scarves like the autumnal vendors on Polna Street in Warsaw. I bought a bag of peanuts and gave him a handful of rials — too many; it was my Christmas present. He didn’t understand. He counted out what I owed him and handed back the change with a serious, dignified expression.

Thus was rejected the gesture I’d hoped would bring me at least a momentary closeness with the only other person I’d encountered in the dead, frozen city.

I walked on, looking at the decaying shop windwos, turned into Takhte-Jamshid, passed a burned-out bank, a fire-scarred cinema, an empty hotel, an unlit airline office.

Finally I reached the Embassy. In the daytime, the place is like a big marketplace, a busy encampment, a noisy political amusement park where you come to scream and let off steam. You can come here, abuse the mighty of the world, and not face any consequences at all. There’s no lack of volunteers; the place is thronged.

But just now, with midnight approaching, there was no one. I walked around what would have been a vast stage long abandoned by the last actors. There remained only pieces of unattended scenery and the disconcerting atmosphere of a ghost town. The wind fluttered the tatters of banners and rippled a big painting of a band of devils warming themselves over the inferno. Further along, Carter in a star-spangled top that was shaking a bag of gold while the inspired Imam Ali prepared for a martyr’s death. A microphone and batteries of speakers still stood on the platform from which excited orators stirred the crowds to wrath and indignation. The sight of those unspeaking loudspeakers deepened the impression of lifelessness, the void.

I walked up to the main entrance. As usual, it was closed with a chain and padlock, since no one had repaired the lock in the gate that the crowd broke when it stormed the Embassy.

Near the gate, two young guards crouched in the cold as they leaned against the high brick wall, automatic rifles slung over their shoulders — students of the Imam’s line. I had the impression they were dozing.

In the background, among the trees, stood the lighted building where the hostages were held.

But much as I scrutinized the windows, I saw no one, neither figure nor shadow. I looked at my watch. It was midnight, at least in Teheran, and the New Year was beginning. Somewhere in the world clocks were striking, champagne was bubbling, elaborate fetes were going on amid joy and elation in glittering, colorful halls. That might have been happening on a different planet form this one where there wasn’t even the faintest sound or glimmer of light. Standing there freezing, I suddenly began wondering why I had left that other world and come here to this supremely desolate, extremely depressing place. I didn’t know. It simply crossed my mind this evening that I ought to be here. I didn’t know any of them, those fifty-two Americans and those two Iranians, and I couldn’t even communicate with them.

Perhaps I had thought something would happen here. But nothing happened.

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