The writing on the wall
Ryszard Kapuscinski, the great Polish journalist who died last year, witnessed 27 coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times. He became friends with Che Guevara, Salvadore Allende and Patrice Lumumba. There were few world leaders he did not know in person.
If there ever was a reporter’s reporter, without doubt it was Kapuscinski. Salman Rushdie said of him, “One Kapuscinski is worth more than a thousand whimpering and fantasising scribblers. His exceptional combination of journalism and art allows us to feel so close to what Kapuscinski calls the inexpressible true image of war.” Once he told an interviewer that he really wrote for “people everywhere still young enough to be curious about the world.” Among his best known works is The Emperor , about the decline and fall of the anachronistic empire of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. But the book that would remain the most profound analysis of authoritarian rulers and why they fail to see what is obvious to the whole world is the one he wrote about the Shah of Iran. He called it Shah of Shahs . First published in 1982, it has been translated into numerous languages and undergone many reprints. He wrote in Polish but had the good fortune of finding wonderful translators who were able to bring out the high drama and sensitivity of his writing into other languages.
The English translators of Kapuscinski’s Shah book, William R. Brand and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand, deserve a medal for their superb rendition of this master work. I first read it last year, but have been reading it again since the dramatic events in Pakistan began to unfold, culminating in the February 18 elections, the fall of the ruling party and what looks like growing pressure on President Pervez Musharraf to call it a day. I wanted to remind myself what Kapuscinski had written about absolute rulers and why they find it so hard to leave when it is time to do so.
Kapuscinski writes, “Although dictatorship despises the people, it takes pains to win their recognition. In spite of being lawless – or rather, because it is lawless – it strives for the appearance of legality. On this point it is exceedingly touchy, morbidly oversensitive. Moreover, it suffers from a feeling (however deeply hidden) of inferiority. So it spares no pains to demonstrate to itself and others the popular approval it enjoys. Even if this support is a mere charade, it feels satisfying. So what if it’s only in appearance. The world of dictatorship is full of appearances.”
About the Shah he writes that he was irresolute but resolute about retaining his throne and to that end, he explored every possibility. He tried to shoot people down and he tried to democratise. He locked people up and he released them. He fired some and he promoted others. He threatened and he commended. In short, he tried everything but what he would not understand was that the people simply did not want him. They did not want his kind of authority. Kapuscinski writes, “The Shah’s vanity did him in. He thought of himself as the father of the country, but the country rose against him. He took it to heart and felt it keenly. At any price (unfortunately, even blood), he wanted to restore the former image, cherished for years, of a happy people prostrate in gratitude before their benefactor. But he forgot that we are living in times when people demand rights, not grace.”
According to Kapuscinski, the Shah perished because he took himself too seriously. He believed that the people worshipped him and thought of him as the best and worthiest part of themselves. He could not just believe that they had revolted. It led him to violent, hysterical and mad decisions. The Shah was impatient. He did not want to wait. And in politics you have to know how to wait. Kapuscinski believes that another reason for the Shah’s fall was that he did not really know his own country. He would step out of the palace and then step right back him. Kapuscinski writes that the structure of destructive and deforming laws that operates in the life of all palaces has always remained the same. “So it has been from time immemorial, so it is and shall be. You can build ten new palaces, but as soon as they are finished they become subject to the same laws that existed in the palaces built five thousand years ago. The only solution is to treat the palace as a temporary abode, the same way you treat a streetcar or a bus. You get in, you ride a while, and then off you get. And it’s very good to remember to get off at the right stop and not ride too far.”
Kapuscinski points out that the most difficult thing to do while living in a palace is to imagine a different life, a life outside the palace, a life without the palace. But few want to leave when it is time to do so. He cites Charles de Gaulle as an example. “Take de Gaulle – a man of honour. He lost a referendum, tidied up his desk, and left the palace, never to return. He wanted to govern only under the condition that the majority accept him. The moment the majority refused him their trust, he left. But how many are like him? The others will cry, but they won’t move; they’ll torment the nation, but they won’t budge. Thrown out one door, they sneak in through another; kicked down the stairs, they begin to crawl back up. They will excuse themselves now and scrape, lie and simper, provided they can stay – or provided they can return. They will hold out their hands – Look, no blood on them. But the very fact of having to show those hands covers them with the deepest shame. They will turn their pockets inside out – Look, there is not much there. But the very fact of exposing their pockets – how humiliating! The Shah, when he left the palace, he was crying. At the airport he was crying again. Later he told in interviews how much money he had, and that it was less than people thought.”
One has to ask oneself: Why do those for whom the writing on the wall is intended end up being the only ones unable to read it?