Capturing the immediacy of political upheaval, from <i>Shah of Shahs</i> to Andrew Sullivan
Experience had taught them to avoid uttering such terms as oppressiveness, darkness, burden, abyss, collapse, quagmire, putrefaction, cage, bars, chain, gag, truncheon, boot, claptrap, screw, pocket, paw, madness, and expressions like lie down, lie flat, spreadeagle, fall on your face, wither away, gotten flabby, go blind, go deaf, wallow in it, something's out of kilter, something's wrong, all screwed up, something's got to give-because all of them, these nouns, verbs, adjectives, and pronouns, could hide allusions to the Shah's regime, and thus formed a connotative minefield where you could get blown to bits with one slip of the tongue.This quotation is from Ryszard Kapuscinskis' extraordinary book Shah of Shahs. I will never forget my experience reading it (1992, seven years after it was published, in my bed, in a rowhouse in Philadelphia, a graduate student, rapt, all in one night, crying). I was stunned by what Kapuscinski accomplishes in this slim book, a concise, beautiful account of the 1979 overthrow of the Shah of Iran. Kapuscinski does what so many of us seek to do through writing: he shows a world-a politics, a culture, a moment, a people-filtered through words rendered stark, overlaid by his experiences, ovewhelmed by pathos, necessarily partial yet still able to move us towards us overview and understanding. On the overthrow of the Shah, Kapuscinski writes:Seldom does a people live through such moments! But just then the sense of victory seemed natural and justified. The Shah's Great Civilization lay in ruins. What had it been in essence? A rejected transplant. It had been an attempt to impose a certain model of life on a community attached to entirely different traditions and values. It was forced, an operation that had more to do with surgical success in itself than with the question of whether the patient remained alive-or equally important-remained himself.Never the objective journalist removed from the story, the book begins in his hotel room, Tehran 1979:The worst chaos is on the big round table: photos of various sizes, cassettes, 8-mm film, newsletters, photocopies of leaflets-all piled, mixed up together, helter-skelter, like a flea market. And more posters and albums, records and books acquired or given by people, the collected remnants of an era just ended but still able to be seen and heard because it has been preserved here on film-flowing, agitated rivers of people.As I retype Kapuscinski's words into my computer, to be emailed to my editor and later posted on your computer screen, my television is tuned to CNN, and four Iranian-Americans are talking. I cannot see their faces, just their hands. They are shot from above, and their hands lie around a table that consists only of a screen, a television screen, and it is showing scenes of YouTube videos of Tehran protests. After I type a quotation I check Twitter, to see the latest on #iranelections, (oxfordgirl Protest of light Monday. Turn on car lights, burn candles in the roads. #iranelection#iranelections#gr88), and after that I reload Andrew Sullivan's remarkable Daily Dish updates. Sullivan's description of his experiences "liveblogging" the events at his computer recall Kapuscinski in his hotel room:The misspelling, the range of punctuation, the immediacy: it was like overhearing snatches of discourse from police radio. Or it was like reading a million little telegram messages being beamed out like an SOS to the world. Within seconds I could transcribe and broadcast them to hundreds of thousands more.Capturing the immediacy-that is what Kapuscinski did for us in Shah of Shahs. That is what Iranian Twitterers and others are doing for us outside Iran today, as a new river of agitated people flows down those same streets. This time, they are "able to be seen and heard" because they are doing the preserving themselves, writing their own story 140 characters at a time, uploading their film reels to the new flea market that is YouTube. Journalists like Sullivan, digital heirs of Kapuscinki, are collagists, quoting them unadorned, and offering informed, throat-choked responses that do not, because they cannot, shy from emotion. Those of us left simply to read are, like me when first I read Shah of Shahs, or me today in front of several screens, stunned, more knowledgeable, sure that this will be an unforgettable experience and, of course, crying, because we are unable to do anything but.