Before the revolution, I dated an Iranian student who called himself a revolutionary. Since I never knew him to work toward a revolution in any way, I always figured that he thought he was doing something fashionable or expected by espousing the cause. (I’m not saying that many weren’t sincere or that they didn’t have reason to want a change in government.) Still, I never believed that the Iran those students got was the one they wanted.
Shah of Shahs is an odd book, not exactly journalism, not as incisive and fact-based as, say, an essay by Hitchens, full of opinion and supposition. The book jacket refers to Kapuściński as a mythographer and to the book as a combination of journalism and literature. Perhaps it is this combination that I have trouble with.
What the book does provide is plenty of information about the roots of the people’s discontent—and they were truly a mistreated and abused nation. Kapuściński starts by describing his room in a Teheran hotel, where in 1985 he is the only remaining occupant. His room is cluttered with photographs and scraps of notes from interviews. He puts them in order, describes the photos—beginning with one of the Shah’s grandfather—and relates bits of the history of Iran. Later, he describes his interviews with intellectuals who returned from abroad, people whose relatives were tortured by the Savak, people who were afraid to speak or act for fear of torture, people who took part in protests at the risk of their lives, and so on. In one case, he tells the story about an old man who complains about the heat at a bus stop, calling it “oppressive.” He is hauled off by the Savak for using the word “oppressive,” and he probably wasn’t seen again.
The book is sparely written. It also contains fascinating material that brought me to a better understanding of the dilemmas of Iran. But especially toward the end of the book, it indulges itself in flights of philosophical rumination about the causes of revolutions, which I did not find as interesting.