“As a journalist, I say: Long live the magic. Kapuściński is an advocate for all who have chafed in a straitjacket called the house style, seen their lyrical phrases slashed for space, cursed the whole pedantic army of editors and fact checkers… he is a journalist’s writer, an example of what so many of us would love to be — if only we had the nerve.” — Christopher de Bellaigue
When one has had their fill of different accounts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, fiction and nonfiction, Iranian and foreign; when an ample idea of its unfolding and its chronology has finally taken root; when details and events have been repeated enough and begin to sound redundant unless they are written with an exceptional voice and perspective; it is time to read Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński — my personal cherry on the top of an Iranian Revolution literary stack.
It is not the book to read if one prefers a sequential list of events, a full cast of characters, an emotionally-charged dramatization, or a detailed portrayal of the Shah. This is not a portrait of the last Shah of Iran, neither is it a consummate portrait of a nation. From the collected clutter on Kapuściński’s hotel room desk in Tehran emerges a portrait of the nature of dictatorships and revolutions.
I can only wish he elaborated on that extravagant celebration that the Iranian despot held in Persepolis in 1971, which contributed to the flames of revolution, and in which the first guest to arrive at the event was Imelda Marcos. I would have loved for Kapuściński to have written a book about the Marcos family and our own EDSA Revolution!
For a Filipina reader and albeit dormant journalist, the writing method is illuminating and the subject hits close to home. There are too many passages that feel as if he were describing my own nation’s recent history. But then again, “The rather small arsenal of political tricks has not changed in millennia,” observed Kapuściński, who reported on twenty-seven revolutions during his illustrious career as a journalist.
Within a corrupt government, “Whoever tried to be honest looked like a paid stoolie.” “The higher up, the fuller the pockets,” and in that world, “development” has an entirely different meaning. “Any dictatorship appeals to the lowest instincts of the governed,” “A despot believes that man is an abject creature. Abject people fill his court and populate his environment.”
That a fed and entertained populace does not always signify a free society is a truth that burns: “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.”
And this is what he says about truth: “It takes a long time for a truth to mature, and in the meantime people suffer or blunder around in ignorance.” I’d like to believe, however, that reading the writings of Kapuściński speeds the process.
At the back of my mind, this question: Is Iran in the cusp of another revolution?