Read Shah of Shahs Online

Authors: Ryzard Kapuscinski

Shah of Shahs


Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents





First published in Great Britain by
Quartet Books Limited 1985
A member of the Namara Group
27/29 Goodge Street, London W1P 1FD

1982 by Ryszard Kapuściński
English translation copyright
1985 by Harcourt Brace
Jovanovich, Inc.

Portions of this work originally appeared in
The New Yorker.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication
may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or
by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopy, recording, or any information storage
and retrieval system, without permission in
writing from the publisher.


Kapuściński, Ryszard.
Shah of Shahs

Translation of: Szachinszach.
"A Helen and Kurt Wolff book."
1. Iran—Politics and government—1941–1979.
I. title
DS318.K315113 1985 955'.053 84-10838

Designed by Mark Likgalter

Printed in the United States of America

First edition



Everything is in confusion, as though the police have just finished a violent, nervous search. Newspapers, local and foreign, are scattered everywhere, special editions, big attention-getting headlines,


large photos of a gaunt, elongated face, its controlled features so bent on showing neither anxiety nor defeat that it no longer expresses anything at all. Copies of later editions proclaim in fervor and triumph:


A severe patriarchal face that has no intention of expressing anything at all fills the rest of the page.

(And between that departure and that return, what heights of emotion and fervor, rage and terror, how many conflagrations!)

On the floor, chairs, table, desk lie heaps of index cards, scraps of paper, notes so hastily scrawled and chaotic, I have to stop and think where I jotted down the sentence "He will deceive you and make promises to you, but don't let yourself be fooled." Who said that? When? To whom?

Or, covering a whole sheet of paper in red pencil: "Must call 64-12-18." But so much time has passed, I can't remember whose number it is or why it was so important to call.

Unfinished letter, never mailed. I could go on at length about what I've seen and lived through here, but it is difficult to organize my impressions....

The worst chaos is on the big round table: photos of various sizes, cassettes, 8-mm film, newsletters, photocopies of leaflets—all piled, mixed up together, helter-skelter, like a flea market. And more posters and albums, records and books acquired or given by people, the collected remnants of an era just ended but still able to be seen and heard because it has been preserved here on film—flowing, agitated rivers of people; on cassettes—the wail of the muezzins, shouted orders, conversations, monologues; in photos—faces in ecstasy, exaltation.

Now, at the very thought of trying to put everything in order (because the day I'm to leave is approaching), I am overcome by both aversion and profound fatigue. When I stay in a hotel (which is quite often) I like the room to be a mess because then the ambience has the illusion of some kind of life, a substitute warmth and intimacy, a proof (though illusory) that such a strange uncozy place, as all hotel rooms in essence are, has been at least partially conquered and tamed. In a room arranged into antiseptic order, I feel numb and lonely, pinched by all the straight lines, corners of furniture, flat walls, all that indifferent, stiff geometry, a strained, meticulous arrangement existing only for its own sake, without a trace of human presence. Fortunately, within a few hours of my arrival, influenced by my unconscious actions (the result of haste or laziness), the existing order breaks down, disappears, objects come to life, begin moving from place to place, and enter into ever changing configurations and connections; things take on a cramped, baroque look, and, all at once, the room's atmosphere becomes friendlier and more familiar. Then I can take a deep breath and relax.

Right now I cannot summon up enough strength to do anything with the room, so I go downstairs, where four young men are drinking tea and playing cards in a gloomy, empty hall. They've abandoned themselves to some intricate game—neither bridge nor poker, blackjack nor pinochle—whose rules I'll probably never grasp. They use two sets of cards at once, playing in silence, until at a certain moment one of them takes all the cards, a delighted expression on his face. After a pause they deal, lay dozens of cards on the table, ponder, count, and begin quarreling as they count.

These four, the reception staff, live off me. I am supporting them because I am the only guest in the hotel. I also support the cleaning woman, cooks, waiters, launderers, janitors, gardener, and for all I know several other people and their families, too. I don't mean to say that if I delayed settling my bill they would all starve, but I try to keep my account paid just in case. Only a few months ago it was an achievement, like winning a lottery, to get a room in this city. Despite the many many hotels, there was such an avalanche of people that new arrivals had to rent beds in private hospitals just to have a place to stay. Now the boom of easy money and dazzling transactions is over, the local businessmen are lying low, and the foreign partners have fled, leaving everything behind. Tourism has fallen to zero; all international traffic has frozen. Some hotels were burned down, others are closed or empty, and in one of them, guerrillas have set up their headquarters. Today the city is engrossed in its own affairs, it doesn't need foreigners, it doesn't need the world.

The cardplayers take a break from their game to offer me tea. Here they drink only tea or yogurt, not coffee or alcohol. For drinking alcohol you can get forty or even sixty lashes, and if someone brawny does the whipping (that type is often the most enthusiastic flogger) your back will be pulp. So we slurp our tea and watch the TV below the window at the other end of the hall.

Khomeini's face appears on the screen.

Khomeini is seated in a simple wooden armchair on a simple wooden platform in one of the squares of (to judge from the shabbiness of the buildings) a poor section of Qom. A small, flat, gray, charmless city, Qom lies a hundred miles south of Teheran in a vacant, wearying, parched, sunbaked desert. Nothing in that murderous climate would seem to favor reflection and contemplation, yet Qom is a place of religious fervor, rabid orthodoxy, mysticism, and faith militant. It contains five hundred mosques and the nation's biggest seminaries. Koranic scholars and the guardians of tradition quarrel in Qom; the venerable ayatollahs convene their councils there; Khomeini rules the country from Qom. He never leaves, never goes to the capital, never goes anywhere. He neither sightsees nor pays visits. He used to live with his wife and five children in Qom in a small house on a cramped, dusty, unpaved little street with a gutter running down the middle. Now he's moved to his daughter's house, from whose balcony he appears to the crowds in the street below (usually, zealous pilgrims visiting the mosques of the holy city and, most important of all, the tomb, forbidden to non-Muslims, of the Immaculate Fatima, sister of the eighth Imam Reza). Khomeini leads an ascetic life, eating only rice, yogurt, and fruit, and occupying but one room, bare walls, no furniture, only a bedroll on the floor, and a pile of books. Here, sitting on a blanket spread on the floor, leaning back against the wall, he receives his guests, including the most formal official foreign delegations. From the window he can see the domes of the mosques and the spacious courtyard of the medresh—an enclosed world of turquoise mosaics, bluish-green minarets, coolness and shade. All day a steady stream of guests and petitioners passes through this room. When there is a break, Khomeini goes off to pray or stays in his room, devoting the time to reflection or simply—as is natural for a man of eighty—taking a nap. The one with the most access to him is his younger son Ahmed, like his father a cleric. The other son, the first-born and the hope of his father's life, perished in mysterious circumstances—treacherously killed, people say, by Savak, the Shah's secret police.

The camera shows the square packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. It shows curious and solemn faces. Off to the side, separated from the men in a clearly marked enclosure, stand women wrapped in chadors. It's a gray cloudy day, the crowd is charcoal-colored and, where the women stand, black. As always, Khomeini is dressed in loose-fitting dark clothes, a black turban on his head. He sits stiffly. His face is pale and still above his white beard. He does not gesticulate when he speaks; his hands rest on the arms of the chair. Once in a while he wrinkles his high forehead and raises his eyebrows; otherwise, not a muscle moves in the face of this man of immense stubborn, unretreating, unhesitating, implacable will. In this face, which seems to have been composed once and for all, yielding to neither emotions nor moods, expressing nothing but taut attentiveness and internal concentration, only the eyes move constantly. Their lively, incisive glance slides over the sea of curly heads, measures the depth of the square and the distance to its limits and continues its meticulous inspection as if insistently searching for a specific person. I listen to his monotonous voice, with its measured slow rhythm—a strong voice, but a voice that never leaps or flies, never betrays a mood, never sparkles.

"What is he talking about?" I ask the cardplayers, when Khomeini pauses for a moment to consider his next sentence.

"He is saying that we must preserve our dignity," one of them answers.

The cameraman pans across the roofs of the nearby houses where young people, with checkered scarves wrapped around their heads, stand, holding automatic rifles.

"And now what is he saying?" I ask again, because I don't understand Farsi.

"He is saying," one of the young men tells me, "in our country there is no room for foreign influence."

Khomeini goes on speaking and everyone follows attentively. On the screen someone's trying to quiet a group of children at the base of the platform.

"What is he saying?" I ask again after a while.

"He is saying that nobody will tell us what to do in our own home or impose anything on us, and he is saying: 'Be brothers to one another, be united.'"

That is all they can tell me in their halting English. Everyone learning English should understand that it is getting harder and harder to communicate in that language around the world. The same is true of French and, generally, of all European languages. Once Europe ruled the world, sending its merchants, soldiers, and missionaries
to every continent, imposing on others its own interests and culture (this in usually rather bogus versions). Even in the remotest corners of the world, knowing a European language was a mark of distinction, testifying to an ambitious upbringing, and was often a necessity of life, the basis for career and promotion, and sometimes even a condition for being considered human. Those languages were taught in African schools, used in commerce, spoken in exotic parliaments, Asian courts, and Arab coffeehouses. Traveling almost anywhere in the world, Europeans could feel at home. They could express their opinions and understand what others were saying to them. Today the world is different. Hundreds of patriotisms have blossomed. Every nation wants to control and organize its own population, territory, resources, and culture according to native traditions. Every nation thinks it is or wants to be free, independent, cherishes its own values, and insists upon (and is particularly sensitive about getting) respect for them. Even small and weak nations—these especially—hate to be preached to, and rebel against anyone who tries to rule them or force often suspect values on them. People may admire the strength of others—but preferably at a safe remove and certainly not when used against them. Every power has its own dynamics, its own domineering, expansionist tendencies, its bullying obsessive need to trample the weak. This is the law of power, as everyone knows. But what can the weaker ones do? They can only fence themselves off, afraid of being swallowed up, stripped, regimented into a conformity of gait, face, expression, tongue, thought, response, ordered to give their life's blood for an alien cause, and of finally being crushed altogether. Hence their dissent and revolt, their struggle for independent existence, their struggle for their own language. In Syria the French newspaper was closed down; in Vietnam after the Americans left, the English-language paper, and now in Iran both French and English ones. On radio and television and during press conferences, only Farsi, their own language, is used. A man who can't read the Farsi sign on a woman's clothing store in Teheran—"Entry to this store by men is forbidden under penalty of arrest"—will go to jail. Someone else who cannot read the inscription near Isfahan that warns "Keep Out—Mines!" may die.

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