Farewell to Ryszard Kapuscinski

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Ryszard Kapuscinksi, the Polish foreign correspondent, astute observer of the Third World and fixture of most college courses on literary nonfiction for the last 25 years, passed away today. He was best known in the United States for the translations of his books on wars and revolutions, told through the eye of a nation that had itself been victim to conquest and subjugation. He was criticized in his later years for being somewhat essentialist on the matter of race and culture, and for being more literary than literal in his use of facts, but he remains one of the great chroniclers of post-colonial tumult in Africa and the Middle East, a journalist of exemplary courage and a writer of great empathy.

While riding the bus this week, it just so happens I’ve been rereading Kapuscinski. His Shah of Shahs, published in 1982, chronicles the events leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution in which Ayatollah Khomeini deposed Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the corrupt, US-backed autocrat. As I’d hoped, Kapuscinski shed some light on what we’d be getting into if the Bush Administration made good on its brinksmanship. Bush might want to consider this before invading:

[Iranians] have a particular talent for preserving their independence under conditions of subjugation. For hundreds of years the Iranians have been the victims of conquest, aggression, and partition. They have been ruled for centuries on end by foreigners or local regimes dependent of foreign powers, and yet they have preserved their culture and language, their impressive personality and so much spiritual fortitude that in propitious circumstances they can arise reborn from the ashes. During the twenty-five centuries of their recorded history the Iranians have always, sooner or later, managed to outwit anyone with the impudence to try ruling them. Sometimes they have to resort to the weapons of uprising and revolution to obtain their goal, and then they pay the tragic levy of blood. Sometimes they use the tactic of passive resistance, which they apply in a particularly consistent and radical way. When they get fed up with an authority that has become unbearable, the whole country freezes, the whole nation does a disappearing act. Authority gives orders but no one is listening, it frowns but no one is looking, it raises its voice but that voice is as one crying in the wilderness. Then authority falls apart like a house of cards. The most common Iranian technique, however, is absorption, active assimilation, in a way that turns the foreign sword into the Iranians’ own weapon.”

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