Customer Reviews: Shah of Shahs
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on August 27, 2004
Kapuscinski was born in Poland in the 1930s and lived through World War II. He would go on to write for Poland's national news service (their version of the AP) as a foreign correspondent. He covered the "little wars," the insurgencies, revolutions, and coups that are barely reported in the western media. His point of view is fascinating: a man living behind the Iron Curtain serves his country by reporting on terrifying conflicts in the most inhospitable parts of the world. When you read Kapuscinski's work you may at first feel like something is missing, and then you realize that what's missing is a Western perspective and the presumption and detachment that comes with it. Kapuscinski, like no other writer I've read, is able to delve into the psyche of his subjects and produce remarkable insights about their nature and the nature of their oppression. Which isn't to say that his writing is dry. More often than not, the episodes he relates are quite harrowing. Shah of Shahs is no exception. Quite unexpectedly, I found this book about the Shah and his overthrow by Ayatollah Khomenei to be very relevant to today's conflicts, specifically, the difficulties inherent in replacing a brutal and oppressive regime without falling prey to extremism. His discussion of the horrors of the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, is astonishing, and his insight into the vulnerability of the Iranians as they attempted to move on from decades of oppression is fascinating. In assessing the difficulties of undoing the damage of a regime like the Shah's, the parallels to today's struggles in Iraq are hard to ignore, and, as such, the book was especially interesting to read at this moment in history. I have one book by Kapuscinski left to read, and after that, I can only hope that some benevolent publisher decides to put out more of his work.
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on March 15, 2004
This is the first of Kapucinski's books that I've read and it takes a little while to get used to his style, but once you've settled in, it is quite entertaining. The book is historical, but written by a journalist, so you expect the style to fall somewhere between that of an historian and a journalist. Suprisingly <i>Shah of Shahs</i> reads more like a novel.
The book is divided into three sections: One which introduces the unrest in Iran in the 1970s, another of descriptions of photographs and recollections from notes and interviews, and lastly section called the "The Dead Flame" that hints at what is coming the wake of revolution. It poignantly shows through the author's own experience (Iran's revolution was the 27th that he'd witnessed) that things were no different there than they were in a multitude of Latin American and African countries.
Kapuscinski's style is seductive and addictive. I know I will be reading more of his work in the future.
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on December 3, 2004
An outstanding first-hand account of the events and causes of the Iranian revolution. I lived through those days and the vivid nature of this book brings those days alive. Most people will judge this book in accordance to their political opinion of the revolution and its aftermath, but, leaving that aside, the book is an excellent account of the snowballing events that took place.
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on March 22, 2005
After reading a couple of Kapuscinski's works, the gold standard in my mind continues to be 'Another Day of Life' (his tale of the Angolan conflict). Still, though, it's tough to belittle in any fashion the work of a man who - as he notes late in the book - has just witnessed his 27th revolution in 'the Third World' (and I want to make clear it is the author, not the reviewer, that consigned the Iran of 1979 - 1980 to that category).

This short book (no more than a couple of hours' read) does have a some insightful things to say about power, most notably how to abuse it, and how to squander it. And, for those wondering how Iran could shake off the shackles of plutocracy/kleptocracy and plunge into theocracy, Kapuscinski pithily comments:

"The Shah left people a choice between Savak and the mullahs. And they chose the mullahs...It is not always the best people that emerge from hiding...but often those that have proven themselves strongest, not always those who will create new values but rather those whose thick skin and internal resiliance have ensured their survival."

Towards the end of the book (originally published in Polish in 1982 and first translated into English in 1985), pessimism sets in with Kapuscinski as he notes "the conservative hardliners gradually gained the upper hand over the enlightened and open ones." But, as he points out "a democracy cannot be imposed by force, the majority must favor it, yet the majority wanted what Khomeini wanted - an Islamic republic."
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on March 2, 2005
This is the best case study I have ever read of how absolute power drains away. Kapuscinski's "I am a camera" technique gives voices to many different voices of the Islamic revolution in Iran, but the best part of the book is the way it demonstrates the folly and sheer bad timing of the Shah. This book has a kind of torque: as the Shah's reign gets closer to the end, events seem to speed up. The Shah and his circle must make more decisions more rapidly, and they come up short.

Kapuscinksi's eye for the absurd detail and ear for the casual but prescient remark are used to beautiful effect in this book.
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on February 6, 2002
Kapuscinski writes one of the most accessible, entertaining histories that I've ever read in Shah of Shahs; and in so doing allows the American reader some glimpse into what things were like in Iran during the heady, confusing days of the Iranian revolution. While readable, this book is also rather challenging as it tends to speak to subjects that Americans don't know about and uses terms and devices that many may not be ready to see in a work of non-fiction. Don't assume that Kapuscinski will write in the menacing, deadly serious tone that many other (mostly American) writers reserve for Iran and the other "Axis of Evil" nations; because he doesn't. Instead, he takes the time and effort to recount these terribly serious events in a semi-serious way, while keeping contact with the undercurrent of absurdity and entropy that so many Eastern European writers bring to their work and that is so very appropriate when thinking, talking, and writing about the actions of men and nations.
Iran is probably the most misunderstood (by Americans) country there is. You may or may not have some more insight into Iran after reading this book. In my case it spurred me to find out more about their history, the history of Shi'ism, and Islam generally; all topics that most Americans would profit from knowing about. The most striking thing is that Americans have a lot more in common with Iranians than may be imagined, starting with our hatred of tyranny and deep religious committment. And that's not a bad start.
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on October 27, 2002
This is a very interesting book. Since there seems to be some confusion about it, let me make clear what this book is NOT; if you are looking for any of the following you should look elsewhere:
- A blow by blow account of the shah's life and the revolution with 30 references per 'fact'.
- A book about Americans. This book, being what it is, is about ehm...Iranians.
- Moral indignation about any of the protagonists whether the revolutionaries or the Shah or the Americans.
What this is, is a feelings book, a mood book. What this book will give you a feel for(according to the authors interpretation of course!) is:
- The nature of Iranian life before the oil boom
- The nature of the Shah and how he perhaps saw himself.
- The immense physical and physcological changes the oil boom brought to the region
- The Shah's tragicomic efforts to modernize.
- How Iranians saw themselves, the backwardness and the new modernity entering the land.
- The nature of life under the Shah.
- What would be the mood during the eventful days leading upto the revolution.
- Why these revolutions(Kapuscinski's 27th!) invariably fall apart, why those who could produce positive change invariably get shunted aside.
- What it might take to produce positive change.
This is a very good book. Kapuscinski makes some excellent observations. He is very perceptive and has the habit of sifting through the fog, to the root of the subject. Only gripe would be that the photographs should have been printed in the first section on Daguerrotypes, and sometimes his writing style gets a little too cute, and tends to lapse into hyperbolic metaphor.
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on November 4, 2003
Ryszard's book 'The Shah of Shahs' tells me far more about the country during that turbulent time than drier history books or opiniated polemics on the politics of the region. His style of letting the people and events around him speak for themselves is illuminating. He has an empathic and observant eye, and a knack for being in the right place.
Most important of all, he sees these world shaping events for their effects on the people who must live, suffer or die through them as though THEY are what matters, and not the events or dictator biographies themselves. This is a humane and enlightened viewpoint, and ends up teaching me more about what happened during those times than other approaches.
There is a beauty and truthfulness in this style of journalism of immersion and talking to people that helps to make sense of the many conflicting arguments and perspectives of complex issues. I have nothing but praise for the man and his books, and you would do well to read them yourself
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on September 11, 2006
A documentary of the 27th regime collapse Kapuscinski has witnessed himself. This time it is the Shah of Iran in 1979.

K. writes of a fear that creates a boundary for thinking; a thinking that involves only terms of basic materials:

"The great thing about the concrete is that it has its own clearly demarcated armed frontiers with warning bells along them. When a mind immersed in the concrete begins to approach that border, the bells warn that just beyond lies the field of treacherous general ideas, undesirable reflections, and syntheses. At the sound of this signal the cautious mind recoils and drives back into the concrete" (Kapuscinski, 84).

K. writes of a conversation he has with a Persian rug dealer:

"It is all a question of taste, he tells me: The most inportant thing, sir, is to have taste. The world would look far different if a few more people had a drop more taste. In all horrors (for he does call them horrors), like lying, treachery, theft, and informing, he distinguishes a common denominator-such things are done by people with no taste" (Kapuscinski, 151).

Americans should not glance over this book because it was published in 1979. Its themes of fear and control on the one hand, and decency and taste on the other hand, are very relevent to Americans in 2006.
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on May 18, 1998
This is one of my favorite books of all time. It gave me more information about Iran than everything I read in newspapers or heard on the radio for all the years of the hostage crisis and since. Despite being translated from the Polish, it reads like poetry or myth, and manages to convey a gut level understanding of what it is to be Iranian. Along the way it pulls up all kinds of other issues, and illuminates them with great compassion and insight.What happens to the ruler of a poor third world country when oil suddenly brings unimaginable wealth? What is it like to live with the fear of the secret police permeating every thought and action? What mysterious factor causes a fearful hopeless population to finally revolt against its opressors?
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