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Born in 1932 and a graduate of the University of Warsaw in 1952, Ryszard Kapuciski has since pursued a highly successful career in journalism in his native Poland. He was on the staff of Sztandar mlodych (banner of youth) from 1951 to 1958; of Polityka (politics) from 1959 to 1961; and of Kultura (culture), of which he was deputy editor in chief from 1974 to 1981. He has also worked as a free-lance writer: from 1972 to 1974, and again since 1981. Of particular significance for his development as a journalist, however, and as the catalyst for his reputation as a writer outside Poland, was his service with the Polish Press Agency in Africa, Asia, and Latin America between 1962 and 1972, which sowed the seeds of an abiding interest in the Third World and its problems, on which this highly perceptive Polish observer, citizen of a country without traditions of overseas imperialism and a centuries-old victim of Great Power rivalries, has uniquely incisive insights. In his study of the corruption and decrepitude of the government of Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, published in 1983 in a translation by William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand (originally published in Polish as Cesarz in 1978), Kapuciski artfully constructed, through a sequence of commentaries by palace officials and employees, an insider’s picture of the rottenness at the core of the Ethiopian empire. Very different in style was his Another Day of Life, published in English in 1987 by the same team of translators from his Jeszcze dzien zycia, published in Poland in 1976, which was a diary of a visit to Angola during 1975 at the time of Portugal’s transfer of power and at the time of South African and Cuban military intervention.

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Shah of Shahs, published in English in 1985 from the Polish Szachinszach of 1982, was the outcome of a visit to Tehran at the time of the establishment of the Islamic Republic, which early in 1979 replaced the despotic rule of Mohammad Reza Shah, who had mounted the throne in 1941. In writing an account of that event, one that would make sense in terms of what he had witnessed and one that would make comprehensible to his readers one of the most dramatic and seemingly least predictable upheavals of the twentieth century, he designed a highly flexible structure which would allow him to balance his personal observations with what he had learned from interviewers and what he knew of the complex historical background to the revolution. In particular, he had to convey to faraway Polish readers the intricate and highly ambiguous nature of traditional Iranian social and political relationships.

This he achieved with extraordinary success by separating his text into three sections of unequal length. The first, “Cards, Faces, Fields of Flowers,” sets the scene in the Tehran hotel where he was staying. The second, which he called “Daguerreotypes,” is a series of brilliant portraits relating to the shah’s life and antecedents, and to the style of life which characterized his rule. This section, in turn, is followed by one titled “The Dead Flame,” which enabled the author to move to front of stage and ruminate on the causes and consequences of what he reckoned to have been “the twenty-seventh revolution I have seen in the Third World.”

Shah of Shahs

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In Shah of Shahs (published in Poland in 1982 as Szachinszach), Ryszard Kapuciski unfolds a rich story which merges factual reporting with his keen impressions and reflections. The book is both engrossing and revelatory and offers a highly personal portrait of the psychological condition of a country in the throes of revolution. The captivating volume is more an impressionistic commentary than a history of the causes and consequences of the Shah’s overthrow and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s ascendancy to power. The author appeals to his readers’ imagination rather than to their intellect and makes his points with images rather than with tightly structured ranks of facts and analysis. In some respects, reading the book is like watching a potpourri of news broadcasts. The narrative jumps from place to place and from episode to episode with no seeming respect for standard historical or even literary conventions. Nevertheless, the text is as absorbing as it is acrobatic—a work of sublime creativity which provides a brilliant firsthand account of the Islamic upheaval that toppled the Shah.

The book illustrates at many points how the extreme oil-derived wealth of Iran corrupted the Shah’s social vision. Oil kindles extraordinary emotions of strength, wealth, and power among Mideastern leaders. To possess and control the fortune wrought by this resource seems to evoke an almost mystical conviction that a divine power has elevated a nation above others, electing it as its favorite. For the Shah and his minions, oil created the illusion of a paradisiacal life without work or effort. The great oil resources of Iran corrupted its leadership into believing that social progress and economic stability could be achieved through the vagaries of fortune rather than through sweat, anguish, and hard work.

For Iran’s rulers, one of oil’s most alluring qualities was that it strengthened their authority; from their point of view, oil caused few social problems because it engendered neither a numerous proletariat nor a sizable bourgeoisie to challenge the status quo. The government, freed from pressures to split the profits with anyone, could spend the wealth according to its own ideas and desires. The Shah as well as governmental ministers became lords of energy, publicly and privately exhibiting their hubris and power. It seemed as though Iran were an elect nation, an attitude re-enforced by the fact that Islam was enjoying a period of expansion as new crowds of faithful embraced the religion.

Inevitably, the Shah’s grandiose but short-sighted ambition to build the “Great Civilization” in Iran was doomed to failure. From his isolated palace, the leader issued hundreds of decisions in the early 1970’s that convulsed his homeland and set the stage for his overthrow a decade later. He doubled domestic investment, began importing modern technology, and created the third most advanced army in the world. He built atomic power plants, electronics factories, steel mills, and great industrial complexes. Iran became a sales mecca, and the presidents of multinational corporations, directors of great conglomerates, and lesser corporate sales representatives flocked to this flood tide of spending. For a time, it seemed that Iran was moving along a smooth current of development, but shoals and eddies began to appear. Billions of dollars were spent making purchases, and ships full of merchandise began steaming toward Iran from all the continents. When they reached the Persian Gulf, however, the country’s small, obsolete ports proved unable to handle the mass of cargo. Several hundred ships backed up at sea and remained unloaded for up to six months. These delays forced Iran to pay nearly $1 billion annually to shipping companies.

Somehow the fleet gradually unloaded, but there were no warehouses to store the mass of goods. Millions of tons of cargo had to be stockpiled in the open and subjected to unrelenting tropical heat. Half of it, consisting of perishable foodstuffs and chemicals, was thrown away. The remainder needed to be transported to the country’s interior, but, alas, there were few trucks, trailers, and other forms of transport. Two thousand tractor-trailers were accordingly ordered from Europe, but as there were not enough drivers, hundreds of people had to be flown in from Korea. When the goods finally began to move, the Koreans learned that Iranian drivers were earning higher salaries than they, and so they quit. Scores of trucks, unused to this day, still sit along the Bander Abbas-Teheran highway.

With time and the assistance of foreign freight companies, the machines purchased abroad finally arrived at their appointed destinations. No engineers or technicians, however, were available to build, operate, and maintain factories. From a logical point of view, the designer of a Great Civilization should have laid a foundation by training cadres of experts to form a native intelligentsia; unfortunately, the Shah and his advisers feared creating a freethinking university population that would challenge the status quo. Hence, the monarch kept the majority of his students far from home. By the late 1970’s, more than a hundred thousand young Iranians were studying in Europe and America. The policy, which cost much more than it would have to create national universities, bled the nation of its best and brightest, for the majority of these young people never returned. More Iranian doctors currently practice in San Francisco and Hamburg than in Tabriz or Mashhad. They would not come home, even for the generous salaries the Shah offered. They feared the Savak (the Shah’s security-and-intelligence organization) and did not want to live under the oppressive dictatorship that limited basic human freedoms. An Iranian at home could not read the books of his country’s best writers (because they were only published abroad), could not view the films of its best directors (because they were not allowed to be shown in Iran), and could not ponder the ideas of its intellectuals (because they were condemned to silence). By destroying the nation’s intelligentsia and culture, the Shah left a vacuous wasteland that was eventually filled by fanatic Muslims.

One of Kapuciski’s best insights is his analysis of the impact of the Shah’s Great Civilization upon the nation’s psyche. In order to fulfill his vision, the Shah needed at least seven hundred thousand experts in various fields; and the only immediate option was to import them. Security considerations were an important part of this decision, because foreigners—concerned about doing their jobs, making money, and getting home—would refrain from organizing plots and rebellions or contending against the Savak. Tens of thousands of experts began to arrive from all over the world and to erode the nation’s self-confidence. This army of Americans, Europeans, and Asians, by the very strength of its technical expertise, began to dominate the country and evoke an inferiority complex among the Iranians. There is an element of the Iranian national character which retards an individual’s ability to admit that he cannot do something; such an admission constitutes personal shame and a loss of face. Large segments of the population grew restive, depressed, and finally began to hate the Shah, as it became clear that foreigners were the key elements of his social vision. Thus, the Great Civilization was seen by many as a great national humiliation.

Kapuciski is perhaps at his best when illustrating how the Shah’s emphasis on militarization helped sow the seeds of his downfall. Although preoccupied with modernizing the nation, his true hobby and real passion was the army. It constituted the main prop of the throne, and, as years passed, it increasingly became its sole support. For much of the Shah’s reign, the army was primarily an instrument of domestic terror, a kind of police that lived in barracks. For this reason, the nation looked upon further military buildup with fear, realizing that the Shah was swinging an ever thicker and more painful whip that fell heavily across the backs of the people. The Shah loved his uniforms and occupied his time reading arms magazines. The glut of oil money enabled him to indulge his fantasies, and huge orders of military hardware began flowing in to Tehran. Eventually, Iran had more tanks and artillery pieces than either the British army or the German armed forces (the Bundeswehr). Iran was quickly transformed into a great showplace for all types of weapons and military equipment. Showplace is the right word, for the country lacked the warehouses, magazines, and hangars needed to protect and secure military stores; hundreds of helicopters sat idle in the desert.

Kapuciski tends to view the toppling of the Shah and the assumption of power by the Shiites as simply the most recent expression of historical leitmotifs. For hundreds of years, Iranians have exhibited a particular talent for preserving their independence under conditions of subjugation. For centuries they have been victims of conquest, aggression, and partition. They have been ruled repeatedly by foreigners or local regimes dependent on foreign powers, and yet they have preserved their culture, language, and spiritual fortitude and exhibited an ability to arise reborn from the ashes of defeat and despair. During the twenty-five centuries of their history, the Iranians have sooner or later managed to outwit anyone with the temerity to try ruling them. At times they have resorted to the weapons of uprising and revolution and obtained their goal with a tragic levy of blood. On other occasions they have employed the tactic of passive resistance in a particularly consistent and radical way. The most common Iranian technique, however, has been absorption—active assimilation of the foreign sword, turning it into their own weapon.

This historical groundwork helps explain why Shiism is so compelling to Iranians: It expresses the nation’s spirit, culture, and independence. Kapuciski convincingly argues that this variant of the Muslim religion is a faith for the wronged and conquered, an instrument of contestation and resistance, the ideology of an unhumbled people prepared to suffer in defense of their distinctness and dignity. Shiism became not only the Iranian national religion but also their refuge and shelter, a means of national survival, and, at the right moments, a tool for struggle and liberation.

Perhaps this strong impulse in Iranian history made the nation a sterile habitat for Western political forms. Within the revolutionary camp there were initially many philosophies and grand designs. All opponents of the Shah wanted to depose him, but different parties to the revolt envisioned the future differently. Some thought that Iran would become the sort of democracy they had experienced while studying in France, Switzerland, and the United States. The intelligentsia, however, though wise and enlightened, was also weak. Members of this group found themselves 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.

The only major weakness of Shah of Shahs is the author’s failure to explain why the Shah remained so out of touch with the feelings of his people. In fact, the Shah, despite the title of the book, remains an enigmatic figure. Kapuciski does a splendid job of showing how people reacted to the Shah’s efforts to build the Great Civilization, but many fundamental questions remain unanswered. Why did the Shah fail to create a loyal middle class dependent on his policies and patronage? How could he fail to understand the resentment provoked by the large influx of foreign technology and professionals? Why did the monarch make no effort to accommodate or defuse the radical Shiites? Why did his plans for modernization ignore Iran’s rural poor? To what extent did the general turmoil and tension in the Middle East serve to destabilize the Shah’s government?

Despite this flaw, Shah of Shahs brilliantly reveals the pathology of an oppressive regime that was incapable of satisfying its people. It appears that the Shah tried to deceive his backward nation with grand but empty promises. Perhaps the greatest victim of these great delusions was himself.


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Ajami, Fouad. Review in The New Republic. CXCII (April 8, 1985), p. 36.

Booklist. LXXXI, March 1, 1985, p. 922.

Fox, Edward. Review in Nation. CCXL (June 22, 1985), p. 772.

Kaufman, Michael T. “Autocrats He Has Known,” in The New York Times. CXXXVI (Feburary 15, 1987), p. 12.

Kennedy, Moorhead. Review in The New York Times Book Review. XC (April 7, 1985), p. 7.

Leonard, Louise. Review in Library Journal. CX (March 15, 1985), p. 52.

Library Journal. CX, March 15, 1985, p. 52.

The London Review of Books. VII, July 4, 1985, p. 22.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 17, 1985, p. 1.

Lyons, Gene. Review in Newsweek. CV (March 4, 1985), p. 66.

Massing, Michael T. “Snap Books: Big Writers and Little Countries,” in The New Republic. CXCVI (May 4, 1987), p. 21.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, January 25, 1985, p. 83.

Virginia Quarterly Review. LXI, Summer, 1985, p. 94.

The Wall Street Journal. CCV, April 4, 1985, p. 28.

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