Below is an article I wrote for the Daily Kos thread Books That Changed My Life. It’s about the writer Ryszard Kapuscinski and his effect on me, specifically his Shah of Shahs, and reflections on the current dynamics.
There’s an old saying among paramedics: “It’s not my emergency.” I’ve never been a war correspondent, but I would imagine they have some similar admonishment for beginners in the field. Both professions go into situations others wish to get out of. Both have professional obligations and agendas, and must maintain a certain detachment. At the end of each call I run, I write a report; certain questions must always be answered, the narrative must be factual and purely objective, and anything you didn’t write officially didn’t happen.
I suspect there are similar rules about journalism. If there are, Ryszard Kapuscinski apparently discarded some of them. Kapuscinski’s work has been described as literature disguised as journalism. Kapuscinski was a rule breaker, because the rules simply didn’t fit who he was. His commitment to his own vision has been a comfort as I break the rules that don’t fit me, either.
While the subject of Shah of Shahs is the Iranian Revolution of 1979, its tone can be gleaned from the chapter titles: Cards, Faces, Fields of Flowers; Daguerreotypes; and The Dead Flame. If you’re looking for a comprehensive, academic history this isn’t it. In Shah of Shahs he uses snapshots as jumping off points, an excellent strategy for his non-linear style. His books are about war, but Kapuscinski himself is about the moments of human experience.
As a paramedic trainee I was called out to a low-acuity cardiac arrest. He was in his 80s, slender, with the open eyes and smile that the dead often develop as the ligaments and tendons retract. My field training officer taught me the drill; we’ll run a cardiac strip on him to document on paper that he’s dead.
I looked around at the pictures he had framed on every wall; weddings from the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s, the growth stages of three blonde girls, a boy who once played Little League and is now in the 101st Airborne. When the man’s brother arrived I expressed my sympathy and asked about the children. Were they his grandchildren? No, they were nieces and nephews, but he adored them.
Back at the truck my FTO said, “Don’t do that again.” Had I been rude to the family member? No, she meant don’t ever humanize the dead person. Don’t look at their pictures or make eye contact with the family. “You won’t survive,” she said.
She had missed the part of the conversation where the brother said the dead man had called him at 1:00 a.m. to tell him something so hilarious that he didn’t care if he woke him up. “He was always cutting up, that guy.” I felt fine about his death, even honored in a way, to have been a sort of witness for his brother.
My FTO told me about a call she had been on, an infamous horror full of fear and death. She spoke all around it, eyes riveted on the road, her personal anguish the proverbial gorilla in the living room. To say anything at all would have been an assault on her. The slightest trace of compassion, if verbalized, would have lanced her like a boil. To let her know that I had zero intention of following this rule would have been an affront. There was nothing to be done about it but witness.
Shah of Shahs opens with Kapuscinski introducing us to the protagonists without naming names:
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,
HE HAS LEFT
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:
HE HAS RETURNED
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!)
The first time I ever heard of Iran was after the embassy takeover. The morning DJs I listened to as a 15-year-old in Chicago began to mock the Ayatollah. I had never met an Iranian, and couldn’t imagine why anyone sane would depose the sophisticated Shah and his stylish wife in favor of the scowling man with the unwieldy unibrow.
Kapuscinski provides the perspective required to form a mature concept of the man and his leadership style:
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…. 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… 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 here Kapuscinski comes back to his “here and now,” in a Teheran hotel asking the men drinking tea and playing cards to translate Khomeini’s address into English. This leads to a stream of consciousness tangent about Europeans losing their language supremacy in the changing global dynamics, observing that: “Hundreds of patriotisms have blossomed.” While acknowledging the evils of hegemony, and the injustice of Western dominance, he laments no longer being able to rely on transistor radio to guide him through the world’s ugliest human experiences:
When I turn the dial I get ten stations, each using a different language, and I can’t understand a word… Are they saying that the money in my pocket is no longer any good? Are they saying that war has broken out?
Television is the same.
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 distant 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.
The book, believe it or not, really is about the Iranian revolution. He goes on:
After a short break (during which they show fields of flowers – they love flowers here and plant colorful, luxuriant gardens around the tombs of their greatest poets) the photo of a young man appears on the screen. An announcer says something.‘What’s he saying?’ I ask my cardplayers.
‘He’s giving the name of the man in the photo. And telling who he was.’
Then another photograph appears, and another – photos from student identity cards, framed pictures, snapshots from automatic photo machines, photographs with ruins in the background, one family portrait with an arrow pointing to a barely visible girl to show who is being described. Each photograph appears for a few moments; the list of names the announcer is reading goes on and on.
The parents are asking for information. They have been doing this for months, hoping against hope.
I remember seeing the news of the revolution on TV in Chicago. They explained that the revolutionaries opposed the Shah’s attempts at modernization. I don’t recall any mention of Savak.
Kapuscinski describes rampant paranoia under the Shah’s regime. Married couples didn’t dare talk politics. Not that they didn’t trust each other, but Savak randomly abducted people from the streets and tortured them, only asking questions hours or days later. There was no telling how anyone would respond, or how long/how much they could hold out. Everyone in the country was vulnerable in the most intimate way imaginable.
This picture was hanging alongside slogans, proclamations, and a few other photographs on the bulletin board in front of a revolutionary committee building in Shiraz. I asked a student to translate the handwritten statement thumbtacked below the photo. ‘It’s written here,’ he said, ‘that this little boy, three years old, Habib Fardust, was a prisoner of Savak.’ ‘What?’ I asked. ‘Three years old and a prisoner?’ He answered that sometimes Savak locked up a whole family, which is what happened in this case. He read the statement to the end and added that the boy’s parents had died during torture.
The allure of the revolution becomes clear with this description of Reza Khan’s (the last Shah’s father’s) agenda:
Ancient, slumbering, loafing Iran (on the Shah’s orders, Persia will hereafter be called Iran) trembles to its foundations… The Shah bans chadors. In the streets, police tear them off of terrified women. The faithful protest in the mosques of Meshed. He sends in the artillery to level the mosques and massacre the rebels. He orders that the nomadic tribes be settled permanently. The nomads protest. He orders their wells poisoned, threatening them with death by thirst and starvation. The nomads keep protesting, so he sends out punitive expeditions that turn vast regions into uninhabited land. A lot of blood flows. He forbids the photographing of that symbolically backward beast, the camel. In Qom a mullah preaches a critical sermon, so, armed with a cane, the Shah enters the mosque and pummels the critic.
Kapuscinski touches on the involvement of the English, Americans and Russians, and Reza Khan’s admiration for Hitler. Descriptions of the main actors are portraits, not case studies.
Regarding a photograph of Shah Mohammed Reza on the day he succeeded his father:
This picture was repeated in all the published commemorative albums devoted to the Shah, of which there were scores, if not hundreds. He loved reading books about himself and looking through albums published in his honor. He loved unveiling his monuments and portraits. Catching a glimpse of the monarch’s likeness was nearly unavoidable. To stand in any given place and open your eyes was enough: The Shah was everywhere. Since height was not his strong point, photographers always shot from angles that made him seem the tallest person in the picture. He furthered this illusion by wearing elevator shoes. His subjects kissed his shoes. I have just such a picture, where they are prostrating themselves and kissing his elevator shoes.
Regarding Khomeini as perceived by the people:
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 away from misery and persecution. That Khomeini almost always appears in photographs only as an aged man could be taken as confirmation of this belief.
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… Oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free.
The rise and fall of Doctor Mossadegh:
This is undoubtedly the greatest day in the long life of Dr. 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 Dr. Mossadegh just performed was tantamount to dropping a bomb suddenly and unexpectedly on Washington or London… 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!…
[T]he Doctor has transferred his bed, a briefcase full of pajamas (he is used to working in his pajamas), and a bag full of medicines to parliament, where he thinks he will be safe. He lives and works here, never venturing out, already so broken that those who visit him always tell of the tears in his eyes. All his hopes have vanished, all his calculations have proven wrong. He has eliminated the English from the oilfields, for each nation has the right to its own resources, but he forgot that might makes right. The West proclaims a blockade of Iran and a boycott of the country’s oil, which becomes forbidden fruit on the world market…
I saw him two weeks before his death. When was that? It must have been in February, ’67. He had spent the last ten years of his life under house arrest on a little farm outside Teheran. Visiting him was forbidden, of course, and the police watched the whole area. But you can arrange anything in this country if you know the right people and have the money. Money changes all the iron rules into rubber bands… Until the end he thought clearly and knew exactly what was going on. Yet he could get around only with difficulty, leaning on a cane. He would stop and lie down on the ground to rest. The police who watched him said later that he was out walking like that one morning and lay down on the ground to rest, but he stayed there for a long time and when they went up to him they could see he was dead.
Kapuscinski himself was sentenced to death many times throughout his career. He was asked about this in the documentary A Poet on the Frontline.
Interviewer: I understand that you’ve been sentenced to death on a number of occasions. How do you face that psychologically?Kapuscinski: This is, I’m not talking about those problems never. Never answer these questions. Next one, please.
As one who lives with PTSD, I immediately recognized in Kapuscinski some of the same coping mechanisms I employ. He can’t talk about that any more than my FTO could talk about that big fire.
The theme of this thread is “Books that Changed My Life.” That’s MY life. Kapuscinski’s work has impacted me greatly in my journey as a paramedic, and like my idol, I find it virtually impossible to discuss the parts of it that are about me.
Interviewer: Is there any attraction to danger or is it simply an inconvenience?Kapuscinski: No. Danger is a terrible thing. There’s no attraction. I never saw the people who are – who don’t feel fear.
The master has chosen to deflect the question so astutely asked. She wasn’t asking about the Africans trapped in civil wars or Iranians tortured by Savak. She wanted to know about the “you can’t go home again” part of PTSD. She wants to understand the part of him that cannot look away, the part of him that doesn’t just sit around Pinsk playing cards.
Aside from being a brilliant writer Kapuscinski was stellar human being, one who was kind but not gullible, skeptical rather than cynical, and courageous without being egotistical. While I understand precisely what the interviewer was asking, I also understand why he wouldn’t answer it. It is not humility but self-preservation that demands we fix our gaze always on the suffering of others.
As the 2012 elections draw near, with every city in our country – and cities around the world – occupied by the peasants, the drums of war with Iran grow louder. Fake assassination attempts seem designed to stir popular outrage. America’s push for a war with Iran reminds me of a woman considering having a baby to save her failing relationship with an abusive man. Maybe another war will straighten everything out, and we can go back to business as usual.
Do they feel secure that our young people will continue to tolerate the military-industrial complex? Is this a sort of ultimatum? Will the people Occupying America go along with Israel, the Saudis and the neocons to make war on Iran?
What would Kapuscinski have said about the Occupation?
Oil is a resource that anesthetizes thought, blurs vision, corrupts… Oil, though powerful, has its defects. It does not replace thinking or wisdom. For rulers, one of the 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.
Mossadegh: “Hey little man! I told you to be constitutional monarch. But you didn’t listen.”
Should Iranians use not a Guy Fawkes, but a Mossadegh mask?
Do you know that for twenty-five years it was forbidden to utter [Mossadegh’s] 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.[Mossadegh] 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! … 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.
Unfortunately the Persian tradition of endless arrays of photographs of young people killed for no good reason continues. Only now instead of the Shah, it’s the Islamic Revolutionaries that have tortured, killed and discarded them. The photographs of this generation of revolutionary martyrs are guarded by Anonymous Iran (Iranymous?). The Savak has given way to the Basij, and it occurs to me to wonder if the very same angry anti-intellectuals wouldn’t be equally willing to belong to either organization as long as they were allowed to do the same duties.
Meanwhile the honeymoon is over in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Ahmedinejad and Khameini can’t fix their marriage with a baby, and like the name Mossadegh, the Green movement has been banned. The men in the video below face imprisonment, torture and execution in Evin Prison just for participating in any rap video, much less this one. Note that every one of them shows his face. Do they look frightened? Lonely?
Are they not linked into the mindset of the Occupation? “A true soldier doesn’t just think of himself, they think of the future and tomorrow. We’re a handful of soldiers.” Their swagger isn’t bravado. When they risk their lives to shout, “We don’t fear the axe,” they mean it literally. Executions are public in Iran, and Ahmedinejad has the same mercy and circumspection as Rick Perry. There are no women in that video, no gold chains or pitbulls. It isn’t about their egos.
Should the Islamic Republic and their American counterparts decide to grace us with another round of never-ending war, they may discover that their games will no longer work. Maybe they should check Mubarak’s Facebook status and Tweet each other. I wish Kapuscinski and Mossadegh were still alive to witness this amazing time and guide us through. Maybe Mossadegh’s time has finally come.