Review: Shah of Shahs

cvr_shah-of-shahs-by-ryszard-kapuscinskiShah of Shahs, by Ryszard Kapuściński, William R. Brand (Translator), Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand (Translator), and Margaret Atwood (Contributor: “Afterward”)

MY RATING: 4/5 Stars

FTC NOTICE: Library Book (both times)

REVIEW: “Only a few months ago it was an achievement, like winning a lottery, to get a room in this city. Despite the many, many hotels, there was such an avalanche of people that new arrivals had to rent beds in private hospitals just to have a place to stay. Now the boom of easy money and dazzling transactions is over, the local businessmen are lying low, and the foreign partners have fled, leaving everything behind (5). Tourism has fallen to zero; all international traffic has frozen. Some hotels were burned down, others are closed or empty, and in one of them, guerrillas have set up their headquarters. Today the city is engrossed in its own affairs, it doesn’t need foreigners, it doesn’t need the world” (5-6). Everything has suddenly changed: welcome to Iran’s Islamic Revolution

When Iran’s last shah fled his country, he terminated approximately 2,500 years of monarchy and a few decades of significant progress in women’s rights, religious freedom, the arts, technology, business, oil and nuclear energy, plus military might. Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński had been assigned to Iran cover Ayatollah Khomeini’s return and events surrounding the revolution. As he watched the television to see the initial speech, the author noted the following: “Nothing in that murderous climate would seem to favor reflection and contemplation, yet Qom is a place of religious fervor, rabid orthodoxy, mysticism, and faith militant.  It contains five hundred mosques and the nation’s biggest seminaries.  Koranic scholars and the guardians of tradition quarrel in Qom; the venerable ayatollahs convene their councils there; Khomeini rules the country from Qom.” (6).

Kapuściński authored “Shah of Shahs” as a way to communicate timelines via dagguerotypes (photos and cassette recordings). The journalist’s contemplative and wise voice definitely came through as the reader took in descriptions of images and circumstances. The approach seemed distant, yet intimate, as he described Iran’s vast history, the lead-up to revolution and as well as a psychological profile of the country’s leadership and sociological make-up of its citizenry…the latter of which appeared to be significantly misunderstood by the Pahlavis. He designed the book as a travel log, an approach consistent with another work of his that I recently read, about his travels through one of Iran’s neighbors: the Soviet Empire. Its corresponding compendium titled “Imperium,” reveals a consistency in the author’s qualities; one must read both works to recognize how true they were to the author’s writing style and in their paralleled histories, which made sense given their intertwining relationship(s). “Shah of Shahs” heavily focused on the following themes:

*Fervent nationalism: mandated unique language—Farsi.
*Petroleum business: so much money, so little for the people.
*Regime change.
*Inertia of revolution.
*Societal changes: progression, regression, repression.
*Power-struggles and hierarchy: familial, governmental, international.
*Paradoxical histories: lessons of opposites.

Shah of Shahs” was the first book containing the great lessons of Ryszard Kapuściński. In 2013 I rated the book an easy five stars. On this re-read, and after reading so many more works dealing with the same topics, my excitement seemed a bit tempered; then (early 2017) I gave the book a four-star rating. Please note that he book remained as recommendable as before. It did an excellent job of taking a large amount of information and condensing it into nuggets of the most important data points necessary to understand the ascension and reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. The author’s voice and format remained unique when compared to many other reading experiences I had in the four years between the first and second reads. I simply did not find myself as impressed with the work as before. One could combine the two ratings, to yield four-and-a-half starts, then round them up to five stars…I guess; but, the gusto just did not seem to still be there on the second read. What it did lead me to was the intent to read more Kapuściński in 2017 (which was exactly what I did with his book, “Imperium).