In praise of older books: Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski (1982)

Week 43: A year of Julie Parsons’ favourite books

Tehran 1979. Ryszard Kapuscinski is in his hotel room. “On the floor, chairs, table, desk lie heaps of index cards, scraps of paper, notes so hastily scrawled and chaotic.” This is the 27th revolution that Kapuscinski has witnessed. The end of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi; the beginning of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic republic. “[G]unfire from the depths of an invisible city. The shooting starts regularly at nine as if custom or tradition had fixed the hour.”

The Shah and his pomps have fallen. Kapuscinski flicks through his photographs. Shah Pahlavi’s father, Reza Shah, creator of a huge army. Moderniser. “Everyone: Attention! The Shah issues an order.” The nomadic tribes must be settled, immediately. “He orders their wells poisoned, threatening them with death by thirst and starvation.” The young Shah is crowned Shah of Shahs. Under his eye, Savak, the secret police, rules the land.

People at a bus stop. An everyday scene. Except: one man, “inclining his ear toward three other men talking. . . he was always on duty at the bus stop, eavesdropping. . . Savak had a good ear for all allusions.” Thus, avoid words like “darkness, burden, abyss, collapse, quagmire, putrefaction, cage, bars.”Grotesque tortures: skin, burnt and sliced, living skulls penetrated by drills, fear making madmen of the sane.

A Lufthansa airliner. It flies those of the new class, the “petro-bourgeoisie” whoever “most pleases the ruler, whoever can. . . most ardently flatter him,” from Tehran to Munich, every day, for lunch. While “families huddle in narrow, crowded hovels without electricity or running water.”


Khomeini appears on television. “[N]ot a muscle moves in the face of this man. . . of implacable will.” Kapuscinki’s friends predicted “an imminent cataclysm”. But Kapuscinski visits carpet seller Mr Ferdousi. “What have we given the world? We have given poetry, the miniature and carpets. . . useless things from the productive point of view. . . miraculous, unique uselessness.”

And Kapuscinski gives us something miraculous and unique too. He gives us understanding. Miraculous and unique understanding.