Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Shah of Shahs - Ryszard Kapuściński

Shut in his hotel room, being the only guest in the entire hotel, with the outside world completely in chaos, the city of Tehran under the control of the revolutionary forces, with the rumors of the escape of Shah, the ruler of Iran,  Ryszard Kapuściński, spreads out  few photographs, and few notes that he collected or written, to rebuild the story of a country of the poeple of Iran, as the country witnesses one of the significant days of their history ( and of the world) ,  the 1979 Islamic revolution of Iran. Iran, a country in the world news ever since the beginning of the 20th century ( probably before that as well),  continued to be the in the discussion well into the new millennium. Kapuscinski's book on the Shah and the last days of his regime, goes beyond what is obvious to the very basic realities of Iran, or any country that goes through such strong and violent reaction against their oppressing leaders.

Iran for decades, have been in the news often for reasons not in line with the western world's perspectives and prejudices. Their relationship with the western world was always in turbulent waters since the beginning of the 20th century.  Ahmad Shah Qajar, the last Shah of the Qajar dynasty,  was overthrown in 1925 by Reza Shah Pehlavi ( initially a soldier in the army of Qajars).  Qajars were aligned to the British, who used Iranian borders to launch their attack on the newly formed Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution, trying to destabilise the communist regime. Soviet Union responded by attacking the Iran and annexed some of the provinces, and later provided support to Reza Shah  Pehlavi through the Cossak Regiment, who seized power and became the Shah of Iran in 1925. However, his regime could not withstand the World War II turmoil after an Anglo-Soviet invasion, for his alleged alliance with Germany. The invading powers forced Reza Shah to relinquish his powers and replaced him with his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1941.A Rule, the last of the regime by Shahs, ended in the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

1951 saw the next big turmoil in the history of Iran, when Muhammad Mussadeq, the elected President of the country, made a move that angered the big powers of the world. He nationalized the Oil. In an obvious reaction , the World powers managed to over throw the Government,  forcing Shah to remove the President and imprison him.  Mussadeq was soon declared 'persona non grata' and managed to remove his existence from all walk of life. Mohammad Raza, however lost the ground with his own people. The general resentment and a wrong step irking the anger of the clergy, paved the way for his downfall, resulting in the 1979 revolution in Iran.

All these are available in various notes, reports, books and history texts. We can form our own interpretation and judgement based own your continent, your social and political shifts and religious believes. What makes reading Kapuscinski's book different  ( not only this but the rest as well) is his insights, and his extended knowledge and his comparative analysis gained through his experience. While he does not sound to be judgmental, his ability to put across the various aspect from the eyes of those who are at the receiving end, makes the book a great read.

Unlike the other two books I read, this is not a reportage and commentary of his observation, but a reflection of his contemplative thoughts. There is no action oriented sequences of the events, but largely follows through random notes and photographs, and his collection of ideas through various meetings. With each of them providing the catalytic trigger, he examines the events and social conditions that culminated in the elimination of the existing regime, and the formation of the Islamic Republic under the guidance of the Shiite clergy, lead by Ayatollah Khomeini. The looks at the Shiite life style, the conflict with the rest of the Islamic sects over 14 centuries, the ethnic tribes suffered various invasion forced to live under oppression for many centuries, the conversion of Zoroastrian believes to that of Shia from the religious angle, to the power of oil and while the country has abundance of wealth through the "liquid gold', the population in the villages continue to use dried cow dung as fuel, the manipulation of the Western powers in the politics of the region with the eye on the oil, the struggle of a Shia state surrounded by Sunni populated countries, the sociological significance of the Iranian people largely formed due to these external factors and similar other topics which usually does not figure in the historical texts make it a worth while read.

Kapuscinski is one of my favourite writers. Despite being a journalist, he seems to be able to get across his thoughts and ideas beyond the lens of a typical paperman. And the method of delivery differs each time. While this book is very informative and insightful, personally I liked the 'Soccer War' and 'Imperium' more.
Shah of Shahs ( 1982)

Ryszard Kapuściński  ( translated from Polish by William R Brand & Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand  1985)

Penguin Books

152 Pages
 The Millions, Wiki , Esquire

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