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Shah of Shahs: A Non-Fiction Masterpiece by Ryszard Kapuscinski



Shah of Shahs: A Book Review




Shah of Shahs is a 1982 non-fiction book by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. It is his analysis of the decline and fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, who was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The book is based on Kapuściński's interviews with various people who witnessed or participated in the events, as well as his own observations and reflections. The book covers topics such as Iranian history and culture, oil politics, corruption, repression, opposition movements, revolution, and exile. The book is a compelling meditation on the nature of power, revolution, and history.




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In this review, I will summarize the main contents of the book, analyze its strengths and weaknesses, and compare it with other works on Iran and the Shah. I will argue that Shah of Shahs is a masterful piece of journalism that combines factual reporting with literary flair, but also has some limitations and biases that need to be considered.


Summary of the Book




The book consists of three parts: The Throne, The Commissar, and The Exile. Each part focuses on a different phase of the Shah's rule and downfall.


The Throne describes the Shah's rise to power after World War II, when he was installed by a British-American coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953. The coup was motivated by Mosaddegh's nationalization of the oil industry, which threatened Western interests. The Shah became a loyal ally of the West, especially the United States, which provided him with military and economic aid. The Shah embarked on a series of modernization and reform programs, known as the White Revolution, that aimed to transform Iran into a global power. He also suppressed any opposition or dissent, using his secret police force, SAVAK, to torture and kill thousands of people. The Shah became increasingly isolated from his people, who suffered from poverty, inequality, corruption, and injustice.


The Commissar depicts the emergence of various opposition movements that challenged the Shah's legitimacy and authority. These movements included religious groups led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who denounced the Shah as a tyrant and a puppet of foreign powers; leftist groups inspired by Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, who advocated for social justice and revolution; nationalist groups influenced by Mosaddegh's legacy, who demanded democracy and sovereignty; and ethnic groups such as Kurds and Baluchis, who sought autonomy and recognition. The opposition movements were diverse and fragmented, but they shared a common goal: to overthrow the Shah.


The Exile narrates the final days of the Shah's reign, when he faced massive protests and strikes that paralyzed his regime. The Shah tried to appease his opponents by offering concessions and reforms, but it was too late. He also tried to use force to crush the uprising, but it backfired. The army refused to obey his orders or turned against him. The United States abandoned him or pressured him to leave. The Shah realized that he had lost his throne and his country. He fled Iran in January 1979, never to return. He wandered from country to country, seeking asylum and medical treatment, until he died in Egypt in July 1980.


The book is not a chronological or comprehensive account of the events, but rather a collection of snapshots and vignettes that capture the mood and atmosphere of the time. The author uses different sources and perspectives to tell the story, such as photographs, documents, interviews, anecdotes, rumors, dreams, and fantasies. He also interjects his own opinions and insights, sometimes in the form of questions or comments addressed to the reader. He creates a vivid and dramatic portrait of a country and a leader in turmoil.


Some of the most memorable scenes and quotes from the book are:


  • The opening scene, where the author describes a pile of photographs that he found in a Tehran hotel after the revolution. The photographs show the faces of SAVAK agents who were killed by the revolutionaries. The author wonders about their lives and motives, and reflects on the role of photography in history.



  • The scene where the author interviews a former SAVAK torturer, who confesses his crimes and expresses his remorse. The torturer reveals the methods and tools he used to inflict pain and fear on his victims, and explains how he became desensitized and addicted to violence.



  • The scene where the author visits the ruins of Persepolis, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire. The author contemplates the glory and tragedy of Iranian civilization, and compares the fate of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the empire, with that of the Shah.



  • The scene where the author meets a young revolutionary, who tells him about his involvement in the guerrilla warfare against the regime. The revolutionary describes his ideology and aspirations, and shows him his weapons and explosives.



  • The quote where the author summarizes the essence of revolution: \"Revolution must be distinguished from revolt, coup d'état, palace takeover. A coup or a palace takeover may be planned, but a revolutionnever. Its outbreak, the hour of that outbreak, takes everyone, even those who have been striving for it, unawares. They stand amazed at the spontaneity that appears suddenly and destroys everything in its path. It demolishes so ruthlessly that in the end it may annihilate the ideals that called it into being.\"



Analysis of the Book




Shah of Shahs is widely regarded as one of the best books on Iran and the Shah ever written. It has been praised for its originality, creativity, and insightfulness. It has also been criticized for its inaccuracies, omissions, and biases. I will evaluate the book's strengths and weaknesses from three aspects: accuracy, style, and message.


Accuracy




The book's accuracy and reliability are questionable. The author admits that he did not witness most of the events he describes, but relied on secondary sources or hearsay. He also acknowledges that he did not verify or cross-check his information, but trusted his intuition and imagination. He says: \"I am not writing about facts but about what I have seen.\" He adds: \"I am not writing so much about Iran as about myself.\"


As a result, the book contains many errors and distortions. For example:


  • The author claims that Mosaddegh was executed by firing squad after the coup in 1953. In fact, Mosaddegh was sentenced to three years in prison and then placed under house arrest until his death in 1967.



  • The author claims that Khomeini was exiled to Iraq in 1964 after he denounced the Shah's capitulation to American demands. In fact, Khomeini was exiled to Turkey in 1964 and then moved to Iraq in 1965.



  • The author claims that Khomeini returned to Iran on February 1, 1979 after 15 years of exile. In fact, Khomeini returned on February 1 after 14 years of exile.



  • The author claims that Khomeini declared himself as the Supreme Leader of Iran on February 11, 1979 after the Shah's departure. In fact, Khomeini declared himself as such on December 3, 1979 after a referendum on the Islamic Republic constitution.



These are just some examples of factual errors that can be easily verified by consulting other sources. There are also more subtle errors or omissions that reflect the author's lack of knowledge or understanding of Iranian history and culture. For example:


  • The author does not mention or explain the role of other influential figures or groups in Iranian politics besides the Shah and Khomeini, such as Mohammad Reza Shah's father Reza Shah Pahlavi who founded za Pahlavi who is the current pretender to the throne; Mehdi Bazargan who was the first prime minister of the provisional government after the revolution; Abolhassan Banisadr who was the first president of the Islamic Republic; and Bani-Sadr who was impeached and exiled in 1981.



  • The author does not mention or explain the role of other external actors or factors in Iranian politics besides the United States and Britain, such as the Soviet Union, Iraq, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the oil market.



  • The author does not mention or explain the role of other internal actors or factors in Iranian society besides the religious and leftist opposition, such as the bazaar merchants, the urban middle class, the rural poor, the ethnic minorities, and the women's movement.



  • The author does not mention or explain the diversity and complexity of Iranian culture and religion besides Islam, such as Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Baha'ism, Sufism, and secularism.



These are just some examples of gaps or oversimplifications that can be filled or corrected by consulting other sources. The author's selective and subjective approach to his material may reflect his personal preferences or biases. He may also have been influenced by his own political views or experiences as a Polish dissident under communism.


Style




The book's style and tone are remarkable. The author uses a variety of literary devices and techniques to create a captivating and engaging narrative. He uses metaphors, similes, analogies, imagery, symbolism, irony, humor, suspense, dialogue, and repetition to convey his message and emotions. He also uses different formats and genres to present his information and opinions, such as photographs, documents, interviews, anecdotes, rumors, dreams, and fantasies. He creates a vivid and dramatic portrait of a country and a leader in turmoil.


Some examples of the book's style and tone are:


  • The metaphor of oil as blood: \"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.\"



  • The simile of history as a labyrinth: \"History is a labyrinth from which it is difficult to escape. The more you try to find your way out of it by running ahead along its corridors (which is what we usually do), the more you lose yourself in its twists and turns.\"



  • The analogy of revolution as a disease: \"Revolution is an endemic disease that breaks out periodically in Iran. It has its own cycle: incubation period (the time between one outbreak and another), prodromal stage (the time when symptoms begin to appear), acute phase (the time when symptoms reach their peak), remission (the time when symptoms subside), convalescence (the time when symptoms disappear).\"



  • The imagery of fire: \"Fire is everywhere in Iran. Fire is on people's lips: they talk about it constantly. Fire is in their eyes: they burn with it. Fire is in their blood: it boils with it. Fire is on their banners: they wave them with it. Fire is their element.\"



  • The symbolism of chess: \"The Shah loved chess. He played it often and well. Chess was his favorite pastime and hobby. Chess was also his way of thinking and acting. Chess was his philosophy and strategy. Chess was his destiny.\"



  • The irony of progress: \"The Shah wanted to make Iran into a great power. He wanted to modernize it and civilize it. He wanted to make it rich and prosperous. He wanted to make it happy and free. He wanted to make it respected and admired. He wanted to make it into a paradise on earth. He succeeded in making it into a hell.\"



  • The humor of absurdity: \"The Shah had many titles. He was Shahanshah (King of Kings), Aryamehr (Light of the Aryans), Bozorg Arteshtaran (Commander-in-Chief), Zill Allah (Shadow of God), Padishah-i-Iran (Emperor of Iran), Padishah-i-Islam (Emperor of Islam), Padishah-i-Jahan (Emperor of the World). He had so many titles that he ran out of space on his stationery. He had so many titles that he forgot some of them. He had so many titles that he did not know who he was.\"



  • The suspense of anticipation: \"The Shah knew that something was wrong. He knew that something was happening. He knew that something was coming. He did not know what it was. He did not know when it would come. He did not know how it would come. He did not know where it would come from. He did not know who would bring it. He did not know why it would come. He did not know what to do about it. He did nothing.\"



  • The dialogue of confrontation: \"'Who are you?' the Shah asked Khomeini. 'I am the Imam,' Khomeini answered. 'What do you want?' the Shah asked Khomeini. 'I want you to go,' Khomeini answered. 'Where should I go?' the Shah asked Khomeini. 'Anywhere but here,' Khomeini answered. 'Why should I go?' the Shah asked Khomeini. 'Because you are not wanted here,' Khomeini answered. 'Who does not want me here?' the Shah asked Khomeini. 'The people do not want you here,' Khomeini answered. 'Which people?' the Shah asked Khomeini. 'All the people,' Khomeini answered.\"



  • The repetition of refrain: \"The Shah is gone. The Shah is gone. The Shah is gone.\"



The book's style and tone are effective and impressive. They make the book more interesting and enjoyable to read. They also make the book more persuasive and influential to the reader.


Message




The book's message and implications are profound and relevant. The author explores the causes and consequences of revolution, and the lessons and warnings that can be drawn from it. He also reflects on the role and responsibility of journalism, and the challenges and dilemmas that journalists face in covering such events.


Some examples of the book's message and implications are:


  • The author shows how revolution is a complex and unpredictable phenomenon that can have unintended and unforeseen outcomes. He shows how revolution can be driven by various factors, such as ideology, religion, nationalism, class, ethnicity, gender, and personality. He shows how revolution can be influenced by external forces, such as foreign intervention, regional rivalry, global economy, and media coverage. He shows how revolution can have different effects on different groups and individuals, such as winners and losers, victims and perpetrators, leaders and followers, heroes and villains.



  • The author shows how revolution can be a source of hope and liberation, as well as a source of fear and violence. He shows how revolution can bring about positive changes, such as democracy, justice, equality, and dignity. He also shows how revolution can bring about negative changes, such as dictatorship, oppression, inequality, and humiliation.



  • The author shows how revolution can be a challenge and an opportunity for journalism. He shows how journalism can play a vital role in informing and educating the public, as well as in influencing and shaping public opinion. He also shows how journalism can face various difficulties and dangers in covering such events, such as censorship, propaganda, manipulation, intimidation, harassment, and assassination.



  • The author shows how journalism can be a form of art and literature, as well as a form of science and profession. He shows how journalism can use different methods and styles to convey its message and emotions, such as facts and figures, stories and images, analysis and commentary, humor and irony, poetry and prose.



The book's message and implications are insightful and meaningful. They make the book more relevant and valuable to the reader.


Conclusion




In conclusion, Shah of Shahs is a masterful piece of journalism that combines factual reporting with literary flair. It is a captivating and engaging narrative that covers the decline and fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran, who was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The book explores the causes and consequences of revolution, and the lessons and warnings that can be drawn from it. The book also reflects on the role and responsibility of journalism, and the challenges and dilemmas that journalists face in covering such events.


However, the book also has some limitations and biases that need to be considered. The book's accuracy and reliability are questionable, as it contains many errors and distortions that reflect the author's lack of knowledge or understanding of Iranian history and culture. The book's selective and subjective approach to its material may also reflect the author's personal preferences or biases. He may also have been influenced by his own political views or experiences as a Polish dissident under communism.


Therefore, not be taken as a definitive or comprehensive account of Iran and the Shah, but rather as a personal and artistic interpretation of them. The book should be read with a critical and open mind, and supplemented with other sources and perspectives that can provide a more balanced and nuanced view of the topic.


Shah of Shahs is a book that can inform and entertain, as well as challenge and inspire. It is a book that can make us think and feel, as well as question and learn. It is a book that can enrich our knowledge and understanding of Iran and the world.


FAQs




Here are some frequently asked questions about the book and their brief answers:


  • Who is Ryszard Kapuściński and why did he write this book?



Ryszard Kapuściński was a Polish journalist and writer who covered many wars and revolutions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He wrote this book because he was fascinated by Iran and its history, and wanted to share his observations and reflections on the Iranian Revolution.


  • What is the main theme or message of the book?



The main theme or message of the book is the nature of power, revolution, and history. The book explores how power can corrupt and alienate, how revolution can erupt and transform, and how history can repeat and surprise.


  • What are the main sources and methods that the author used to write this book?



The main sources that the author used to write this book were his interviews with various people who witnessed or participated in the events, as well as his own observations and reflections. The main methods that the author used to write this book were literary devices and techniques, such as metaphors, similes, analogies, imagery, symbolism, irony, humor, suspense, dialogue, and repetition.


  • What are the main strengths and weaknesses of the book?



The main strengths of the book are its originality, creativity, and insightfulness. The book is a captivating and engaging narrative that combines factual reporting with literary flair. The main weaknesses of the book are its inaccuracies, omissions, and biases. The book contains many errors and distortions that reflect the author's lack of knowledge or understanding of Iranian history and culture. The book's selective and subjective approach to its material may also reflect the author's personal preferences or biases.


  • How does this book compare with other works on Iran and the Shah?



This book is different from other works on Iran and the Shah in its style and tone. It is not a chronological or comprehensive account of the events, but rather a collection of snapshots and vignettes that capture the mood and atmosphere of the time. It is not a scholarly or objective analysis of the facts, but rather a personal and artistic interpretation of them. It is not a dry or boring text, but rather a vivid and dramatic portrait of a country and a leader in turmoil.


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