Ryszard Kapuscinski and the protests in Iran

iran1The sudden protest in Tehran burst like a firework onto the internet last night. The Boston Globe published an impressive gallery of vociferous photojournalism within a couple of hours of the demonstration’s close (including the image above). Video of the protests taken on mobile phones arrived in an abundence, leading one source to argue that YouTube was providing better coverage than the major news networks (there was certainly more of it). The debate in Iran, over a protested election result, burnt so brightly that the microblogging service, Twitter, has even postponed rescheduled maintainance to allow Iranians to continue tweeting while the government shut down opposition websites and choked as many channels of communciation as it could.

Most commentators agree that it has been an extraordinary night, the likes of which haven’t been seen in Iran for 30 years. Back then, in 1979, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, covered the Islamic Revolution with a memorable economy. I decided to dig out my copy of Shah of Shahs, his splendid account the events in Iran in 1979, and found one passage that, give a word or two, could have been written today:

“Now the most important moment, the moment that will determine the fate of the country … and the revolution, is the moment when one policeman walks from his post toward one man on the edge of the crowd, raises his voice, and orders the man to go home. The policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd are ordinary, anonymous people, but their meeting has historic significance.

They are both adults, they have both lived through certain events, they have both their individual experiences.

The policeman’s experience: If I shout at someone and raise my truncheon, he will first go numb with terror and then take to his heels. The experience of the man at the edge of the crowd: At the sight of an approaching policeman I am seized by fear and start running. On the basis of these experiences we can elaborate a scenario: The policeman shouts, the man runs, others take flight, the square empties.

But this time everything turns out differently. The policeman shouts, but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman. It’s a cautious look, still tinged with fear, but at the same time tough and insolent. So that’s the way it is! The man on the edge of the crowd is looking insolently at uniformed authority. He doesn’t budge. He glances around and sees and sees the same look on other faces. Like his, their faces are watchful, still a bit fearful, but already firm and unrelenting. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting; at last he stops. There is a moment of silence.

We don’t know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realize what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid – and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution. Here it starts. Until now, whenever these two men approached each other, a third figure instantly intervened between them. That third figure was fear. Fear was the policeman’s ally and the man in the crowd’s foe. Fear interposed its rules and decided everything.

Now the two men find themselves alone, facing each other, and fear has disappeared into thin air. Until now their relationship was charged with emotion, a mixture of aggression, scorn, rage, terror. But now that fear has retreated, this perverse, hateful union has suddenly broken up; something has been extinguished. The two men have now grown mutually indifferent, useless to each other; they can now go their own ways.

Accordingly, the policeman turns around and begins to walk heavily back toward his post, while the man on the edge of the crowd stands there looking at his vanishing enemy.

Ryszard Kapuściński

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