Ryszard Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1985).


Ryszard Kapucinski is an astute, sardonic but not wholly pessimistic observer of revolutions. Toward the end of this bricolé memoir of the fall of the shah, he tells us that this was the 27th revolution he had observed. One of the central differences between coups and revolts on the one hand, and revolutions on the other, he says, is that revolutions come as surprises. They surprise the arrogant in power, whose theater of oppression is so suddenly ended, and they surprise those who at once gain the confidence and ability to rise up. Kapucinski cannot, however, leave the story there: for revolutions continue to surprise their participants by disappointments, the harsh outbursts of rage, and the ensuing intra-revolutionary fights that succeed the departure of the old regime. His story here ends with the impotence and despair of the secular and liberal opponents of the shah, and of a voluble but ineffective Bani-Sadr pitted against a calm, reserved Beheshti.

Kapucinski’s account inevitably invites comparison with his rendering of the Ethiopian revolution. In both there is the deliberate evocation of the atmosphere of decay, outburst, and post-revolutionary chaos, and in both there are glimpses of the myths and turns of phrase of an old, wise but bewildered people. Yet this is to some extent a less satisfying book than The Emperor, the force of which lay in its account of life within the court as the system crumbled. Here there is little of that unique inside observation; too many of the stories and anecdotes have been told before, and the Pahlavi dynasty, a parvenu regime, lacks the attraction of the tradition-laden House of Solomon.

Kapucinski stresses his sense of being an outsider in the harsh urban landscape of Tehran. The empty streets, the bare hotel rooms, the evasive interlocutors obviously get to him. He tells in grisly detail of the crimes of SAVAK. He is there when the Islamic execution squads start their work. He buys a little too much of current fashion about the inherently revolutionary character of Shi‘ism, but when we meet Gholam, the man who specializes in pulling down statues of the shah on the various occasions when this has been possible, then we are really in Iran. It is a country where sudden reversals of fate and tall stories abound.

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Kapuscinski, Shah of Shahs," Middle East Report 141 (July/August 1986).

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