A reminder from the past

I was reading through Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs today. It’s been a while, and since the book stands near the core of my views regarding the political situation in Iran, it seemed worth another go. Almost straightaway, the book’s continued relevance struck true:

…. 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 its 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–those, 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 other–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 ….

There is not much to add, no lecture or sermon to attach to the words of the late Polish journalist once called the “Translator of the World”. Simply put, it seems to me that the quotation above reflects an understanding that is missing from the American “War on Terror”, a lack by which we are all diminished.


Kapuscinski, Ryszard. Shah of Shahs. 1982. Trans. Wm. R. Brand and K. Mroczkowska-Brand. New York: Vintage International, 1992

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