The Books: “Shah of Shahs” (Ryszard Kapuscinski)

My history bookshelf. Onward.

Shah%20of%20Shahs.jpgNext book on this shelf is called Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

This is about the fall of the last Shah of Iran and the rise of Khomeini. Kapuscinski was there. He appeared to be here, there, and everywhere, through the 60s and 70s. He was in Teheran when the hostages were taken – he lived in Iran and reported on the events. Again – what I find so fascinating about this book (and his book about Ethiopia) is that he … in a subtle way … uses these books to criticize Communism and the leadership back in his homeland of Poland. He could not openly criticize. That was not allowed. But he could write a blistering book about the Shah of Iran, making all the points he wanted to make about the Soviet Union … Totalitarianism pretty much takes on the same guise from country to country. The people back in Poland would have gotten the point. They would have understood the subtext of Kapuscinski’s book.

Listen to this section of Shah of Shahs where he describes SAVAK, the secret police of the Shah. Doesn’t really take a rocket scientist to figure out that this could also apply to the KGB.

From Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski.

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.


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8 Responses to The Books: “Shah of Shahs” (Ryszard Kapuscinski)

  1. DBW says:

    This is why I get frustrated and angry when so many toss around accusations of “fascism” and “tyranny” in reference to our current administration. For all their faults and missteps, the Bush Administration is light years away from the kind of oppression described in this excerpt. I have no patience with the kind of willful historical ignorance that either doesn’t know that truth–or chooses not to recognize it. In addition to being demagogic hyperbole, it is a base insult to all the millions who have suffered under real tyranny.

  2. DBW says:

    And, in case I haven’t mentioned it lately, you put the hot in hottie, Sheila.

  3. red says:

    Quick story;

    I did a reading of a play a couple years ago about Gertrude Bell – I was the only white girl in it. Everyone else was from Iran. The entire cast, the director, EVERYONE, was from Iran. I was in my GLORY. hahahahaha Everyone had a story – we spent our times after rehearsal drinking wine in a little pizza joint nearby the rehearsal studio – and talking. The lead actor, who played King Faisal – was a TV star in Iran in the 60s and 70s. And with Khomeini’s rise, he saw his chance and got the hell out. You would never have heard of this man. But he was a star in Iran. He walked away from that. WONDERFUL actor. WONDERFUL. With his little bifocals, his calm smile, his … what can I say … his beautiful Persian-ness. I love Persians. I loved talking with him. He taught me some Farsi. One of the other girls in the show was about my age. She was actually a biologist, but very active in the Persian community here in new York – Persian poetry is, of course, hugely important to them – and she recited Persian poetry at poetry slams, and people would stop her on the street (I was with her once when she was stopped) to say: “Oh … I saw you at Nyorican Cafe … so so wonderful – thank you!!” Her story was REALLY interesting: Her parents had immigrated to America in the early 70s – the last days of the Shah … and then – when Khomeni came back – they returned to Iran. not because they were like: “whoo-hoo fundamentalist Islam’ but because it was their homeland, and they were curious to see how the revolution would go. Because rmemeber: Khomeini and his mullahs HIJACKED that revolution. The revolution began with the chant: “THE SHAH MUST GO, THE SHAH MUST GO …” It had nothing to do with Islam. It had to do with freedom and democracy. But Khomeini saw his chance, sitting in his little apartment in Paris … and came back … to take over the revolution. Anyway, this girl in my play with me said, laughing: “All of the planes were LEAVING Iran … and my parents and I were on one of the only planes going INTO Iran …” They stayed there for 5 or 6 years – until they had basically had enough – and moved back to America.

    Sorry … going on and on … I just loved all these people.

    Anyway, back to my POINT … I was talking to the older Persian actor – just asking questions – there were certain things he would not discuss. i am sure I was a pain in his ass, but he treated me kindly, and knew my curious was … innocent. Not biased. But this was interesting: In one of my questions, I said “Savak”.

    Now here we were: It was the year 2002. This man has lived in America for 30 years by now. He is an American citizen. Savak cannot get him now. Savak is long gone. But at the very mention of that word, he jolted – looked at me – and his normal calm kindness was suddenly GONE – it was almost as though I had shocked him with a cattle prod – he wasn’t angry, just jolted – and my question was benign – but it was the WORD ITSELF that brought that response. He got himself together, and said, “My dear, we do not discuss Savak.”

    There was a world of torment and untold stories beneath his words.

    I apologized profusely – I remember I started crying – I was afraid I had insulted this nice nice man – and he assured me that no … no … he was not insulted … but that Savak was still not to be discussed.

    It left a huge impression on me. The difference, obviously, between reading something in a book and LIVING it … but also – the bravery and … courage of this man. He had endured horrors. But here he was, script in hand, doing his work … in a country far far away from his homeland. he has made a life for himself here. He is a success story.

    But “Savak” still has the power to jolt him like a cattle prod.

  4. Ken says:

    When I was at Kent State in the early 1980s, I had a couple of classes with a girl from Iran. Her father had been a mayor or provincial governor or something, and she knew Prince Reza (used to gush about him, in fact). I never got the chance to ask about SAVAK. Based on your experience, probably just as well.

    Your library, as always, is an education for us all. A somber one, sometimes.

  5. red says:

    Ken – your story of that girl makes me think of the book House of Sand and Fog. I mean, the movie, too – but I read the book first so that’s what I think of. So so sad. Hard to imagine, really. The lost dreamworld of the beautiful homeland.

    I grew up in a university town myself – and I remember the influx of Iranian kids into our schools after 1979. I didn’t know what was going on at the time – although I knew about Iran because of the whole hostage thing – but I didn’t REALLY get what was going on and that the entire “intelligentsia” were fleeing … and apparently coming to my home town!!!

  6. red says:

    DBW – for some reason my first comment to you was lost – what? Did I delete it??

    Anyway, I just had to say that you are a man after my own heart. NOT because you think I’m hot – but because you think I’m hot because I ramble about Savak and think that if you use words like “police state” you should actually KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT!!!

  7. red says:

    And I just want to use this comments section to reiterate my promise: i WILL get to Iran some day!! I WILL see that country!! I love their culture so much.

    I had actually started to make preliminary inquiries about getting to Iran in 2000 – I know it’s “out there” and I’m not a journalist and traveling alone, as a woman there, is unthinkable – but I had an Iranian friend who said I could stay with his family. He told me that this was definitely the way to see Iran – hook up with a family, hang out in their house (“Iranians have the best parties!” he told me) and see the country that way. But then sept. 11 happened and .. I just knew it was not the right time.

    But I will definitely go. I have enough Iranian friends that I could basically say “Uhm … could I stay with your aunt??” Also, all my Iranian friends (who all insist on being called Persian by the way) tell me how much Iranians love Americans. My one Persian friend who I had made initial inquiries with about staying with his family said that his entire family are James Joyce freaks. !!!!!

    Ah … it’s a dream, but i SWEAR. Even if I’m 60 or 70 years old, it will come to pass.

  8. DBW says:

    I could go on and on about this–I had a great neighbor who was from Iran. It took a long time before he knew me well enough to entrust me with some of the details of his life in Iran. His stories, while similar to ones we have all heard and read, were stark and very dehumanizing. I don’t know how to convey it, but I was moved that he shared these things with me. It felt like I was being allowed to participate in something sacred or treasured, even though the details were horrible. I have dear friends who never want to hear such things, they aggressively avoid any such discussions. I think it is a mistake not to accept and recognize that there is evil in this world. If we don’t embrace that reality, then we can’t confront and oppose evil effectively.

    By the way, it must be synchronicity. I am reading House of Sand and Fog right now–for the first time. I hope the movie does the book justice, as I plan on watching it tomorrow after finishing the book. Just this morning, I was Googling to see who was in the movie with Ben Kingsley.

    One other thing–years ago, I had some great friends who were film students and glass blowers. We were all poor students, or new graduates. They used to have these great film parties where they would show all these movies on a huge sheet screen on the back of their house. The screen was something like 20 feet by 15 feet. They would rent these things(projector included) from a library or somewhere, and have these huge events. The first time I ever remember thinking about Iran and Afghanistan was at one of their parties. They showed long films about both countries. I remember the end of the one about Iran had the Shah riding a white horse down a long treelined driveway with a huge estate in the background. It was fascinating. I miss those people a lot. My suburban neighbors aren’t quite as cosmopolitan in their entertainments.

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