Book Review

Shah of Shahs

How much imagination can you colour facts with before they become fiction?



Mohammad Reza Pahlavi — Iran’s last Shah

In Shah of Shahs, Ryszard Kapuscinski tows the line between journalism and literature as he covers the two revolutions that shook Iran in the 20th century.

A world-renowned writer, Kapuscinski kicked off his writing career for the Polish Communist government, who awarded him the Golden Cross Award at 23 for his searing criticism of the working conditions of the ‘first socialist municipality in Poland’. It was the beginning of a challenging relationship the writer navigated with the party for decades.

By the time Kapuscinski switched allegiance to the Polish Solidarity movement in 1981 he had reported on 27 revolutions and coups, been imprisoned 40 times and survived 4 death sentences, mainly in Africa.

Shah of Shahs was published in 1982, as the Solidarity movement was picking up steam. Kapuscinski channels the stuffy repressive atmosphere of the Eastern Bloc’s final years into his imagery of mid-20th century Iran. Descriptions of photos and tapes transport you between times and settings.

Safely watching coverage of the Shah’s overthrow as bullets ring outside. Transporting Shah Naser Al-Din’s killer across impoverished villages in 1892. Analysing a photo of the last Shah Mohammad Reza in 1926 with his father, and how their relationship shaped the last Shah’s despotism.

Shah Naser Al-Din

The choppy structure of the book’s first portion allows glimpses of insight into Iran and a couple of its inhabitants. A montage of snippets too detached for the sum to leave a strong impression.

The clearest picture is painted as an image of the Shah’s secret police, the Savak, when the structure gains some focus. Kapuscinksi’s ability to create a tangible hostility in mundane settings that appear to be running normally, such as a bus stop or café, is spectacular. Without anyone muttering a word about police or anyone in uniform present, the mind of those around remain in a prison of fear. The author’s recent experiences in his increasingly suppressive home country shine through here as he describes something that every Iranian is thinking yet explicitly cannot share.

Discussion of the first revolution is brief. The joy of Mosaddegh’s election doesn’t carry the same weight as the preceding negativity. Fleeting, too, is his overthrow and any inspection of the USA and UK forces that ensured it.

Mossadegh’s election and overthrow is mostly ignored

The possibilities had Iranians been in control of their country and their oil isn’t explored. This would have been speculation, so that’s understandable, but in a work filled with so much imagination and fiction, it wouldn’t have gone amiss.

The book’s story of the “petro-capitalists” highlights the contradictions of trying to bring Western liberalism to a country that doesn’t want it. Banning the photography of camels because they’re a “backwards animal” doesn’t scream freedom. Having foreign experts running imported technology without involving Iranians is a tough way to learn what bringing the American “great civilisation” to Persia means. The language with which Kapuscinski highlights this juxtaposition is full of its own contradictions and highlights how the language of ‘democracy’ is distorted.

“A democracy cannot be imposed by force; the majority must favour it. Yet the majority wanted what Khomeini wanted- an Islamic republic.”

If the majority want something, then is its imposition not the democratic choice? The words democracy and liberalism seem to have been confused here. Yes, the people of Iran did not want to live in America. The Shah’s violent unsuccessful attempts at liberalism proved this, but that does not mean the people did not want what they want. If democracy means people’s power, then who is to say the people’s favoured Islamic Republic was an undemocratic installation? People’s power doesn’t mean an American system hostile to organic culture and equality. I wouldn’t personally choose to live in an Iranian Islamic Republic, but just because Iranians favoured their own system doesn’t mean its undemocratic.

Kapuscinksi’s dismembering of the Shah’s attempt to Americanise Iran is brilliant. His subsequent rejection of the Iranian’s self-determination, deeming it as other to democracy, is a shame.

Having spent most of his life in a Soviet satellite state, perhaps he struggled to see a recently freed population choose a society other than the one he yearned for.

When he describes the well-off “intelligent” Iranians as “too weak” to enforce their liberalism onto Iran, his implication seems to be that the savages won. Strong yet stupid, it offers a good parallel to the preceding reign of the Shah.

Writing semi-fictitiously from a wealthier country in a decorated job, Kapuscinksi’s takes on the easy job of criticising the society of a poorer people. When there are opportunities to explore the positives of a country that first voted in a brave Mosaddegh and then overthrew an imperialist puppet, he falls short. The montage of a story may entertain some in its style and sporadically impressive sense of atmosphere. If you’re hoping for a journalistic insight and even analysis, you’ll be at a loss. Kapuscinski wasn’t a fan of Iranian democracy.

Originally published at on January 7, 2021.




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