Doers of Mischief on Earth

Robert Fisk

  • The Shah’s Last Ride: The Story of the Exile, Misadventures and Death of the Emperor by William Shawcross
    Chatto, 463 pp, £15.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3254 X

The fall of the Shah was an epic. His downfall had about it something of the Medieval morality play, even something of a Greek tragedy. It might have qualified as Shakespearian tragedy if the Shah had been a truly great man who fell from grace through a single flaw. He was not a great man and his sins were many. Hubris was perhaps his greatest crime, although the Iranians saw things somewhat differently. Yet they sensed this mythic element about their revolution even before the King of Kings piloted his personal Boeing out of Mehrebad airport for the last time on 16 January 1979.

One of the most impressive of the revolutionary posters depicted the Shah in his full regalia, crown toppling from his balding head, hurtling towards the everlasting bonfire while the avenging Ayatollah swept above him on wings of gold. If ever a Middle Eastern potentate was so frequently portrayed as the Devil, surely never in Islamic art did a living human so closely resemble the form of the Deity.

My favourite graphic from the immediate post-revolutionary period was sold to me for a few rhials by a schoolboy outside the gates of Tehran University. It was a cardboard face-mask of the Shah, his jowls slack and diseased, his crown only kept in place by two massive black horns. Push out the detachable cardboard eyes, place the mask over your own face and you could peer through the Devil’s own image at the black chadors and serious-faced young men of central Tehran. The effect was curious: whenever a stroller purchased a mask and held it to his face, the young men would cry ‘Death to the Shah’ with a special intensity. It was as if the cardboard actually assumed the substance of the man: the Devil made flesh.

The Iranians saw in the Shah’s pathetic exile the true justice of God, his cancer the ultimate divine vengeance against one who had ‘sinned on earth’. Indeed, the Shah’s odyssey through the hospitals of Central America, New York City and Cairo – told in gruesome detail by William Shawcross – gave grim satisfaction to the mullahs who had already ordered his assassination. Not long after his departure, I had sat at the feet of the outrageous Ayatollah Khalkhali, the hanging judge of Iran, as he listed those of the Shah’s family who had been sentenced to death in absentia. Around him sat a score or so Revolutionary Guards who had been maimed in the Kurdish war, each of them clacking their newly-fitted metal fingers, hands and feet, as the prelate outlined the fate which so surely awaited his enemies. Khalkhali it was who had sentenced a 14-year-old boy to death, who had approved of the stoning to death of women in Kermanshah, who, when in a mental asylum, had strangled cats in his cell. Gorbeh, ‘the cat’, was what he was called. ‘The Shah will be strung up – he will be cut down and smashed,’ announced the Cat. ‘He is an instrument of Satan.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in