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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1390

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Ryszard Kapuciski was writing about a regime—the venal, cruel, and ostentatiously banal monarchy of the shah, and of its nemesis in the form of a revolution headed by profoundly conservative Muslim clerics, which must have seemed indescribably remote and exotic to his Central European readers. How, therefore, was he to convey to such readers the personality and inner workings of Iran’s ancien regime and its headlong course toward self-destruction? His answer, since he could not provide a monographic analysis within the requirements of effective journalism, lay in his creation and careful placing of a series of vignettes of recent Iranian history, his “Daguerreotypes.” These were prefaced by an opening twelve-page section in which he conveyed the atmosphere in Tehran following the monarch’s departure and the triumphal return of Ayatollah Khomeini as seen from his hotel bedroom, with the employees playing cards and whiling away their time, with the television programs dominated by Khomeini’s charismatic presence on the screen, and with his personal imperative to organize and make sense of the quantity of notes, photographs, and tapes which littered his living quarters.

The “daguerreotypes” become, in fact, a skillful history lesson. There are twelve “photographs,” a “cassette,” and seven “notes.” Their alignment appears casual, but in reality they are precisely and deliberately arranged. The “photographs” set the scene and serve as recurring motifs, like faded pictures in a scrapbook: the shah’s father (then a mere trooper) guarding the assassin of a former shah; the shah’s father as an officer in the Persian Cossack Brigade; the shah’s father standing forbiddingly beside his seven-year-old son. Then there is the 1943 meeting of Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin in Tehran, followed by Mohammad Mosaddeq in his moment of triumph as the newly chosen prime minister in 1951. Next, the shah is seen in exile (Rome, 1953). Then comes a street scene, with a SAVAK informer (SAVAK was the shah’s dreaded secret police organization), followed by a child victim of SAVAK brutality. The succeeding vignettes are of the shah in 1973, at the time of the explosion of oil prices, announcing Iran’s commitment to “the Great Civilization”; his posturing as a Napoleonic warlord; a jet loaded with his courtiers flying off on a day-trip to Germany; and a revolutionary caricature of “the Great Civilization” as “the Great Injustice.” Taken as a whole, these “photographs” encapsulate a certain view of the Pahlavi period (1925-1979), the period when Iran was ruled by Mohammad Reza Shah and his father.

Among these “photographs,” the single “cassette” stands by itself, an anonymous Iranian commenting upon the career of Mohammad Mosaddeq, reminiscent of the structure of Kapuciski’s earlier study of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. On this, and on the “photographs,” the various “notes” provide either glosses or serve to carry the narrative along. Thus, one discusses the shah’s egomania and isolation from reality; another pinpoints the crucial role of oil; yet another looks at the so-called monarchical tradition in Iran. One touches on the origins of religious opposition and the rise to public prominence of Ayatollah Khomeini. There is a perceptive account of the way in which SAVAK pervaded every aspect of Iranian life, and of its methods of repression, and there is a thumbnail sketch of Shi‘ism as an oppositional creed. Finally, and forming the culminating phase of this section, there is an extended account of an Iranian intellectual (presumably a composite figure derived from several different case studies) who returns from exile abroad during the last months of the Pahlavi regime in time to experience surveillance and harassment from SAVAK operatives, but at the same time to witness the beginning of the collapse of the system of monolithic repression. This section, in particular, demonstrates very effectively Kapuciski’s ability “to get under the skin” of Iranian society in a way few foreign journalists were able to do.

In the final section of the book, “The Dead Flame,” the author himself emerges from behind these “photographs,” these explications of recent Iranian history, these impressions of the ancien regime provided by the assimilation of reading and interviews, to interpret the fall of the monarchy in terms of direct experience: what Kapuciski himself saw and felt. The cumulative effect of this section, following as it does upon the skillfully constructed series of “Daguerreotypes,” is a brilliant indictment of the cruelty, the pettiness, the extravagance, and the pointlessness of Pahlavi’s Iran. In describing the abuse of authority under the shah, Kapuciski shows how his rule, reinforced as it was by very large, well-armed, and well-paid security forces, ultimately became unendurable. At the same time, he fears for Iran’s future, anticipating new tyrannies which will in time produce their own retributions. For Kapuciski, as a reviewer in the Summer, 1985, issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review duly noted, “Iranians, like many other peoples in the world, are helpless against generic tyranny.”

Kapuciski recognizes that the so-called causes of revolution—poverty, oppression, the abuse of power—are virtually ubiquitous in the Third World, yet true revolutions (as opposed to revolts, coups d’etat, and palace takeovers) are rare indeed. Why was Iran different? In his view,The indispensable catalyst is the word. The explanatory idea. More than petards or stilettoes, therefore, words—uncontrolled words, circulating freely, underground, rebelliously, not gotten up in dress uniforms, uncertified—frighten tyrants. But sometimes it is the official, uniformed, certified words that bring about the revolution.

Thus he pinpoints the opening of the Iranian revolution to January 8, 1978, when the shah ordered the publication of a scurrilous article on Khumaini in the government-controlled press, which triggered the series of protests and government killings that produced the great rhythms of Shi‘ite mourning that eventually merged into the image of an entire nation demonstrating against its government. In such a crisis, the systematic state-sponsored terror of the past becomes self-defeating, only exciting the nation to fresh acts of heroism.

Kapuciski asserts that it is erroneous to assume that all nations wronged by history (and the Pole in him adds, “they are in the majority”) necessarily live in constant contemplation of revolution. They do not. “Every revolution is a drama, and humanity instinctively avoids dramatic situations.” Iran, however, was different. There, the nature of the despot and of the despotism made for drama. “In every revolution,” he observes, “a movement grapples with a structure.” The structure was what he calls “the theatre of the Shah,” with the ruler as the self-absorbed director mounting the play of “The Great Civilization,” with himself perpetually on front stage, backed by a huge cast of largely inanimate extras—courtiers, generals, policemen, lackeys. The movement, which he did not even deign to notice until it was too late, was the traditional faith of his people, quickened to flash point by his regime’s excesses, and taking its bearings from mosque and mullah.

A student of dictatorships and state-sponsored violence in the Third World, Kapuciski provides his readers with a coherent account of the inner workings of revolution in Iran in a form which few other scholars, experts, or observers have attempted. In that sense, Shah of Shahs is likely to outlive much of the ephemeral literature evoked by the events of 1978-1979. Yet behind the penetrating analysis, the brilliant impressionistic brushstrokes which convey so much to the stay-at-home reader, there is a profound pessimism, a product not merely of his stay in Iran but also of his years of firsthand acquaintance with the Third World. As he watched the new order replace the old, Kapuciski mused that “one thing was invariable, indestructible, and—I dread saying it—eternal: the helplessness.” Drawing to the end of his stay in Tehran, he visits a carpet-seller whom he knows in his shop in Firdausi Avenue. As his eyes run over the sumptuously decorated surfaces, the merchant tells him:You must remember . . . that what has made it possible for the Persians to remain themselves over two and a half millennia . . . is our spiritual, not our material, strength—our poetry, and not our technology; our religion, and not our factories. What have we given to the world? We have given poetry, the miniature, and carpets. As you can see, these are all useless things from the productive viewpoint. But it is through such things that we have expressed our true selves.


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