'Shah of Shahs'
Shah of Shahs
By Ryszard Kapuściński

I majored in Middle Eastern studies in college, and it's a field that has held my interest over the 14 years since. Although it was published almost 30 years ago, this book is enormously relevant today—and a spectacular read.

Kapuściński was a Polish journalist who traveled the world and covered 27 coups and revolutions, by his estimate, mostly in developing countries. Shah of Shahs is his account of the 1978 revolution in Iran and the events that precipitated it. Picking up after the democratic election of Mossadegh in '51 and the American-backed coup d'état to unseat him (engineered in part by men named Roosevelt and Schwarzkopf), Kapuściński conjures images of the installation of the Shah, the use of his SAVAK secret police, and subsequent years of a brutal, murderous regime.

The historical narrative is elusive but cogent, and the snapshot structure is somehow perfect for the task—a man in an empty hotel, thumbing through photographs while a city burns. It reads like a mad travelogue, yet I learned more from it than from any of the proper history texts I read on Iran.

The book shows that ultimately the people of Iran had to choose between the oppression of SAVAK and the firebrand ayatollahs of the Islamic revolution. History tells us, of course, whom they opted for; Kapuściński tells us why they did so and shows us the madness and tragedy of how it happened. If you want more on Iran, there is a brilliant book on the American-engineered overthrow called All the Shah's Men.