SHAH OF SHAHS by Ryszard Kapuscinski
Kirkus Star


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Polish journalist Kapuscinski is fascinated by the vagaries of supreme power and by its collapse. His look at Haille Selassie (The Emperor) was slightly unbelievable, but this post-mortem on the Shah of Iran is successful on the level of surreal political reportage. Sitting around his hotel room after the Shah's fall--the only guest in the hotel--Kapuscinski goes through some photographs and listens to some tape recordings. He talks about a picture of people waiting for a bus, but as he describes the picture, one person is transformed into a secret police (Savak) agent, apparently reading a newspaper but actually eavesdropping on casual conversation. Kapuscinski is very good at describing official terror, and his depiction of Savak, in the photograph and in his taped conversations with Iranians, is chilling in its matter-of-factness. To say that the heat is oppressive within hearing of Savak means going to jail: in the Shah's Great Civilization, words like oppressive are not allowed. Being picked up by Savak means having one's fingernails pulled out, or eyelids burned off, often before being asked for one's name. The terror holding the Shah up means that the stories of crazy spending on military hardware or advanced industrial technology (despite the lack of transport facilities or trained personnel) are more than stories of an autocrat and his megalomaniacal whims. But the Shah's fortune (in the billions), and the parasitic ""proto-bourgeosie"" he created, were of course doomed. Now the Ayatollah reigns in a new kind of fanaticism to which Kapuscinski, in his hotel, is no less an outsider. He interviews a man who specializes in destroying monuments to the Shah (both this Shah and his father); he attends one of the myriad committee meetings, where the time is taken up in searching first for a piece of paper and then for a pencil, interspersed with cups of tea (Kapuscinski himself leaves before the pencil is ever found). Kapuscinski's alienated, disembodied style works perfectly here: it's his kind of material and he makes the most of it.

Pub Date: March 18th, 1985
ISBN: 0679738010
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich