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CARDS, FACES, FIELDS OF FLOWERS
Everything is in confusion, as though the police have just finished a violent, nervous search. Newspapers, local and foreign, are scattered everywhere, special editions, big attention-getting headlines,
HE HAS LEFT
large photos of a gaunt, elongated face, its controlled features so bent on showing neither anxiety nor defeat that it no longer expresses anything at all. Copies of later editions proclaim in fervor and triumph:
HE HAS RETURNED
A severe patriarchal face that has no intention of expressing anything at all fills the rest of the page.
(And between that departure and that return, what heights of emotion and fervor, rage and terror, how many conflagrations!)
On the floor, chairs, table, desk lie heaps of index cards, scraps of paper, notes so hastily scrawled and chaotic, I have to stop and think where I jotted down the sentence "He will deceive you and make promises to you, but don't let yourself be fooled." Who said that? When? To whom?
Or, covering a whole sheet of paper in red pencil: "Must call 64-12-18." But so much time has passed, I can't remember whose number it is or why it was so important to call.
Unfinished letter, never mailed. I could go on at length about what I've seen and lived through here, but it is difficult to organize my impressions. ...
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; on cassettes — the wail of the muezzins, shouted orders, conversations, monologues; in photos — faces in ecstasy, exaltation.
Now, at the very thought of trying to put everything in order (because the day I'm to leave is approaching), I am overcome by both aversion and profound fatigue. When I stay in a hotel (which is quite often) I like the room to be a mess because then the ambience has the illusion of some kind of life, a substitute warmth and intimacy, a proof (though illusory) that such a strange uncozy place, as all hotel rooms in essence are, has been at least partially conquered and tamed. In a room arranged into antiseptic order, I feel numb and lonely, pinched by all the straight lines, corners of furniture, flat walls, all that indifferent, stiff geometry, a strained, meticulous arrangement existing only for its own sake, without a trace of human presence. Fortunately, within a few hours of my arrival, influenced by my unconscious actions (the result of haste or laziness), the existing order breaks down, disappears, objects come to life, begin moving from place to place, and enter into ever changing configurations and connections; things take on a cramped, baroque look, and, all at once, the room's atmosphere becomes friendlier and more familiar. Then I can take a deep breath and relax.
Right now I cannot summon up enough strength to do anything with the room, so I go downstairs, where four young men are drinking tea and playing cards in a gloomy, empty hall. They've abandoned themselves to some intricate game — neither bridge nor poker, blackjack nor pinochle — whose rules I'll probably never grasp. They use two sets of cards at once, playing in silence, until at a certain moment one of them takes all the cards, a delighted expression on his face. After a pause they deal, lay dozens of cards on the table, ponder, count, and begin quarreling as they count.
These four, the reception staff, live off me. I am supporting them because I am the only guest in the hotel. I also support the cleaning woman, cooks, waiters, launderers, janitors, gardener, and for all I know several other people and their families, too. I don't mean to say that if I delayed settling my bill they would all starve, but I try to keep my account paid just in case. Only a few months ago it was an achievement, like winning a lottery, to get a room in this city. Despite the many many hotels, there was such an avalanche of people that new arrivals had to rent beds in private hospitals just to have a place to stay. Now the boom of easy money and dazzling transactions is over, the local businessmen are lying low, and the foreign partners have fled, leaving everything behind. Tourism has fallen to zero; all international traffic has frozen. Some hotels were burned down, others are closed or empty, and in one of them, guerrillas have set up their headquarters. Today the city is engrossed in its own affairs, it doesn't need foreigners, it doesn't need the world.
The cardplayers take a break from their game to offer me tea. Here they drink only tea or yogurt, not coffee or alcohol. For drinking alcohol you can get forty or even sixty lashes, and if someone brawny does the whipping (that type is often the most enthusiastic flogger) your back will be pulp. So we slurp our tea and watch the TV below the window at the other end of the hall.
Khomeini's face appears on the screen.
Khomeini is seated in a simple wooden armchair on a simple wooden platform in one of the squares of (to judge from the shabbiness of the buildings) a poor section of Qom. A small, flat, gray, charmless city, Qom lies a hundred miles south of Teheran in a vacant, wearying, parched, sunbaked desert. Nothing in that murderous climate would seem to favor reflection and contemplation, yet Qom is a place of religious fervor, rabid orthodoxy, mysticism, and faith militant. It contains five hundred mosques and the nation's biggest seminaries. Koranic scholars and the guardians of tradition quarrel in Qom; the venerable ayatollahs convene their councils there; Khomeini rules the country from Qom. He never leaves, never goes to the capital, never goes anywhere. He neither sightsees nor pays visits. He used to live with his wife and five children in Qom in a small house on a cramped, dusty, unpaved little street with a gutter running down the middle. Now he's moved to his daughter's house, from whose balcony he appears to the crowds in the street below (usually, zealous pilgrims visiting the mosques of the holy city and, most important of all, the tomb, forbidden to non-Muslims, of the Immaculate Fatima, sister of the eighth Imam Reza). Khomeini leads an ascetic life, eating only rice, yogurt, and fruit, and occupying but one room, bare walls, no furniture, only a bedroll on the floor, and a pile of books. Here, sitting on a blanket spread on the floor, leaning back against the wall, he receives his guests, including the most formal official foreign delegations. From the window he can see the domes of the mosques and the spacious courtyard of the medresh — an enclosed world of turquoise mosaics, bluish-green minarets, coolness and shade. All day a steady stream of guests and petitioners passes through this room. When there is a break, Khomeini goes off to pray or stays in his room, devoting the time to reflection or simply — as is natural for a man of eighty — taking a nap. The one with the most access to him is his younger son Ahmed, like his father a cleric. The other son, the first-born and the hope of his father's life, perished in mysterious circumstances — treacherously killed, people say, by Savak, the Shah's secret police.
The camera shows the square packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder. It shows curious and solemn faces. Off to the side, separated from the men in a clearly marked enclosure, stand women wrapped in chadors. It's a gray cloudy day, the crowd is charcoal-colored and, where the women stand, black. As always, Khomeini is dressed in loose-fitting dark clothes, a black turban on his head. He sits stiffly. His face is pale and still above his white beard. He does not gesticulate when he speaks; his hands rest on the arms of the chair. Once in a while he wrinkles his high forehead and raises his eyebrows; otherwise, not a muscle moves in the face of this man of immense stubborn, unretreating, unhesitating, implacable will. In this face, which seems to have been composed once and for all, yielding to neither emotions nor moods, expressing nothing but taut attentiveness and internal concentration, only the eyes move constantly. Their lively, incisive glance slides over the sea of curly heads, measures the depth of the square and the distance to its limits and continues its meticulous inspection as if insistently searching for a specific person. I listen to his monotonous voice, with its measured slow rhythm — a strong voice, but a voice that never leaps or flies, never betrays a mood, never sparkles.
"What is he talking about?" I ask the cardplayers, when Khomeini pauses for a moment to consider his next sentence.
"He is saying that we must preserve our dignity," one of them answers.
The cameraman pans across the roofs of the nearby houses where young people, with checkered scarves wrapped around their heads, stand, holding automatic rifles.
"And now what is he saying?" I ask again, because I don't understand Farsi.
"He is saying," one of the young men tells me, "in our country there is no room for foreign influence."
Khomeini goes on speaking and everyone follows attentively. On the screen someone's trying to quiet a group of children at the base of the platform.
"What is he saying?" I ask again after a while.
"He is saying that nobody will tell us what to do in our own home or impose anything on us, and he is saying: 'Be brothers to one another, be united.'"
That is all they can tell me in their halting English. Everyone learning English should understand that it is getting harder and harder to communicate in that language around the world. The same is true of French and, generally, of all European languages. Once Europe ruled the world, sending its merchants, soldiers, and missionaries to every continent, imposing on others its own interests and culture (this in usually rather bogus versions). Even in the remotest corners of the world, knowing a European language was a mark of distinction, testifying to an ambitious upbringing, and was often a necessity of life, the basis for career and promotion, and sometimes even a condition for being considered human. Those languages were taught in African schools, used in commerce, spoken in exotic parliaments, Asian courts, and Arab coffeehouses. Traveling almost anywhere in the world, Europeans could feel at home. They could express their opinions and understand what others were saying to them. Today the world is different. Hundreds of patriotisms have blossomed. Every nation wants to control and organize its own population, territory, resources, and culture according to native traditions. Every nation thinks it is or wants to be free, independent, cherishes its own values, and insists upon (and is particularly sensitive about getting) respect for them. Even small and weak nations — these especially — hate to be preached to, and rebel against anyone who tries to rule them or force often suspect values on them. People may admire the strength of others — but preferably at a safe remove and certainly not when used against them. Every power has its own dynamics, its own domineering, expansionist tendencies, its bullying obsessive need to trample the weak. This is the law of power, as everyone knows. But what can the weaker ones do? They can only fence themselves off, afraid of being swallowed up, stripped, regimented into a conformity of gait, face, expression, tongue, thought, response, ordered to give their life's blood for an alien cause, and of finally being crushed altogether. Hence their dissent and revolt, their struggle for independent existence, their struggle for their own language. In Syria the French newspaper was closed down; in Vietnam after the Americans left, the English-language paper, and now in Iran both French and English ones. On radio and television and during press conferences, only Farsi, their own language, is used. A man who can't read the Farsi sign on a woman's clothing store in Teheran — "Entry to this store by men is forbidden under penalty of arrest" — will go to jail. Someone else who cannot read the inscription near Isfahan that warns "Keep Out — Mines!" may die.
I used to carry a small transistor radio and listen to the local stations. No matter which continent I was on, I could always find out what was happening in the world. Now that radio is worthless. When I turn the dial I get ten stations, each using a different language, and I can't understand a word. If I travel a thousand miles, I get ten new equally incomprehensible stations. Are they saying that the money in my pocket is no longer any good? Are they saying that war has broken out?
Television is the same.
All over the world, at any hour, on a million screens an infinite number of people are saying something to us, trying to convince us of something, gesturing, making faces, getting excited, smiling, nodding their heads, pointing their fingers, and we don't know what it's about, what they want from us, what they are summoning us to. They might as well have come from a distant planet — an enormous army of public relations experts from Venus or Mars — yet they are our kin, with the same bones and blood as ours, with lips that move and audible voices, but we cannot understand a word. In what language will the universal dialogue of humanity be carried out? Several hundred languages are fighting for recognition and promotion; the language barriers are rising. Deafness and incomprehension are multiplying.
After a short break (during which they show fields of flowers — they love flowers here and plant colorful, luxuriant gardens around the tombs of their greatest poets) the photo of a young man appears on the screen. An announcer says something.
"What's he saying?" I ask my cardplayers.
"He's giving the name of the man in the photo. And telling who he was."
Then another photograph appears, and another — photos from student identity cards, framed pictures, snapshots from automatic photo machines, photographs with ruins in the background, one family portrait with an arrow pointing to a barely visible girl to show who is being described. Each photograph appears for a few moments; the list of names the announcer is reading goes on and on.
The parents are asking for information. They have been doing this for months, hoping against hope. The people in the photographs disappeared in September, December, January, that is, in the months of heaviest fighting, when the glow of fires over the city never died. They must have marched in the front ranks of the demonstration, right into the machine-gun fire. Or sharpshooters on nearby rooftops picked them off. We can suppose that each of these faces was last seen in the gun-sight of a soldier taking aim. Every evening, during this program, we listen to the announcer's matter-of-fact voice and meet more and more people who no longer exist.
More fields of flowers appear, followed by the evening's next program, also presenting photographs; but the people here are completely different. These are, for the most part, elderly men, sloppily dressed (with wrinkled collars and rumpled denim jackets), their desperate faces sunken and unshaven, some bearded. A big piece of cardboard with his name written on it hangs from the neck of each. When a particular face appears, one of the cardplayers exclaims, "Aha, so that's the one!" and everybody looks intently at the screen. The announcer is reading the personal data of each and the list of crimes that each committed. General Mohammed Zand gave the order to fire on an unarmed demonstration in Tabriz: hundreds were killed. Major Hossein Farzin tortured prisoners by burning their eyelids and pulling out their fingernails. A few hours ago, the announcer says, the firing squad of the Islamic Militia carried out the sentence of the tribunal against them.
The hall feels stuffy and oppressive during this parade of good then evil absent ones — all the more so because the wheel of death that's been turning for so long keeps spinning and throwing off hundreds of new people (faded photographs and ones just taken, graduation pictures, prison mug shots). This procession of still, silent faces flowing past in fits and starts becomes depressing but at the same time so absorbing that I expect suddenly to see my cardplayers' faces on the screen, then my own, and hear the announcer reading our names.
Excerpted from "Shah of Shahs"
Copyright © 1982 Ryszard Kapuscinski.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents
CARDS, FACES, FIELDS OF FLOWERS,
THE DEAD FLAME,
About the Author,
Connect with HMH,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Iran circa 1980, seen from the center of a whirlwind of memories, lies and scraps of paper. Even a novice reader becomes an insider with R. Kapuscinski's guidance
Typical of this author, whose books are well-written, concise, and insightful. Learned a good deal from it that is stilly very timely.