February 19, 2009

The boat cemetery

Ryszard Kapucinski in his book Imperium writes:

Central Asia is deserts and more deserts, fields of brown weathered stones, the heat from the sun above, sandstorms.

But the world of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya is different. Arable fields stretch along both rivers, abundant orchards; everywhere profusions of nut trees, apple trees, fig trees, palms, pomegranates...

The waters of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, as well as of their tributaries, allowed famous cities to arise and to flourish --Bukhara and Khiva, Kokand and Samarqand. This way, too, passed the loaded-down caravans of the Silk Road, thanks to which the markets of Venice and Florence, Nice and Seville, acquired their importance and color.

Brezhnev decided to turn all of Uzbekistan into one large cotton plantation. He wanted Uzbekistan to be a showpiece of Bolshevik ingenuity. Environmentalists are rightly angry about what has happened to the Aral Sea, and have spearheaded literally every plan to save it, but to blame it on global warming is not just incorrect, it's a-historical. It's like blaming the famine in the Ukraine in 1933 or the famine in Ireland in 1847 on a couple of years of bad crops. Yes, the powers that be may want you to think that, but those were man-made disasters, conscious and conniving. While perhaps (perhaps! I am not prepared to go that far!) the destruction of the Aral Sea was an unintended consequence of moronic agricultural planning, I do not let the powers-that-be off the hook.

Communism treated nature and the natural world as just another element of production, to be controlled, dominated, manipulated. So that is what Brezhnev set out to do in Uzbekistan: no longer would the people along the two rivers grow fruit, and figs and apples (things they could actually survive on). All of their orchards and green fields were appropriated by the Soviet state, and planted with cotton. The repercussions of this ill-thought-out move were (and are) apocalyptically disastrous.

Uzbekistan is not a natural for cotton plantations. It's a desert. The people along the two great rivers lived in careful equilibrium with nature, growing things to support their communities, carefully handling the water supply, carefully monitoring how many people lived in each oasis ... because oases are not meant to overflow with people. One too many camels, and suddenly your water supply dries up. Brezhnev bulldozed through Uzbekistan, upending all of the orchards, all of the fields, and forced everybody to plant cotton.

Kapuscinski describes this process:

First, bulldozers were brought in from all over the Imperium. The hot metal cockroaches crawled over the sandy plains. Starting from the banks of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, the steel rams began to carve deep ditches and fissures in the sand, into which the water from the rivers was then channeled. They had to dig an endless number of these ditches (and they are still digging them now), considering that the combined length of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya is 3,662 kilometers! Then along those canals, the kolkhoz workers had to plant cotton. At first they planted upon desert barrens, but because there was still not enough of the white fibers, the authorities ordered that arable fields, gardens, and orchards be given over to cotton. It is easy to imagine the despair and terror of peasants from whom one takes the only thing they have -- the currant bush, the apricot tree, the scrap of shade. In villages, cotton was now planted right up against the cottage windows, in former flower beds, in courtyards, near fences. It was planted instead of tomatoes and onions, instead of olives and watermelons. Over these villages drowning in cotton, planes and helicopters flew, dumping on them avalanches of artificial fertilizers, clouds of poisonous pesticides. People choked, they had nothing to breathe, went blind.

The rivers Amu and Syr Darya had been doing their thing for millennia. By diverting the waters of the rivers, by imposing an artificial restriction on them, the delicate balance of the desert land changed ... and it changed rapidly.


The fields of rice and wheat, the green meadows, the stands of kale and paprika, the plantations of peaches and lemons, all vanished. Everywhere, as far as the eye could see, cotton grew. Its fields, its white drowsy sea, stretched for tens, hundreds of kilometers.

Grigory Reznichenko wrote a book in 1989 called The Aral Catastrophe, and he elaborates:

Around 20 million people live in the countryside in Central Asia. Two-thirds work with cotton and really with nothing else besides. Farmers, gardeners, orchard keepers have all had to change profession -- they are now employed as laborers on cotton plantations. Coercion and fear compel them to work with cotton. Coercion and fear, for it surely isn't money. One earns pennies harvesting cotton. And the work is tiring and monotonous. To fulfill his daily quota, a man mustbend down ten to twelve thousand times. An atrocious, forty-degree heat [Celsius], air that stinks of virulent chemicals, aridity, and constant thirst destroy the human being, especially women and children ... people pay with their health and their life for the personal well-being and power of a handful of demoralized careerists.

The "careerists" in Moscow would agree upon, beforehand, the amount of the coming cotton harvest. It was always a number which was completely unattainable. Then when the smaller harvest came in, Brezhnev and his nitwits would inflate the numbers and spread positive propaganda about the miracle they had worked in Uzbekistan. The "cotton mafia" got rich off of the completely imaginary massive cotton harvests. And the people working the cotton starved, because no longer could they feed themselves with their own orchards.

But all of this is pretty much just the normal tragedy (with different details) of all of the republics in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Communists raped the land, enslaved the citizens, and closed the borders. This is all par for the course.

What makes the tragedy in Uzbekistan stand out is the Aral Sea, the once-beautiful and vital Aral Sea, a sea which, in a matter of 25 years, has dried up off the face of the earth, creating global ecological issues.

The Soviets over-taxed the Amu and Syr Darya rivers, they cut tributaries into the desert, to divert the water where they wanted it to go. And almost immediately (the balance of nature is so delicate in any desert), both of the ancient and great rivers began to dry up, and shrink to nothing. Amu and Syr are what feed the Aral Sea. So the drying up of the two rivers had massive consequences for the Aral Sea, which began to shrink. It shrank so rapidly that if you look at satellite photographs of the sea, from 1967 to 1997, you see it almost completely disappear.

Kapuscinski again:

The waters of the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya, instead of flowing into the Aral Sea, were, according to man's will, sqandered along the way, spilled over fields, over unending deserts, along an immense distance of more than 3000 kilometers. For this reason, the calm and broad currents of both powerful rivers -- the only source of life in this part of the world -- instead of swelling and intensifying in the course of their journey (as is customary in nature), began to decline, to shrink, to get narrower and shallower, until, short of reaching the sea, they were transformed into salty, poisoned, and muddy pools, into spongy and foul-smelling ditches, into treacherous puddles of duckweed, finally sinking below ground and disappearing from view.

So the rivers shrink. Because the river shrinks, the sea disappears. And then there's the issue with salt. Here's some info about what the Aral Sea once was (I got this from the Aral Sea homepage):

The salt deposits rising to the surface because of the shrinking of the rivers destroyed the land, and because of all the windstorms and duststorms common to deserts, these salt deposits also ruined the atmosphere. This was exacerbated by all of the pesticides which had soaked into the land over the decades, so the pesticides are stirred up by the windstorms, and spread, ruining the air for miles and miles around.

Kapuscinski on the salt problem:

It is a known fact that a dozen or so meters below the surface of every desert lie large deposits of concentrated salt. If water is conducted to it, the salt, together with the moisture, will rise to the surface. And that is exactly what happened now in Uzbekistan. The concealed, crushed, deeply secreted salt started to move upward, to regain its liberty. The golden land of Uzbekistan, which was first cloaked in the white of cotton, was now glazed over with a lustrous crust of white salt.

But one doesn't have to study the ground. When the wind blows, one can taste the salt on one's lips, on one's tongue. It stings the eyes.


The Aral Sea and its tributaries provided sustenance for 3 million people. But the fate of this sea and its two rivers also impinges on the situation of all the inhabitants of this region, of whom there are 32 million.

The Soviet authorities have long worried about how to reverse the disaster -- the destruction of the Aral Sea, the ruination of half of Central Asia. It is after all well known that the unprecedented increase in cotton cultivation has led to a tragic shortage of water, a shortage that is destroying a large part of the world (a fact which to this day continues to be concealed).

Then, of course, the USSR collapsed. Although the USSR was an ungainly bohemoth, an "evil empire", and although this whole mess was their fault in the first place, they still were the only ones aware enough of the problem to try to find solutions. Granted their "solutions" were insane: bombing glaciers in the Tienshan and Pamir mountains, for example, so that the run-off would flood the land again was one of their bright ideas, or redirecting the rivers of Siberia (thousands and thousands and thousands of miles away) to come down into Uzbekistan, so that Brezhnev's crazy dream of a Land of Cotton could be realized. This, if they had followed through with it, of course would have meant the ruination of Siberia.

Once the USSR collapsed, Uzbekistan was completely abandoned. All of the Russians who knew how to do anything fled the country, leaving it in the hands of a down-trodden uneducated populace, a populace who still remembers the sea, but who now live in a stinking polluted desert, with nowhere to go. And so the Aral Sea has died.

Environmental groups all over the world have stepped in, to try to save the situation. The Soviets had enslaved the Uzbeks and had given them no sense of agency in their destinies, they just were forced to harvest the cotton imposed on them, and tried to live their lives, while the environmental disaster in their own country intensified almost on a minute to minute basis. People die much earlier there. People get weird unclassifiable diseases. People are poisoned.

It's a lost cause.

So the Aral Sea is shrinking, and a process of "desertification" is taking place. The sands growing more and more insistent, taking over more and more acreage ... there are photos of once flourishing fishing villages overrun by giant dunes.

Kapuscinski, on his travels, visits Muynak, which was, literally only a couple of years ago, a fishing port on the Aral Sea.

[Muynak] now stands in the middle of the desert; the sea is 60 to 80 kilometers from here. Near the settlement, where the port once was, rusting carcasses of trawlers, cutters, barges, and other boats lie in the sand. Despite the fact that the paint is peeling and falling off, one can still make out some of the names: Estonia, Dagestan, Nahodka. The place is deserted; there is no one around ...

It is a sad settlement -- Muynak. It once lay in the spot where the beautiful life-giving Amu Darya flowed into the Aral Sea, an extraordinary sea in the heart of a great desert. Today, there is neither river nor sea. In the town the vegetation has withered; the dogs have died. Half the residents have left, and those who stayed have nowhere else to go. They do not work, for they are fishermen, and there are no fish. Of the Aral Sea's 178 species of fish and frutti di mare, only 38 remain. Besides, the sea is far away; how is one to get there across the desert? If there is no strong wind, people sit on little benches, leaning against the shabby and crumbling walls of their decrepit houses. It is impossible to ascertain how they make a living; it is difficult to communicate with them about anything. They are Karakalpaks -- they barely speak any Russian, and the children no longer speak Russian at all. If one smiles at the people sitting against the walls, they become even more gloomy, and the women veil their faces. Indeed, a smile does look false here, and laughter would sound like the screech of a rusty nail against glass.

Children play in the sand with a plastic bucket that's missing a handle. Ragged, skinny, sad. I did not visit the nearest hospital, which is on the other side of the sea, but in Tashkent I was shown a film made in that hospital. For every 1000 children born, 100 die immediately. And those that survive? The doctor picks up in his hands little white skeletons, still alive, although it is difficult to tell.

One of my goals in life is to someday see the "boat cemetery" in the now-dried-up Aral Sea. It would be a terrible trip, haunting and sad (I am haunted by the big sign with a fish on it, from where a fish market used to be - now surrounded by a huge desert) ... but it is something I have been longing to see for about ten years now, maybe more.

Sometimes, in quieter moments, I suddenly think about those boats sitting in the desert all the way across the world. They're there right now, rusting and being eaten up by the rapidly-spreading dunes.

It's something I think it is important to acknowledge, first of all ... but it's also something I just really want to see.



















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December 31, 2007

2007 Year in Pictures

Tribute to Ryzsard Kapuscinski at the New York Public Library. Rest in peace.


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April 29, 2007

Tribute to Ryszard Kapuscinski

My heart is so full. The place was standing room only. The line was (literally) around the block. It went from the door on 42nd Street all the way to 6th Avenue. I heard Polish being spoken in line, we all had dog-eared copies of Kapuscinski's books - I heard one young woman, she was probably 23 years old if she was a day, say to her friend, "I think The Emperor might be favorite of his. What's yours?" It is always a great comfort to me to find "my own kind". To show up for a matinee on a Sunday, a tribute to this great writer - and to find hundreds and hundreds of people who had the same idea. It was a bright sunny day, and we queued up - making quite a spectacle, the line snaking around Bryant Park. "What is this for?" people asked, drawn to us. Someone would answer, "Tribute to Ryszard Kapuscinski." "Who?" someone asked. But then someone else thought a bit, nodded seriously and said, "Oh!"

I think one of my favorite parts of the entire day was when the Polish writer and newspaper editor Adam Michnik got up to speak, a longtime friend of Mr. Kapuscinski. His English was halting, so he spoke with a translator - a tall laconic gentlemen over to the side, holding a microphone - who was the striking resemblance of George Plimpton (his name was Jan Gross). Anyway, the Mr. Michnik was red-faced, jovial - (oh, and the entire panel was drinking vodka the entire time ... in tribute to Kapuscinski and his love of life, good alcohol, companionship, and recklessness. It was great - there was Salman Rushdie, raising his glass of vodka to the memory of his dead friend ...) But anyway, the Michnik spoke, and it was obvious the vodka was having some effect - he was humorous, and anecdotal - he didn't stand on ceremony, he told very funny stories about Kapuscinski- and I loved him. But it was great because there were, of course, huge numbers of Polish speaking people in the audience (most of them sitting in the first 10 or so rows) - so he would come to the punchline of some joke, in Polish - and there would be a huge spontaneous thunderclap of laughter from the front, from the Poles ... then our Plimpton-esque translator would tell us the punchline in English 2 seconds later - and all of the English speakers in the audience would burst into a huge thunderclap of laughter. It came in waves. Like a time-released punchline, reverberating backwards in concentric circles. Laugh from front ... pause ... laugh from back ... and so it went, on and on, throughout the Michnik's entire speech. It was gorgeous. The interconnectedness of it, but also the separation - by language ... and yet humor is universal. We just might not "get it" at the same moment. It (to me) was the biggest tribute to Kapuscinski's overwhelming humanistic appeal: those time-lapsed waves of laughter. The jokes making it through the translation. The message received.

I took some grainy pictures below. Salman Rushdie was marvelous. The dry wit ... obviously very comfortable with public speaking - he appeared to speak off the cuff. Maybe he had some notes - but he didn't refer to them often. He just sipped his vodka and told funny stories. He related a tale about a time he and Kapuscinski had in London - a stage production of Kapuscinski's book The Emperor was going on - and protests were being staged outside the theatre.

Rushdie said to us (and his timing was impeccable - it was all in the pauses):

"Speaking as someone whose writing has ...... occasionally ... generated .... protests ......"

HUGE laugh.

It was the "occasionally" that made the joke.

And what an unbelievable pleasure it was to see my husband, Philip Gourevitch, in the flesh, for the first time. To hear him speak. My God. I admire him so much. I love his writing so much. Man, what a day.

Crowded. Photos of and by Kapuscinski were projected up onto huge screens around the room.


The ceiling in that room never ceases to amaze me.


The man of the day.


Another funny anecdote from Rushdie. Back in the early 80s - when Kapuscinski's books were starting to come out - he and Rushdie were part of the same publishing house in London. Rushdie, young, ambitious ... had never heard of Kapuscinski. He walks into the editor's office and the editor says to him in a portentous dramatic tone, "I have just read what I believe might be the best book ever written." (A lot of Rushdie's charm and humor was in how he told the story ... just the WAY he related the editor's words told us the whole thing - Rushdie felt jealous. He wanted the editor to be saying that about HIS book.) Rushdie, feeling jealous, said, "What's the book?" Editor said, "It's a book about Haile Selassie by a Polish writer." Long pause. Rushdie then said, "Well, that certainly sounds like the best book ever written."

So dry, so funny!!!

(Excerpt from "the best book ever written" here)


Another quote from Rushdie, on Kapuscinski's time in Africa: "He was sentenced to death every Tuesday."

Here's a grainy shot of the panel. Rushdie clearly seen over on the right ... and Gourevitch clearly seen over on the left.


The organizer of the event asked Kapuscinski once about the many times he had been thrown in prison in Africa during the 60s and 70s. I think it was over 40 times, and he had gotten a "death sentence" 4 times. Crazy decades in Africa, anarchy, etc. Kapuscinski, with his gentle self-effacing way, told a story about how he was in a dark cell, and the guards kept throwing in poisonous snakes with him. Kapuscinski's verdict on the whole thing, as he re-told the story? "It was ..... not so good." Never one for dramatizing the alreaady dramatic. Although he put himself in all of his books, it was never in a self-aggrandizing way. But it is true that after his time in the prison cell with the poisonous snakes - this particular imprisonment went on for 2 weeks, I think, and by the time they let him out - freed him from the pitch-black room with the poisonous snakes - his hair had gone completely white.

God, I love his face:


Rushdie asked him once about all of the times he had faced death while trying to get the story out to the wire service. Rushdie asked him, "How do you do it?" Kapuscinski had to answer that question a lot - he was asked often, "Are you attracted to danger?" He was always so incredulous at the stupidity of that question. He saw nothing attractive about danger - that's the whole point of his books. But in order to write them, he needed to be there, not behind some desk. - His whole essay about what happens to a man when he sits behind a desk is vintage Kapuscinski. So anyway, Rushdie was hearing the 100th story about Kapuscinski somehow conniving his way through some flaming checkpoint in Uganda, with rifles pointed at his head, and drunken soldiers rifling through his papers ... and Rushdie asked, "How do you do it? How do you escape death so many times?" Kapuscinski thought a bit and then said, "I make myself unimportant. I make myself seem unworthy of the assassins bullet."

Here's Rushdie at the podium - you can't see it, but he has a huge glass of vodka next to him.


Gourevitch spoke eloquently about Kapuscinski's thing as a writer. I loved one thing he said - he said that Kapuscinski is a 'great artist of the pixel'. And you know - thinking of his various books - it is the minutia that sticks with you: the cushion-bearer in Selassie's court, the long treatise on making cognac in the Imperium, the image of the pool hall built by the Soviets in what was once a mosque in Samarqand ... the old Muslims sitting outside under a tree, with the sound of pool balls clacking around the green baize table in what was once their holy place ... Oh, and so much more. The little puddle-jumping girl in Irkutsk. The wooden city in Angola floating away into the ocean (excerpt here). The gin-soaked nights in Ghana. The entire essay on the soccer war (excerpt here). His long essay on the Armenians. Their books. (excerpt here) Gourevitch told a very funny story too about how Kapuscinski was once asked to be on a panel discussing foreign policy issues - I can't remember which country, maybe it was the EU, I don't know. But it was to be a highly detailed conversation regarding this or that policy, this or that bill. He sat there, and was asked what he thought of such and such policy. He had never heard of any of them. He was not a wonk. He did not go in for the tiny details of government. He abhorred them - they were dehumanizing.

But his books! Look to his books.

Here's Gourevitch speaking.


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March 5, 2007

Idi Amin, continued


At some point, Barbet Schroeder's documentary will arrive in the telltale little red Netflix envelope ... I think I need to get through Triumph of the Will and Sudden Fear first. Regardless - the Idi Amin theme continues. AC took it up here. And here. And I went back to look through my main man Ryszard's book Shadow of the Sun for his chapter on Uganda. Here's a bit of it:

Excerpt from Shadow of the Sun by Ryzsard Kapuscinski:

I once considered writing a book about Amin, because he is such a glaring example of the relation between crime and low culture. I was in Uganda many times, saw Amin more than once; I have a small library of books about him, and stacks of my own notes. He is the most well known dictator in the history of contemporary Africa and one of the most famous in the twentieth century the world over.

Amin belongs to a small ethnic group called the Kakwa, whose territory encroaches on three countries: Sudan, Uganda, and Zaire. The Kakwa do not know to which country they belong, although they view this question with indifference, preoccupied as they are with something else: how to survive despite the poverty and hunger that prevail in this remote region without roads, cities, electricity, and cultivatable land. Anyone with some initiative, wits, and luck runs as far away from here as possible. But not every direction is a propitious one. Whoever goes west will only worsen his circumstances, because he will stumble upon the thickest jungles of Zaire. Those setting off northward also err, because they will arrive at the sandy, rock-strewn threshold of the Sahara. Only the southerly direction holds promise: there the Kakwa will find the fertile lands of central Ugagnda, the lush and splendid garden of Africa.

It is there, after giving birth to her son, that Amin's mother makes her way, the infant on her back. She comes to the second-largest city (or, rather, town) in Uganda after Kampala -- Jinja. Like thousands of others at that time, and millions upon millions today, she arrives in the hope of surviving, in the hope that life here will be better. She has no skills, no contacts, and no money. But one can make a living in a variety of ways: through petty trade, brewing and selling beer, or operating a portable sidewalk eatery. Amin's mother has a pot and cooks millet in it. She sells portions on banana leaves. Her daily earnings? A serving of millet for herself and her son.

This woman, who made her way with her child from a poor village in the north to a town in the wealthier south, became part of the population that today constitutes Africa's biggest problem. It is composed of tens of millions who have abandoned the countryside and migrated to the monstrously swollen cities without securing adequate housing or employment. In Uganda they are called bayaye. You will notice them at once, because it is they who form the street crowds, so different from ones in Europe. In Europe, the man on the street is usually heading toward a definite goal. The crowd has a direction and a rhythm, which is frequently characterized by haste. In an African city, only some of the people behave this way. The others are not going anywhere: they have nowhere to go, and no reason to go there. They drift this way and that, sit in the shade, stare, nap. They have nothing to do. No one is expecting them. Most often, they are hungry. The slightest street spectacle -- a quarrel, a fight, the apprehension of a theif -- will instantly draw large numbers of them. For they are everwhere around here, idle, awaiting who knows what, living who knows how -- the gapers of the world.

The principal characteristic of their stance is rootlessness. They will not return to the countryside, and there is no place for them in the city. They endure. Somehow, they exist. Somehow: that is how best to describe their situation, its fragility, its uncertainty. Somehow one lives, somehow one sleeps, somehow, from time to time, one eats. This unreality and impermanence of existence cause the bayaye to feel himself in continuous danger, and so he is increasingly tormented by fear. His fear is amplified by his condition as a stranger, an unwanted immigrant from another culture, religion, language. A foreign, extraneous competitor for the contents of the cooking pot, which is empty anyway, and for work, of which there isn't any.

Amin is a typical bayaye.

He grows up in the streets of Jinja. The town housed a battalion of the British colonial army, the King's African Rifles. The model for this army was devised toward the end of the nineteenth century by General Lugard, one of the architects of the British Empire. It called for divisions composed of mercenaries recruited from tribes hostile toward the population on whose territory they were to be garrisoned: an occupying force, holding the locals on a tight rein. Lugard's ideal soldiers were young, well-built men from the Nilotic (Sudanese) populations, which distinguished themselves by their enthusiasm for warfare, their stamina, and their cruelty. They were called Nubians, a designation that in Uganda evoked a combination of distaste and fear. The officers and non-commissioned officers of this army, however, were for many years exclusively Englishmen. One day, one of them noticed a young African with a Herculean physique hanging around the barracks. It was Amin. He was quickly enlisted. For people like him -- without a job, without possibilities -- military service was like winning the lottery. He had barely four years of elementary schooling, but because he was deemed obedient and eager to anticipate the wishes of his commanders, he began advancing rapidly through the ranks. He also gained renown as a boxer, becoming the Ugandan heavyweight champion. During colonial times, the army was dispatched on countless expeditions of oppression: against the Mau Mau insurgents, against the warriors of the Turkana tribe, or against the independent people of the Karimojong. Amin distinguished himself in these campaigns: he organized ambushes and attacks, and was merciless toward his adversaries.

It is the fifties, and the era of independence is fast approaching. Africanization has arrived, even in the military. But the British and French officers want to remain in control for as long as possible. To prove that they are irreplaceable, they promote the third-rate from among their African subordinates, those not too quick, but obedient, transforming them in a single day from corporals and sergeants into colonels and generals. Bokassa in the Central African Republic, for exmaple, Soglo in Dahomey, Amin in Uganda.

When in the fall of 1962 Uganda becomes an independent state, Amin is already, because of promotions by the British, a general, and deputy commander of the army. He takes a look around him. Although he has high rank and position, he comes from the Kakwa, a small community and one, moreover, that is not regarded as native Ugandan. Meantime, the preponderance of the army comes from the Langi tribe, to which Prime Minister Milton Obote belongs, and from the related Acholi. The Langi and the Acholi treat the Kakwa superciliously, seeing them as benighted and backward. We are navigating here in the paranoid, obsessive realm of ethnic prejudice, hatred, and antipathy -- albeit an intra-Africa one: racism and chauvinism emerge not only along the most obvious divides, e.g., white versus black, but are equally stark, stubborn and implacable, perhaps even more so, among peoples of the same skin color. Indeed, most white who have died in the world have died at the hands not of blacks, but of other whites, and likewise the majority of black lives taken in the past century were taken by other blacks, not by white. And so it follows, for example, that on account of ethnic bigotry, no one in Uganda will care whether Mr. XY is wise, kind, and friendly, or the reverse, evil and loathsome; they will care only whether he is of the tribe of Bari, Toro, Busoga, or Nandi. This is the sole criterion by which he will be classified and evaluated.

For its first eight years of independence, Uglanda is ruled by Milton Obote, an extraordinarily conceited man, boastful and sure of himself. When it is exposed in the press that Amin has misappropriated the cash, gold, and ivory given him for safekeeping by anti-Mobutu guerrillas from Zaire, Obote summons Amin, orders him to pen an explanation, and, confident that he himself is in no danger, flies off to Singapore for a conference of prime ministers of the British Commonwealth. Amin, realizing that the prime minister will arrest him as soon as he returns, decides on a preemptive strike: he stages an army coup and seizes power. Theoretically at least, Obote in fact had little to worry about: Amin did not represent an obvious threat, and his influence in the army was ultimately limited. But beginning on the night of January 25, 1971, when they took over the barracks in Kampala, Amin and his supporters employed a brutally efficient surprise tactic: they fired without warning. And at a precisely defined target: soldiers from the Langi and Achole tribes. The surprise had a paralyizing effect: no one had time to mount a resistance. On the very first day, hundreds died in the barracks. And the carnage continued. Henceforth, Amin always used this method: he would shoot first. And not just at his enemies; that was self-evident, obvious. He went further: he liquidated without hesitation those he judged might one day develop into enemies. Over time, terror in Amin's state also came to depend on universal torture. Before they died, people were routinely tormented.

All this took place in a provincial country, in a small town. The torture chambers were located in downtown buildings. The windows were open -- we are in the tropics. Whoever was walking along the street could hear cries, moans, shots. Whoever fell into the hands of the executioners vanished. A category soon emerged, then grew and grew, of those who in Latin America are called desaparecidos: those who have perished, disappeared. He left his house and never returned. "Nani?" the policeman routinely replied, if a family member demanded an explanation. "Nani?" (In Swahili the word means 'who"; the individiual is reduced to a question mark.)

Uganda started to metamorphose into a tragic, bloody stage upon which a single actor strutted -- Amin. A month after the coup Amin named himself president, then marshal, then field marshal, and finally field marshal for life. He pinned upon himself ever more orders, medals, decorations. But he also liked to walk about in ordinary battle fatigues, so that soldiers would say of him, "You see, he's one of us." He chose his cars in accordance with his outfits. Wearing a suit to a reception, he drove a dark Mercedes. Out for a spin in a sweat suit? A red Maserati. Battle fatigues? A military Range Rover. The last resembled a vehicle from a science-fiction movie. A forest of antennas protruded from it, all kinds of wires, cables, spotlights. Inside were grenades, pistols, knives. He went about this way because he constantly feared attempts on his life. He survived several. Everyone else died in them -- his aides-de-camp, his bodyguards. Amin alone would brush off the dust, straighten his uniform. To cover his tracks, he also rode in unmarked cars. People walking down a street would suddenly realize that the man sitting behind the wheel of that truck was Amin.

He trusted no one, therefore even those in his innermost circle did not know where he would be sleeping tonight, where he would be living tomorrow. He had several residences in the city; several more on the shores of Lake Victoria, still others in the countryside. Determining his whereabouts was both difficult and dangerous. He communicated with every subordinate directly, decided whom he would speak with, whom he wished to see. And for many, such a meeting would prove the last. If Amin became suspicious of someone, he would invite him over. He would be pleasant, friendly, treat his guest to a Coca-Cola. Executioners awaited the visitor as he left. Later, no one could determine what had happened to the man.

Amin usually telephoned his subordinates, but he also used the radio. Whenever he announced changes in the government or in the ranks of the military -- and he was constantly instituting changes -- he would do so over the airwaves.

Uganda had one radio station, one small newspaper (Uganda Argus), one camera, which filmed Amin, and one photojournalist, who would appear for ceremonial occasions. Everything was directed exclusively at the figure of the marshal. Moving from place to place, Amin in a sense moved the state with him; outside of him, nothing happened, nothing existed. Parliament did not exist, there no political parties, trade unions, or other organizations. And, of course, no opposition -- those suspected of dissent died painful deaths.

Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (4)

February 27, 2007

There appears to be a theme

running through my life these days .. an Idi Amin theme ... Suddenly he's everywhere.

First of all - Ryzsard Kapuscinski was working on a book about Idi Amin when he died - Or maybe he finished it, not sure. One of the chapters in his book about Africa was devoted to Idi Amin - awesome, it was my favorite chapter.

Second of all - Forest Whitaker's brilliant piece of acting - which just won him an Oscar. I'm so happy. That guy (Whitaker, I mean) has been around forever and ... I'm just always so happy to see him. He makes a movie better just by being in it. (Ahem. Ahem. However, even he couldn't save this monstrosity - but I consider that a point in his FAVOR, actually.) Integrity oozes off of him.

Third of all - I added Barbet Shroeder's documentary about Idi Amin on my Netflix queue (hahaha, I have to keep reminding myself of the coolness of my Netflix queue - Yeah, whatever, I have a Netflix queue, yeah, uh huh, it's not a big deal, whatever) ... but anyway. I've heard about this documentary for years - it sounds chilling, and ... well, right up my alley. Wacko dictator? Throbbing personality cult? Corruption, violence, political insanity? Count me in. So that will arrive whenever.

Fourth of all - I go to one of my favorite sites this morning - and see this.

Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (14)

January 24, 2007

Oh no

No. No! I am so sad right now. Ryszard Kapuscinski has passed away. He's a longtime idol of mine. His work means so much to me. Shit. He has one more book coming out. Travels with Herodotus.

I'm in tears. Rest in peace, great great writer. Rest in peace.

God. I'm just gonna miss knowing that he's out there. This feels like a personal loss to me.


I love this man.

Rest in peace. Thank you.

Posted by sheila Permalink

June 28, 2004

More Kapuscinski

For those of you who are interested in this interesting writer, the student of revolutions, here are some more quotes (I'm just not up to writing anything original today. Burnt out.)

The following is from The Soccer War - one of his essays on Ghana:

In those days, the 1960s, the world was very interested in Africa. Africa was a puzzle, a mystery. Nobody knew what would happen when 300 million people stood up and demanded the right to be heard. States began to be established there, and the states bought armaments, and there was speculation in foreign newspapers that Africa might set out to conquer Europe. Today it is impossible to contemplate such a prospect, but that time, it was a concern, an anxiety. It was serious. People wanted to know what was happening on the continent: where was it headed, what were its intentions?

The so-called exotic has never fascinated me, even though I came to spend more than a dozen years in a world that is exotic by definition. I did not write about hunting crocodiles or head-hunters, although I admit they are interesting subjects. I discovered instead a different reality, one that attracted me more than expeditions to the villages of witch doctors or wild animal reserves. A new Africa was being born -- and this was not a figure of speech or a platitude from an editorial. The hour of its birth was sometimes dramatic and painful, sometimes enjoyable and jubilant; it was always different (from our point of view) from anything we had known, and it was exactly this difference that struck me as new, as the previously undescribed, as exotic.

I thought the best way to write about this Africa was to write about the man who was its greatest figure, a politician, a visionary, a judge and a sorcerer - Kwame Nkrumah.

Posted by sheila Permalink

June 26, 2004


Ryszard Kapuscinski, one of my own personal idols, has spent his entire life reporting on revolutions across the world. His books include:

Another Day of LIfe - the story of the civil war in Angola. Kapuscinski was there.

The Emperor - the story of the overthrow of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia

The Soccer War - considered a journalism classic. This is Kapuscinski's compiled writings on all of the revolutions he had witnessed: Central America, Africa, and more. Wherever a revolution broke out, Kapuscinski was there. Great book.

Imperium - maybe my favorite of his. Kapuscinski's sweeping book on the Soviet Union. As a Polish person, Kapuscinski had personally experienced the tyranny, and this is his book detailing it.

The Shadow of the Sun - Kapuscinski's latest book. All about Africa - of course focusing on the revolutions. "Revolution" is his theme.

Kapuscinski wrote many of these books while living under Soviet tyranny and oppressing and censorship. He couldn't write the book he wanted to write, criticizing the Soviet regime - and so he instead wrote books about other countries. But his books are obviously criticisms of totalitarian and fascistic regimes in general - it was his indirect way of telling the truth about what was going on in the Soviet Union.

The first book of his I read was Shah of Shahs - about the last Shah of Iran, and the revolution which toppled him.

Kapuscinski was there.

If you haven't picked up one of his books, I highly recommend it.

He's one of those writers who gets his head above the muck, the mire - and can take a long view, a large picture.

In these uncertain times, I think trying to look at a large picture is essential. Even if we have to squint. Robert Kaplan, another hero of mine, is immersing himself in classical history right now, the history of the ancients. There are lessons there for all of us. That's one of the reasons why I'm finally reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. I need the perspective of history. And long history. Ancient history. We ignore history at our peril.

That is the message of Rebecca West, and it's Kapuscinski's message as well.

I've compiled a bunch of quotes. It's the tip of the ice berg. But it gives you a feel for what he's about, if you haven't read him.

Posted by sheila Permalink | Comments (3)

Kapuscinski: 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.

Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution XI

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

Dissent soon broke out in the revolutionary camp. Everyone had opposed the Shah and wanted to remove him, but everyone had imagined the future differently. Some thought that the country would become the sort of democracy they knew from their stays in France and Switzerland. But these were exactly the people who lost first in the battle that began once the Shah was gone. They were intelligent people, even wise, but weak. They found themselves at once in a paradoxical situation: A democracy cannot be imposed by force, the majority must favor it, yet the majority wanted what Khomeini wanted -- an Islamic republic.

When the liberals were gone, the proponents of the republic remained. But they began fighting among themselves as well. In this struggle the conservative hardliners gradually gained the upper hand over the enlightened and open ones. I knew people from both camps, and whenever I thought about the people I sympathized with, pessimism swept over me.

The leader of the enlightened ones was Bani Sadr. Slim, slightly stooping, always wearing a polo shirt, he would walk around, persuade, constantly enter into discussions. He had a thousand ideas, he talked a lot -- too much -- he dreamed incessantly of new solutions, he wrote books in a difficult, obscurre style. In these countries an intellectual in politics is always out of place. An intellectual has too much imagination, he tends to hesitate, he is liable to go off in all directions at once. What good is a leader who does not know himself what he ought to stand up for?

Beheshti, the hardliner, never behaved in this way. He would summon his staff and dictate instructions, and they were all grateful to him beause now they knew how to act and what to do. Beheshti held the reins of the Shiite leadership, Bani Sadr commanded his friends and followers. Bani Sadr's power base lay among the intelligentsia, the students, and the mujahedeen. Beheshti's base was a crowd waiting for the call of the mullahs. It was clear that Bani Sadr had to lose. But Beheshti too would fall before the hand of the Charitable and Merciful One [Khomeini].

Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution X

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

Revolution attaches great importance to symbols, destroying some monuments and setting up others to replace them in the hope that through metaphor it can survive. And what of the people? Once again they had become pedestrian citizens, going somewhere, standing around street fires warming their hands, part of the dull landscape of a grey town. once again each was alone, each for himself, closed and taciturn. Could they still have been waiting for something to happen, for some extraordinary event? I don't know, I can't say.

Everything that makes up the outward, visible part of a revoltuion vanishes quickly. A person, an individual being, has a thousand ways of conveying his feeligs and thoughts. He is riches without end, he is a world in which we can always discover something new. A crowd, on the other hand, reduces the individuality of the person; a man in a crowd limits himself to a few forms of elementary behavior. The forms through which a crowd can express its yearnings are extraordinarily meager and continually repeat themselves: the demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricades. That is why you can write a novel about a man, but about a crowd -- never. If the crowd disperses, goes home, does not reassemble, we say that the revolution is over.

Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution IX

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

[The Shah] also perished because he did not know his own country. He spent his whole life in the palace. When he would leave the palace, he would do it like someone sticking his head out the door of a warm room into the freezing cold. Look around a minute and duck back in! Yet the same structure of destructive and deforming laws operates in the life of all palaces. So it has been from time immemorial, so it is and shall be. You can build ten new palaces, but as soon as they are finished they become subject to the same laws that existed in the palaces built five thousand years ago. The only solution is to treat the palace as a temporary abode, the same way you treat a streetcar or a bus. You get on, ride a while, and then get off.

And it's very good to remember to get off at the right stop and not ride too far.

Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution VIII

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

The Shah's vanity did him in. He thought of himself as the father of his country, but the country rose against him. He took it to heart and felt it keenly. At any price (unfortunately, even blood) he wanted to restore the former image, cherished for years, of a happy people prostate in gratitude before their benefactor. But he forgot that we are living in times when people demand rights, not grace.
Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution VII

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

A despot believes that man is an abject creature. Abject people fill his court and populate his environment. A terrorized society will behave like an unthinking, submissive mob for a long time. Feeding it is enough to make it obey. Provided with amusements, it's happy. The rather small arsenal of political tricks has not changed in millennia.

Thus, we have all the amateurs in politics, all the ones convinced they would know how to govern if only they had the authority.

Yet surprising things can also happen. Here is a well-fed and well-entertained crowd that stops obeying. It begins to demand something more than entertainment. It wants freedom, it demands justice. The despot is stunned. He doesn't know how to see a man in all his fullness and glory. In the end such a man threatens dictatorship, he is its enemy,. So it gathers its strength to destroy him.

Although dictatorship despises the people, it takes pains to win their recognition. In spite of being lawless -- or rather, because it is lawless -- it strives for the appearance of legality. On this point it is exceedingly touchy, morbidly oversensitive. Morever, it suffers from a feeling (however deeply hidden) of inferiority. So it spares no pains to demonstrate to itself and others the popular approval it enjoys. Even if this support is a mere charade, it feels satisfying. So what if it's only an appearance? The world of dictatorship is full of appearances.

Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution VI

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

All books about all revolutions begin with a chapter that describes the decay of totterign authority or the misery and sufferings of the people. They should begin with a psychological chapter, one that shows how a harassed, terrified man suddenly breaks his terror, stops being afraid. This unusual process, sometimes accomplished in an instant like a shock or a lustration, demands illuminating. Man gets rid of fear and feels free. Without that there would be no revolution.
Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution V

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

It is authority that provokes revolution. Certainly, it does not do so consciously. Yet its style of life and way of ruling finally becomes a provocation. This occurs when a feeling of impunity takes root among the elite: We are allowed anything, we can do anything. This is a delusion but it rests on a certain rational foundation. For a while it does indeed look as if they can do whatever they want. Scandal after scandal and illegality after illegality go unpunished. The people remain silent, patient, wary. They are afraid and do not yet feel their own strength. At the same time, they keep a detailed account of the wrongs, which at one particular moment are to be added up.

The choice of that moment is the greatest riddle known to history.

Why did it happen on that day, and not on another? Why did this event, and not some other, bring it about? After all, the government was indulging in even worse excesses only yesterday, and there was nor eaction at all.

"What have I done?" asks the ruler, at a loss. "What has possessed them all of a sudden?"

This is what he has done: He has abused the patience of the people.

But where is the limit of that patience? How can it be defined? If the answer can be determined at all, it will be different in each case. The only certain thing is that rulers who know that such a limit exists and know how to respect it can count on holding power for a long time. But there are few such rulers.

Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution IV

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

History knows two types of revolution. The first is revolution by assault, the second revolution by siege.

All the future fortune, the success, of a revolution by assault is decided by the reach of the first blow. Strike and seize as much ground as possible! This is important because such a revolution, while the most violent, is also the most superficial. The adversary has been defeated, but in retreating he has preserved a part of his forces. He will counter-attack and force the victor to withdraw. Thus, the more far-reaching the first blow, the greater the area that can be saved in spite of later concessions. In a revolution by assault, the first phase is the most radical. The subsequent phases are a slow but incessant withdrawal to the point at which the two sides, the rebelling and the rebelled-against, reach the final compromise.

A revolution by siege is different; here the first strike is usually weak and we can hardly surmise that it forebodes a cataclysm. But events soon gather speed and become dramatic. More and more people take part. The walls behind which authority has been sheltering crack and then burst. The success of a revolution by siege depends on the determination of the rebels, on their will power and endurance. One more day! One more push! In the end, the gates yield, the crowd breaks in and celebrates its triumph.

I love that - this book was written in 1982 - and he was basically describing what would eventually happen in his home country (and had already begun happening in the early 80s) - with Lech Walesa and the Solidarity movement - a revolution by siege.

Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution III

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

Every revolution is preceded by a state of general exhaustion and takes place against a background of unleashed aggressiveness. Authority cannot put up with a nation that gets on its nerves; the nation cannot tolerate an authority it has come to hate. Authority has squandered all its credibility and has empty hands, the nation has lost the final scrap of patience and makes a fist. A climate of tension and increasing oppressiveness prevails. We start to fall into a psychosis of terror. The discharge is coming. We feel it.
Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution II

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

Revolution must be distinguished from revolt, coup d'etat, palace takeover. A coup or a palace takeover may be planned, but a revolution -- never. Its outbreak, the hour of that outbreak, takes everyone, even those who have been striving for it, unawares. They stand amazed at the spontanaeity that appears suddenly and destroys everything in its path. It demolishes so ruthlessly that in the end it may annihilate the ideals that called it into being.
Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: On Revolution I

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

The indispensable catalyst is the word, the explanatory idea. More than petards or stilettoes, therefore, words -- uncontrolled words, circulating freely, underground, rebelliiously, not gotten up in dress uniforms, uncertified -- frighten tyrants.
Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: "Kipling's formula"

From Ryszard Kapuscinski's book Shah of Shahs (about the last Shah of Iran): Transcript from another interview with an Iranian man:

He was reading a lot now and translating London and Kipling. When he remembered his English years, he thought about the differences between Europe and Asia and repeated Kipling's formula to himself: "East is east, and West is west, and never ... " Never, no, they will never meet, and they will never understand each other. Asia will reject every European transplant as a foreign body. The Europeans will be shocked and outraged, but they will be unable to change Asia. In Europe, epochs succeed each other, the new drives out the old, the earth periodically cleanses itself of its past so that people of our century have trouble understanding our ancestors. Here it is different, here the past is as alive as the present, the unpredictable cruel Stone Age coexists with the calculating, cool age of electronics -- the two eras live in the same man, who is as much the descendant of Genghis Khan as he is the student of Edison ... if, that is, he ever comes into contact with Edison's world.
Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: "an army of foreigners"

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

When thinking about the fall of any dictatorship, one should have no illusions that the whole system comes to an end like a bad dream with that fall. The physical existence of the system does indeed cease. But its psychological and social results live on for years, and even survive in the form of subconsciously continued behavior.

A dictatorship that destroys the intelligentsia and culture leaves behind itself an empty, sour field on which the tree of thought won't grow quickly. It is not always the best people who emerge from hiding, from the corners and cracks of that farmed-out field, but often those who have proven themselves strongest, not always those who will create new values but rather those whose thick skin and internal resilience have ensured their survival. In such circumstances history begins to turn in a tragic, vicious circle from which it can sometimes take a whole epoch to break free..

And yet how do we build [the Great Civilization] here, where there are no experts and the nation, even if it is eager to learn, has nowhere to study?

In order to fulfill his vision, the Shah needed at least 700,000 specialists immediately. Somebody hit upon the safest and best way out -- import them...Tens of thousands of foreigners thus began arriving. Airplane after airplane land at Teheran airport: domestic servants from the Philippines, hydraulic engineers from Greece, electricians from Norway, accountants from Pakistan, mechanics from Italy, military men from the United States...

This army of foreigners, byb the very strength of its technical expertise, its knowing which buttons to press, which levers to pull, which cables to connect, even if it behaves in the humbles way, begins to dominate and starts crowding the Iranians into an inferiority complex. The foreigner knows how and I don't. This is a proud people, extremely sensitive about its dignity. An Iranian will never admit he can't do something; to him, such an admission constitutes a great shame and a loss of face. He'll suffer, grow depressed, and finally begin to hate. He understood quickly the concept that was guiding his ruler: All of you just sit there in the shadow of the mosque and tend your sheep, because it will take a century for you to be of any use! I on the other hand have built a global empire in ten years with the help of foreigners.

This is why the Great Civilization struck Iranians as above all a great humiliation.

Posted by sheila Permalink

Kapuscinski: The Iranian students

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

This essay is on the Shah's frantic push towards modernization:

From a logical point of view, anyone who sets out to create a Great Civilization ought to begin with people, with training cadres of experts in order to form a native intelligentsia. But it was precisely that kind of thinking that was unacceptable. Open new universities and polytechnics, everyone a hornets' nest, every student a rebel, a good-for-nothing, a freethinker? Is it any wonder the Shah didn't want to braid the whip that would flay his own skin? The monarch had a better way -- he kept the majority of his students far from home. From this point of view the country was unique. More than a hundred thousand young Iranians were studying in Europe and America. This policy cost much more than it would have taken to create national universities. But it guaranteed the regime a degree of calm and security.

The majority of these young people never returned. Today more Iranian doctors practice in San Francisco or Hamburg than in Tebriz or Meshed. They did not return even for the generous salaries the Shah offered. They feared Savak and didn't want to go back to kissing anyone's shoes. An Iranian at home could not read the books of the country's best writers (because they came out only abroad), could not see the films of its outstanding directors (because they were not allowed to be shown in Iran), could not listen to the voices of its intellectuals (because they were condemned to silence).

The Shah left people a choice between Savak and the mullahs. And they chose the mullahs.

Posted by sheila Permalink

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.


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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Kapuscinski: "Qom was rumbling"

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

Kapuscinski interviews an Iranian about the beginnings of the revolution:

Every pretext, he says, was good for rising up against the Shah. The people wanted to get rid of the dictator, and they flexed their muscles whenever they had the chance.

Everybody looked toward Qom. [Ed: Qom is a religious center in Iran.] That's the way it had always been in our history: Whenever there was unhappiness and a crisis, people always started listening for the first signals from Qom.

And Qom was rumbling.

This was when the Shah extended diplomatic immunity to all US military personnel and their families. Our army was already full of American experts. And the mullahs came right out and said that the Shah's move offended the principle of sovereignty.

Now, for the first time, Iran would hear Ayatolla Khomeini. Before that, no one knew of him -- nobody but the people of Qom, that is. He was already over 60, old enough to be the Shah's father. later he would often call the ruler "son", but of course in an ironic and wrathful tone. Khomeini attacked him ruthlessly. My people, he would cry, don't trust him. He's not your man! He's not thinking of you -- he's only thinking of himself and of the ones who give him orders. He's selling out our country, selling us all out. The Shah must go!...

Now I wonder just what conditions created Khomeini. In those days, after all, there were plenty of more important, better-known ayatollahs as well as prominent political opponents of the Shah. We were all writing protests, manifestos, letters, statements. Only a small group of intellectuals read them because such materials could not be printed legally and, besides, most people didn't know how to read. We were criticizing the monarch, saying things were bad, demanding changes, reform, democratization, and justice.

It never entered anyone's head to come out the way Khomeini did -- to reject all that scribbling, all those petitions, resolutions, proposals. To stand before the people, and cry, The Shah must go!

That was the gist of what Khomeini said then, and he kept on saying it for fifteen years. It was the simplest thing, and everyone could remember it -- but it took them fifteen years to understand what it really meant. After all, people took the institution of the monarchy as much for gratned as the air. No one could imagine life without it.

The Shah must go!

Don't debate it, don't gab, don't reform or forgive. There's no sense in it, it won't change anything, it's a vain effort, it's a delusion. We can go forward only over the ruins of the monarchy. There's no other way.

The Shah must go!

Don't wait, don't stall, don't sleep.

The Shah must go!

The first time he said it, it sounded like a maniac's entreaties, like the keening of a madman. The monarchy had not yet exhausted the possibilities of endurance.

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Kapuscinski: "our game of seeing whose I is superior"

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

Kapucinski interviews an Iranian - these are the notes from that interview:

Because the man has to be superior, the woman must be inferior. Outside the home I might be a nonentity, but under my own roof I make up for it -- here I am everything. Here my power admits of no division, and the more numerous the family, the wider and mightier my authority. The more children, the better: They give a man more to rule over. He becomes the monarch of a domestic state, commanding respect and admiration, deciding the fate of his subjects, settling disputes, imposing his will, ruling. (He stops to see what sort of an impression he is making on me. I protest energetically: I oppose such stereotypes. I know many of his fellow countrymen who are modest and polite, who have never made me feel inferior.) Quite true, he agrees, but only because you don't threaten us. You're not playing our game of seeing whose I is superior. This game made it impossible to create any solid parties because quarrels about leadership always broke out immediately and everyone would want to set up his own party.
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Kapuscinski on Oil Societies

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

The following essay on Oil always struck me as particularly insightful:

Oil kindles extraordinary emotions and hopes, since oil is above all a great temptation. It is the temptation of ease, wealth, strength, fortune, power. It is a filthy, foul-smelling liquid that squirts obligingly up into the air and falls back to earth as a rustling shower of money. To discover and possess the source of oil is to feel as if, after wandering long underground, you have suddenly stumbled upon royal treasure. Not only do you become rich, but you are also visited by the mystical conviction that some higher power has looked upon you with the eye of grace and magnanimously elevated you above others, electing you its favorite.

Many photographs preserve the moment when the first oil spurts from the well: people jumping for joy, falling into each other's arms, weeping.

Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free. Oil is a resource that anesthetizes thought, blurs vision, corrupts. People from poor countries go around thinking: God, if only we had oil! The concept of oil expresses perfectly the eternal human dream of wealth achieved through lucky accident, through a kiss of fortune and not by sweat, anguish, hard work. In this sense oil is a fairy tale, and like every fairy tale, a bit of a lie. Oil fills us with such arrogance that we begin believing we can easily overcome such unyielding obstacles as time. With oil, the last Shah used to say, I will create a second America in a generation! He never created it.

Oil, though powerful, has its defects. It does not replace thinking or wisdom.

For rulers, one of its most alluring qualities is that it strengthens authority. Oil produces great profits without putting a lot of people to work. Oil causes few social problems because it creates neither a numerous proletariat nor a sizable bourgeoisie. Thus the government, freed from the need of splitting the profits with anyone, can dispose of them according to its own ideas and desires.

Look at the ministers from oil countries, how high they hold their heads, what a sense of power they have, they, the lords of energy, who decide whether we will be driving cars tomorrow or walking.

And oil's relation to the mosque? What vigor, glory, and significance this new wealth has given to its religion, Islam, which is enjoying a period of accelerated expansion and attracting new crowds of the faithful.

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Kapuscinski: "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 (or Mossadeq) - the Prime Minister of Iran in the 50s. I have a couple of friends from Iran, and sometimes I enjoy getting them talking about Mossadegh, to watch their passion. In addition - the first time I said to my Iranian friend Fred (yes, his name is Fred - oh, and he insists on being called "Persian" - hates the word "Iran") - Anyway, I asked him, "So ... how do you feel about what Mossadegh did, and what was done to him?" Tears flooded his eyes and he put his arms around me. Basically, it was because - I knew who Mossadegh was, and it moved Fred so much to hear his name coming out of MY mouth. It would be, for me, like meeting an Uzbek in Tashkent who said to me, "So talk to me about John Adams. How do you feel about him?"

Mossadegh is a figure for the exiles - at least that's how I see it. A man who took risks, and promoted self-sufficiency - and ended up paying a huge price for it. Iranians in exile love Mossadegh.

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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Kapuscinski: "obliterated all contrasts"

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

The Iranians resented the fact that, for security reasons, only foreigners were invited to certain celebrations in which the Shah took part. His compatriots also said bitingly that since he traveled almost exclusively by airplane and helicopter, he saw his country only from a lofty vantage point that obliterated all contrasts. I don't have any photographs of Khomeini in his early years. When he appears in my collection, he is already an old man, and so it is as if he had never been young or middle-aged. The local fanatics believe Khomeini is the Twelfth Imam, the Awaited One, who disappeared in the ninth century, and has now returned, more than a thousand years later, to deliver them from misery and persecution. That Khomeini almost always appears in photographs only as an aged man could be taken as confirmation of this belief.
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Kapuscinski: "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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Kapuscinski: "In what language...?"

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

All over the world, at any hour, on a million screens an infinite number of people are saying something to us, trying to convince us of something, gesturing, making faces, getting excited, smiling, nodding their heads, pointing their fingers, and we don't know what it's about, what they want from us, what they are summoning us to. They might as well have come from a distance planet -- an enormous army of public relations experts from Venus or Mars -- yet they are our kin, with the same bones and blood as ours, with lips that move and audible voices, but we cannot understand a word. In what language will the universal dialogue of humanity be carried out? Several hundred languages are fighting for recognition and promotion; the language barriers are rising. Deafness and incomprehension are multiplying.
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